There are thousands of sites that provide access to digitised old maps, many of them free.
Old maps are a rich and fascinating family history resource. Once you’ve found the region, town, village or street where an ancestor lived, perhaps using census records, you can follow the trail back through county, Ordnance Survey (OS), valuation or estate maps.
Old maps can reveal land use and ownership. The most detailed give you the footprint of buildings, small structures and even trees, wells and paths. Many county archives have digitised their tithe maps, while others have reproduced estate collections.
The dated but still functioning Enclosure in Berkshire shows Berkshire enclosure maps. National collections of old maps include the British Library and the Bodleian Library’s Map Room. British History Online has old maps of London and the six-inches-to-the-mile OS series, while The National Archives has a helpful research guide.
There are many more great websites for finding old maps to help with family and local history research:
The best websites for old maps
The GB1900 Historical Gazetteer is available via the National Library of Scotland’s old maps website. Volunteers created it by extracting all of the textual information from the 1900 six-inch OS maps. It holds about 2.6 million place names from not only towns and villages, but farms, fields, woods, wells, footpaths and windmills.
Meanwhile the wider NLS site has all kinds of old maps covering Scotland, the UK and the world, including the complete collection of historic Ordnance Survey maps as well as smaller maps such as town plans, county maps, coastal charts, military maps (including trench maps from WW1) and estate maps. A boundaries viewer helps you check parishes. You can browse the collection by map-maker or place, or view them overlaid on modern maps.
Old Maps Online grew out of a 2013 project by Swiss company Klokan Technologies and the University of Portsmouth’s Great Britain Historical Geographical Information System. The result is this easy-to-use search engine and interactive map that boasts historic digitised maps drawn from collections from all over the world. UK partners include the British Library and the University of Manchester’s map collections. The free Old Maps Online app lets you search for an area and view the different maps available.
David Rumsey’s site has old maps and charts covering the UK as well as North America. The parent website gives details about the collection’s coverage, recent additions and the various websites and apps through which you can explore the material.
If you locate London and select BR Davies’ 1843 map, you can change its transparency with a slider, revealing the modern landscape below. It’s a great way to explore how streets have developed and buildings come and gone.
A comprehensive valuation of Irish property was overseen by Dublin geologist Richard Griffith between 1847 and 1864, listing landholders and householders. This free website is pretty long in the tooth, and there are other places online where you can find the data, but it still has lots going for it.
From the list of results after searching for a surname (you can include a forename too, and specify an area including a workhouse union), you can read a transcript of the information, view a scan of the original page, or launch a map view. This opens up an external Google Maps layer, where you can use a transparency slider to switch between modern and old maps of Ireland.
This complete ‘bomb census’ of the London Blitz has been around for several years now, but certainly warrants a revisit.
You can explore the data in a number of ways, although perhaps the most chilling is simply to zoom out and watch as hundreds then thousands of the little red dots, each one representing a detonation, gradually fill the screen. Click on a dot and more information appears – the type of explosive, the estimated date and the present address.
Chosen by Anthony Adolph, genealogist and author of 10 books including In Search of Our Ancient Ancestors:
“The tithe was a 10th of a landholder’s produce, which was payable to the parish, and was originally paid in kind; crops, wool, stock and so on. The Enclosure Acts of the 17th and 18th century converted these payments in some parishes from produce to money.
“In 1836 the Tithe Act extended this to all of England and Wales. Commissioners were dispatched to each parish to establish the value of land, and therefore how much cash was due to the Church of England.
“The practical upshot of all this for family historians is accurate, large-scale tithe maps and accompanying apportionment information, which lists owners, land use and even tenants.
“The records are found in county archives and The National Archives. They used to be difficult to search, but are increasingly appearing online.
“The National Library of Wales ‘Places’ website is the pick of the bunch. Here you can explore approximately 1,200 digitised tithe maps, covering more than 95 per cent of the Principality.
“There are about 300,000 data entries drawn from the maps and accompanying documents. You can search the apportionments by parish, occupier, landowner, farm name or field name, or simply select a county, town or village and explore the material that way.
“All of this was powered by the crowdsourced Cynefin Project, which ran between 2013 and 2017 and involved 1,354 volunteers. It’s really rather good!”
Find out how to add a twist to your home decorating using old maps with this guide from Homes & Antiques
More old maps websites
This free website from the London School of Economics allows you to explore Charles Booth‘s poverty maps of Victorian London.
This free site for tithe maps and apportionments is a bit dated, but its design showing multiple windows on one screen still works a treat.
This family history site maps English parish boundaries as well as Poor Law Unions, enabling you to see jurisdictions and neighbouring parishes.
The subscription site is gradually adding to its collection of old maps from the Lloyd George Domesday Survey of 1910. It also has a growing collection of Tithe maps and a clever map viewer that lets you search by address and see maps of where your ancestors lived from a variety of periods. The site has also started adding images of places pinned to maps.
Explore a wide range of old maps from across the South-West from Devon up to Gloucestershire with this interactive website. A similar site is also available for Worcester.
Discover old maps of London, linked to historic photographs and archives, with this website.
This history of maps is maintained by Tony Campbell, former map librarian at the British Library, and has advice for family historians.
Here you can search approximately 700 tithe maps covering about 85 per cent of the county, alongside enclosure maps, Ordnance Survey charts and aerial photographs.
All sorts of old maps and plans are available here, which you can search by place name or postcode or just by clicking the map.
This site also allows you to explore the output from the GB1900 project, and get to grips with various old maps going back to 1805.
If you have family who lived in the East Riding of Yorkshire, then this is a website you don’t want to miss. Not only can you choose maps from 1610 to 1855 to browse, but a range of historic pictures and old photographs have been pinned to locations.
More free tithe maps thanks to the West Yorkshire Archive Service.
Jonathan Scott is the author of A Dictionary of Family History