3D map of Manchester – in Victorian times!

We spotted this tweet recently and enjoyed the fantastic 3D balloon ride over 1850s Manchester. Neil Millington created it, based on old OS maps, and tells us more about how he created it on the blog today.

I work in the offshore construction sector of the Oil and Gas industry as a 3D animator. Originally a Cartographer trained in HM Forces in the 70s, I’ve evolved through Land Survey, CAD and Offshore Survey Data Processing into 3D animations today. In my day job, I specialise in creating photo-realistic animated movies to show offshore construction, survey and positioning techniques involving pipe lay, heavy lift and other sub-sea infrastructure installations.

Outside of work, I’ve been looking into my family history and found that most of my forebears lived in Manchester in the Victorian era. As a project, I decided to create a 3D model of the area that they lived in to give myself and other family members, a good impression of the life back then.

Starting a 3D map

Neil1I worked with the Alan Godfrey series of antique maps which are based on the incredibly, highly detailed OS maps of the 1840s. These town plans offer a valuable source of information, for the historian, when studying Victorian towns. After confirming with OS that there were no copyright issues I scanned to the highest resolution possible,  the chosen map sheet number 033 – Manchester Oxford Street and Gaythorn which covers the area just south west of the city centre.

Neil2Using several check measurements from internet mapping from any landmarks still existing, such as buildings, canal locks, bridges etc I was able to create a plane in my 3D modelling software the correct geo-referenced dimensions which I could then assign the scanned OS map image as a texture map. I didn’t have enough elevation information (or time) to allow the creation of an accurate 3D model. However, as Manchester is not too hilly, I opted to assume a flat surface but create canals, rivers and railway embankments with realistic elevations for towpaths, river banks and cuttings.
Neil3I created a library of generic 3D models for the buildings and infrastructure, including four different pub designs, various terraced houses, viaducts, bridges and other factory and mill buildings. I used the internet to research as much as possible to create a realistic environment. Source material was any photos of buildings, typical terraced houses and other factories of the period. I tried to mix the generic models up so as not to give the impression of thousands of cloned buildings if the final result was to be remotely believable. Any specific, individual buildings such as churches, warehouses, railway stations, workhouse, theatre etc were modelled as accurately as possible.

Creating a fly-though map animation

After finishing one of the maps and creating a good library of generic models I moved on to the adjoining sheets covering the Hulme, Castlefield and London Road areas of south Manchester. Now that I have a good area covered by the 3D model, various rendered graphics can be created of particular, bespoke views of the city as it was in 1850. For example, I created the fictitious fly across the city in a balloon and am now working on the view as if you were travelling in to Manchester on a train during the first years of the railways.


The more OS sheets I model the better detailed these rendered exports will be.

Hopefully over the next years I can complete the whole city (although this would be quite an undertaking as I have only modelled 5 out of 49 so far) to create a valuable resource for historical studies of Manchester. Like everything it’s just finding the time to do it…

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1 Response

  1. Alan Grimshaw

    Absolutely fascinating view of Victorian Manchester. I never knew there were so many mills – and some of the well-known streets had other names and looked so different. My Victorian ancestors lived on Hunt Street (which later became Whitworth Street) and there it is – with probably their dwelling depicted – amazing!
    The odd thing is that when I have consulted Manchester Archives nobody seems to know about street renames – good for Ordnance Survey and everyone who contributed to this.

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