DAVID SIMPSON brings together two of his favourite pastimes: maps and northern history in a new feature for the England’s North East site.
Visit our new North of England History in maps page.
If there’s one thing I love as much as history, then it’s maps. For me maps are one of the key ways of making sense of our world, both past and present and they can draw me in and absorb me for hours at a time.
Don’t you just love comparing those old Ordnance Survey maps with modern maps of our region and seeing how industries have come and gone and how towns and familiar landscapes have evolved? I love the detective in discovering what stood where and why, or the investigation of following the course of old railways and then getting out and about to discover what is there today.
The National Library of Scotland website is a particularly good resource for this kind of thing and despite its obvious Scottish leanings it lets you see many quite detailed old maps of England too – such as this one of Newcastle and Gateshead around 1919.
It’s not just localised maps that I love though, I also love the ‘big picture’ history atlas maps too, where you can explore the history at the regional and national level and it was maps of this kind that were one of the things that really got me into history.
I particularly loved historical atlases of Britain and the World and I still do but it was as a youngster that I would save up my pocket money for the latest lavishly-coloured tome of cartographic wonders on the shelves of W.H. Smith. For me these were treasure maps and the treasure was the knowledge and history contained within their pages.
They taught me about the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, who they were and where they came from and it taught me about the ancient kingdoms in which they settled; it showed me the flash points in the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War; it explained the Plantagenet invasions of Scotland and Wales and the extraordinary place Britain has played within Europe and the World in more recent times.
However, the thing I really wanted to get to know about was the history closer to home but I’ve found it frustrating that we don’t learn more about our local, regional and northern events and our own place in the world. In the classroom it always seemed that history was something that happened elsewhere and the clasroom version of history often spans little more time than the undoubtedly important, yet gloomy period beginning in the 30s and ending in 1945.
Back in the 1990s when I worked for The Northern Echo newspaper I had the great privilege of sharing my passion for a broader northern history to a wide audience and I very much enjoyed the public speaking that came with it too.
In 1999, to celebrate the then forthcoming millennium, I produced a timeline of North East (and North Yorkshire) history spanning two-thousand years and we serialised it week-by-week from January to the end December of that year. It culminated in a rather glossy hard-back book that won praise from the then Prime Minister in his Millennium Address. A humbling experience.
On a more local level, I also wrote articles for the northern edition of the newspaper about the history of Durham City and its surrounding, mostly mining villages and how they evolved. The resulting books brought the most extraordinary long queues of enthusiastic local people to the book launches, many wanting to share their stories and memories. A key feature of these newspaper articles and publications were the maps, recreated by the newspaper’s graphics team from my inky sketches.
More recently, as a hobby, I’ve been creating some more maps of my own, honing my computer-based design skills to depict the history of northern England (and Britain). I aim to do more and more, adding to them as I go along and hopefully telling the story of the North from early times right up to the present in as many ways as I can.
I’m going to keep producing them as a hobby but I’d love to collect them all together one day, as a history of the North of England covering a period from early times right through to the present day, with a number of maps focusing on some of the major towns like Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sunderland and Newcastle.
I think the North of England is a manageable chunk of diverse and interesting land to cover and has a story that can be told in its own right – though I’ll try not to be too biased toward the North East.
I’m sharing them here on a new page of history maps with some brief accompanying notes. One day perhaps I’ll publish them as a printed book with timelines, illustrations and a full narrative, that’s a lot of work though, so we”ll see.
Some of the maps I share here are works in progress, so please bear that in mind. I’m more than happy to receive suggestions for new maps or comments or updates on the ones I’ve so far produced. I’ll keep adding more as time goes by. I have higher resolution versions should I ever decide to print, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy and find the ones I have done so far of interest. Just a reminder – you can find them here.
Check out the England’s North East History in Maps pages here.