Cartography – from past to present

Following on from last week’s article on the wide range of work our cartographers cover, we started thinking about how cartography has changed over the years. We have a number of team members who have recently moved to our new head office at Adanac Park, and have also worked at our previous two Southampton bases, at Romsey Road and London Road, spanning more than 40 years. I caught up with John to find out a bit more… if you have any memories about cartography at Ordnance Survey, let us know.

“My time at Ordnance Survey started with a training course on 25 January 1966 with me earning the princely sum of £446 per annum. After a few weeks we moved from to the training drawing sections at London Road. The building had been caught in the blitz in 1941 and was a shadow of its former self. At this point in time it still felt like a military organisation with military personnel occupying all of the top management positions.

Cartographer applying building stipple film to one of the original enamel positives. There is a surveyor's BJ plate by her left elbow, and a ruling pen. Applying building stipple like this was eventually replaced by cutting the buildings out of a 'cut and strip' mask to match what had been scribed.

Cartographer applying building stipple film to one of the original enamel positives. There is a surveyor’s BJ plate by her left elbow, and a ruling pen. Applying building stipple like this was eventually replaced by cutting the buildings out of a ‘cut and strip’ mask to match what had been scribed.

My cartography skills started with the ruling pen. We would draw a 7/1000 inch gauge line in black ink onto enamel. We were working on enamel coated zinc plates on which an image of the surveyor’s work had been printed in a light blue aniline die, at 1:1 250 map scale. Map symbols and text were added to the enamel and the finished article was used to make the printing plate At that point the zinc plate would be stripped of the old enamel image and re-enamelled to be used again. 


The next development saw us cartographers scribing – etching into plastic. We initially did this by sharpening gramophone needles, before specific tools became available. This time we were working in the negative and the image was then printed in positive onto a glass surface with PVA. It was a very fiddly job as the map symbols were stuck onto the glass. You can imaging what it was like when working on a forest area – very time consuming, and during hot summer months the wax holding the film moved out of position very easily.


1:2 500 overhaul scribecoat using a straight edge.

1:2 500 overhaul scribecoat using a straight edge.


The Romsey Road head office was already being built when I started training, but at that point we weren’t sure it would become our head office. At the interview I was told I could be based in Southampton or Kettering! I moved up to Crabwood House, on the Romsey Road site and we were all in ‘temporary’ buildings from the First World War until the new building was ready. We finally moved in during 1968–9. The ground floor was a hive of activity with our print floor, areas making scribe coats, enamelling, photo labs and much more. We had a restaurant and two ‘trolleys’ a day bring us drinks, snacks and cigarettes. Yes, cigarettes – we worked in offices full of paper and flammable liquids and we could smoke at our desks. It seems madness now, but it was normal at the time.


It was the 1970s when we first started to digitise our maps. Of course, we didn’t have any inkling about the digital era – at that point computers were huge boxes that printed lots of ones and zeros! Automated cartography started around 1974. We worked from digitising tables where we would press a button to record the point and then another button to mark the end of the feature. This was all recorded on tapes which were then stuck together and put through a processor.


The original Ferranti digitising system was blind, you didn’t see the results of your work until the results had been processed and a plot produced. Digitising was carried out at a larger scale (1:750 for 1:1 250 and 1:1 500 for 1:2 500) to make the result more accurate.

This is a first version digitising table, the cursor has no 'yellow button' to finish a feature. Note the enlarged negative that they are capturing the data from.

This is a first version digitising table, the cursor has no ‘yellow button’ to finish a feature. Note the enlarged negative that they are capturing the data from.


The introduction of Lites editing (laserscan interactive editing system) which came with a computer screen, meant that you could see the detail you were capturing as you carried it out. Names were added in separately and then the map and names were merged in the computer system.


Today, we’ve transferred all our small scale vector data into ArcGIS. We’ve also brought the production of Meridian 2 in-house. We’ve recently delivered a new way of delivering data for print as our printing has moved outside the business. We now do all the styling within Cartography and send the final PDF to our printers.


Cartography is constantly finding better ways to deliver and striving to be as efficient and accurate as we can be. There are always new projects to work on and new developments being put in place – but for me, cartography all started with the ruling pen back in 1966.”


If you’ve enjoyed reading John’s overview of cartography changes in the last 40 years, why not find out what our Cartography team is getting up to today?

