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Cartographic Sources for Rights of Way Evidence in England and Wales

Obtaining information about rights of way from maps is full of pitfalls, mainly because they are rarely shown as such, and even where they are shown, such as on the Ordnance Survey modern topographical maps, they are only indications and carry no legal weight

Hence maps can only ever be used as evidence, never as proof, and this evidence must at all times be used with extreme caution and corroborative evidence found. These notes are intended as a guide only, to the types of maps which may supply such evidence.

1. Ordnance Survey3. Where to find the maps4. Further reading
2. Other types of map3.1 Ordnance Survey 
2.1 Tithe and enclosure maps3.2 Tithe and enclosure maps 
2.2 Estate maps3.3 Estate maps 
2.3 County maps3.4 County maps 

1. Ordnance Survey

Until the 1960s, it was Ordnance Survey policy not to indicate rights of way on maps. In some of the earliest Books of Reference, which were published to accompany the First Edition County Series 1:2500 plans (c.1850-60), some private and public roads were indicated, but this practice soon ceased. The only Ordnance Survey maps which show public rights of way are the 1:50,000 Landranger series and the 1:25,000 Pathfinder and Explorer series. This practice was begun in the 1960s on the 1:63,360 1 inch to 1 mile Seventh Series. The information is based on the Definitive Maps compiled by the local councils, usually 1:10,000 OS sheets annotated with red ink. However, OS maps are not legal statements of the existence of a right of way.

The hand-coloured versions of the First Edition County Series indicate surfaced roads with an ochre colour, which some people interpret as public roads, but this is by no means certain. This convention is also used on other coloured maps such as the Ordnance Surveyors’ Drawings (OSDs), on which ochre denotes main roads, and derives from military cartographic techniques.

Public rights of way are recorded in the Valuation Office Field Books which were produced for land valuation under the Finance Act of 1910, but the precise course of these is not normally indicated in the books or on the accompanying OS plans. The field books and plans are in the Public Record Office, Kew.

The fact that rights of way are not indicated on most OS maps does not mean that they are not useful in supplying evidence. For example, on the OSDs, which are the manuscript versions at a larger scale (2 inches to 1 mile or larger) of the first edition 1 inch to 1 mile Old Series, private roads are often shown as gated, and this practice continued on later maps. However, just because a road is gated does not mean that it is necessarily private, or because it is ungated, that it is public. Also, roads shown on older maps as being important public routes may have degenerated into little-used tracks and appropriated by the landowner.

Another factor worth bearing in mind on large scale OS plans is that solid lines around parcels of land do not indicate property boundaries, although very often they coincide. The lines merely show a structure such as a wall or a hedge over a certain height. Therefore, land beyond these lines, especially where roads and tracks are concerned could belong to the adjacent landowner. If in doubt the Land Registry may be able to help.

It is therefore essential, when seriously researching rights of way, to examine carefully all editions of the OS especially the large scale plans.

2. Other types of map

2.1 Tithe and enclosure maps

Tithe and enclosure maps are large scale plans drawn up for the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 and the enclosure movement respectively. Tithe maps are mainly dated about 1836 whereas most but not all enclosure maps were produced from about 1750 to 1900.

Both these types of map are earlier than the First Edition OS 1:2500 series and are often very detailed. They do, however, vary greatly in quality, scale and detail and some may not produce any evidence. In addition the coverage in England and Wales is very patchy, particularly for enclosure maps. Despite this, public roads were significant in land assessment, and references to them may be found in the schedules which accompanied the maps if not on the maps themselves.

2.2 Estate maps

Estate maps have been produced, usually in manuscript, since the 16th century, often by professional surveyors. By definition they show boundaries of private property and public and private roads. However, the evidence must be used with extreme caution as the map may be inaccurate and misleading. Corroborative evidence is essential.

2.3 County maps

By 1800 County maps at scales of 1 inch or 2 inches to 1 mile covered most of England and Wales. Before 1700 they were generally smaller scale and less accurate. They do not usually show rights of way but, like the OS, can show the existence of roads and ways, most of which were public, as far back as the late 16th century.

3. Where to find the maps

3.1 Ordnance Survey:

Ordnance Surveyors’ Drawings: 2, 3 and 6 inches to 1 mile. Microfiche on open access in cabinets. Use of originals must be approved by the Reading Room supervisor for conservation reasons.

1 inch to 1 mile Old Series, New Series and Third Edition: Reading Room Reference Shelves. Later editions must be ordered from storage.

1:25,000 Pathfinder and Explorer Series: These must be ordered from storage. The shelfmark is Maps 1125. (66); the sheet number must be identified from the index.

1:50,000 Landranger Series: These must be ordered from storage. The shelfmark is Maps 1125. (96.); the sheet number must be identified from the index.

6 inch to 1 mile County Series: Reading Room Reference Shelves.

1:10,000 National Grid Series: These must be ordered from storage.

1:2500 County Series and OSTs: Microfiche of first editions of County Series and later editions for home counties in cabinets. Volumes of the original sheets must be ordered from storage.

1:2500 and 1:1056 London plans: Reading Room Reference Shelves.

1:2500 and 1:1250 National Grid Series: These must be ordered from storage.

For further information about OS series see Public Service Guide (blue binders held behind the Reference Enquiry Desk) and the leaflet A brief guide to large scale Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain in the Map Library.

3.2 Tithe and enclosure maps

The British Museum did not receive these on copyright deposit as they are official records. There are a very few odd copies in the Department of Manuscripts. The Public Record Office, Kew, or the local record office are the main sources for these maps.

3.3 Estate maps

See the leaflet How to find estate maps in the British Library

3.4 County maps

The Map Library has a good collection. Consult the CD-ROM catalogue, putting the appropriate county name into the "Place / Area covered" box. It's also worth looking at E. Rodger Large scale county maps of the British Isles (1972), (behind the Enquiry Desk), which is annotated with shelfmarks.

4. Further reading

Anstey, J. Boundary disputes and how to resolve them. 1990. Maps Ref. (Desk).

Booth, J.R.S. Public boundaries and the Ordnance Survey 1840-1940. 1980. Maps Ref. G.2b.(17.).

Campbell, I. A guide to the Law of Commons. (1973). Maps Ref. (Desk).

Campbell, I. A practical guide to the Law of Footpaths. (1972). Maps Ref. (Desk).

Countryside Commission. A guide to procedures for Public Path Orders. 1994. Maps Ref. (Desk).

Countryside Commission. A guide to Definitive Map procedures. 1992. Maps Ref. (Desk).

Foot, W. Maps for family history. (1994). Maps Ref. G.2a.(Eng./Wales.) (13.). (Land Valuation maps).

Public Service Guide - Rights of Way; Footpaths.

Harley, J.B. The Ordnance Survey and land-use mapping: Parish Books of Reference and the County Series 1:2500 maps, 1855-1918. 1979. Maps Ref. G.2b.(19.).

Harley, J.B. Ordnance Survey maps: a descriptive manual. (1975). Maps Ref. G.2b.(13.).

Hodson, Y. Ordnance Surveyors’ Drawings 1789-c.1840. (1989), p.30. Maps Ref. B.4a.(35.).

McArevey, M. A guide to Definitive Maps of Public Paths. (1972). Maps Ref. G.2a.(Eng/Wales.) (6.)

Public Record Office. Records Information 97 ‘Public Rights of Way’. (1991). Public Service Guide.

Riddall J. and Trevelyan J. Rights of way: a guide to law and practice. (1992). Maps Ref. (Desk).

Winterbotham, H. The National plans. (1934). Maps Ref. G.2b.(12.).