Today marks the publication of A History of Britain in Maps. Apart from the joy of working with such wonderful visual records of British history – nearly 100 of them – the process of compiling of the book has been marked by amazing discoveries which have really underlined how rich are the stories woven even the humblest seeming maps. Who would have thought that the very first ever published weather map – in The Times in 1875 – is tied up with a double suicide and the theory of evolution? Its compiler, Robert Fitzroy, had been the captain of the Beagle, the vessel on which Charles Darwin made the key discoveries in the Galapagos Islands that eventually developed into his evolutionary theory. On his return to the United Kingdom, Fitzroy developed an interest in weather forecasting, setting up a network of weather stations that could alert mariners to looming storms and, so it was hoped, preserve their lives. Unfortunately, he also attracted the attentions of a jealous naval establishment, including a biting report written by Francis Galton, who, coincidentally, was Darwin’s cousin. He became depressed by this and also by guilt that as a religious conservative he felt over his role in facilitating Darwin’s work on evolution – Fitzroy believed that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused not by their failure of the “survival of the fittest” test but by the very simple and obvious problem that they had been too large to fit through the door of Noah’s ark. Finally, one spring day in 1865, Fitzroy locked his study door and blew his own brains out. In doing so he became the second captain of the Beagle to take his own life; Pringle Stokes who had skippered the vessel on a previous voyage to Patagonia had been so afflicted by melancholy brought on by the relentless bleakness of the regions around Cape Horn that he, too, had shot himself. Weather – and evolution – it seems, could be fatal affairs and the story is exemplified by a simple line map in a British newspaper.
From a 2nd-century AD cup that bears a schematic representation of Hadrian’s Wall to a map charting the distribution of votes in the 2016 Brexit referendum, my research took me across two thousand years of British history, covering themes as diverse as population growth, disease, civil wars, invasions (both feared and actual), rebellions, the growth of the railways, the first ever-route planners (from the 17th century) and, of course, that perennial British preoccupation, the weather, it’s been a real pleasure to discover all the fantastic stories hidden in maps of Britain’s past!