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9 Responses

  1. Janice Shepherd

    I just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading your memories of mapping – the industry certainly has seen massive changes over the years! My dad – John Croad was a cartographical surveyor, joining the OS in 1961 at the old Romsey Road site. Prior to that he worked as a surveyor for the Land Registry in London. Dad loved his OS days, particularly his time out in the field, and he made some long lasting friendships which followed him into retirement (late 80s). Sadly, we lost dad in March 2007 aged 81, to bladder cancer. The family had no idea of the risks of exposure to aniline inks, but a recent letter from the OS to my mum Beryl(88), who was also an OS employee, has brought our attention to the concerns. I guess at least in this digital age these risks have gone. It makes us feel a little sad that the job my dad adored may have led to his demise. I think it is good in one way that he was ignorant of the link, although we wish that we could have been made aware sooner of the risks to health associated with past use of these inks, then we might have caught the cancer earlier upon recognising the symptoms. I do not understand why use of these inks in the OS continued up unitl 1988 when use of these same inks was banned in the US as early as the 1960s or why no health checks were offered to staff at risk beyond repro staff? It makes me wonder how many other ex-employees with similar exposure have succumbed to this illness? I pray that the number is very small. We may never know, particulary when the latency between exposure and developing the cancer can be as long as 25 years, but if the OS is conducting any study into this important subject or is collecting employee data on same then please include our dear dad. Many thanks and best wishes to all for the future.

    1. Julie Gill

      I am interested to contact Janice as my Dad has just died from bladder cancer too. On sorting his papers we found he had kept the information sent to him from OS about this in 2011 but never mentioned it to us. He worked for 40 years till 1985. I am interested to find out more about the incidences of this type of cancer linked to the aniline inks. Please can you forward this email to Janice Shepherd so she may contact me please.

      1. Janice Shepherd

        Message for Julie Gill,
        So sorry to hear of your dad’s passing Julie. It will have been a difficult year for you and your family. I have supplied my email address ( which will not be published) but not sure how you can get it? Please feel free to contact me.

  2. Norman Allen

    As a 40 year repro man the incidence of many cancers is considerable (including myself). Barry NESBITT ex IPMS secretary is probably the best informed on this sad affair. He to is a victim. I understand that OS should be contacting me soon. How soon is anyones guess.

  3. Steve Parker

    Fantastic read. I was a Cartographic Assistant from 1986-1989 and spent most of my time in C1C working for a gentleman called Charlie Wray. First job from school and met some great characters like Jeff Easter, Tony Young and ‘Chopper’ Harris. During this period, the OS was relocating people from other parts of the country to Southampton so our training group had guys from as far afield as Liverpool and Nottingham. Have nothing but great memories of the old digitising tables and working on light tables doing stipple masks and letrasetting slope symbols -happy days and great times.

  4. Pingback : Cartography – from past to present | The Spatial Blog

  5. Graham Fletcher

    I’m fascinated to read about the Cartographic Assistants, of which I was one, 1963 to 1968 straight from school. I recognise the various techniques which changed with time to become less labour intensive (and less skilled!). I remember the canteen (was that in Jubilee block?). Corned beef from huge cans with chips was the cheapest option!
    There were opportunities to socialise. I learned to shoot smallbore rifle on the indoor range, and went caving in Somerset and Yorkshire with colleagues. (Some of the earlier staff served with the Territorial Army.) I sang with the choir, which expanded my repertoire outside my involvement with the Salvation Army in Shirley Corps. It’s still there! I married a lady colleague from my intake and moved north to work with The New Towns Commission and finally retired for good from Local Government in 2009.
    I’ve seen a reference to the choir on site. Are there any records of the original choir? Does the existing choir have a website?

    1. Hi Graham

      Thank you for sharing your memories of your time as a cartographic assistant with us – and of our old canteen. Sadly, the old head office (and canteen) are now gone, and being replaced with a new housing estate. Our new head office is just a mile or so away, alongside the M271 into Southampton. With regards to the old choir, I’m afraid we don’t have any materials that we could share with you, although there may be past and present colleagues who could recall it. Our current workplace choir, Off the Scale, often make performances to raise funds for charity, but I’m afraid they don’t have an external website I could share with you. There are some photos of them available on our Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/osmapping/sets/72157638170040786/

      Many thanks

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