Surveying the UK’s parliamentary boroughs: map-making and the 1831-2 boundary commissions

To coincide with the publication of the initial proposals of the 2023 English boundary commission and the Society for One-Place Studies recent focus on maps, our research fellow, Dr Martin Spychal, explores the city and town plans created by the 1831-2 boundary commissions for England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland…

In 1832 Parliament implemented a wide-ranging set of reforms to the United Kingdom’s electoral systems. A major aspect of the 1832 reform legislation was the redrawing of constituency boundaries. To do this, the government of the 2nd Earl Grey established three boundary commissions – one for England and Wales, one for Scotland and one for Ireland.

The sixth volume of the boundary commission report for England and Wales © Martin Spychal 2021

During the autumn and winter of 1831-2 these boundary commissions completed the first ever official survey of the United Kingdom’s electoral map. Their survey was published gradually, in eleven volumes, between February and June 1832.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the boundary commission’s reports is the constituency maps that were created for every English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish parliamentary borough. Many of these maps were the first ever official state-sanctioned plans for the UK’s towns and cities.

1831-2 Boundary Commission Map and Report with initial proposed boundary for Sheffield © Martin Spychal 2021

Having access to up-to-date, and accurate, maps for every borough constituency was incredibly important for the 1831-2 boundary commissions. This was because every house that formed part of a parliamentary borough’s social and economic community had to be included in its constituency boundary. Significantly, this information was also required to decide which existing constituencies lost the right to send MPs to Parliament.

In addition, the commissioners needed to develop an accurate understanding of current and future building sites in each borough to futureproof their boundaries. Furthermore, in some English boroughs with very few houses the commissioners needed an accurate survey of its surrounding areas to ensure every constituency contained a minimum of 300 potential voters.

When the boundary commissions started their work in August 1831, they did not have ready access to official maps containing this information. The ordnance survey of Britain – which had started in 1791 – was still incomplete and had ground to a halt by 1825. In that year, work began on the ordnance survey of Ireland, which was still underway in 1831.

The first ordnance survey map of Kent, 1801. The Commissioners were required to update these town plans. View a detailed version of this map on MAPCO

In 1831 official trigonometrical surveying remained to be completed on the north of England and Scotland. For areas where surveying had been finished by the ordnance survey, English and Welsh town plans were at best six years out of date. In some cases – such as for constituencies in Kent – the ordnance survey reflected the state of urban development prior to the Napoleonic Wars.

The unavailability of basic official maps was resolved by making use of commercially available maps produced by independent surveyors such as Christopher Greenwood and Andrew Bryant. By 1831 both had completed their own detailed triangulations of the north of England to complement the work of the ordnance survey. Their recent maps of England’s southern counties also contained the most up-to-date basic town plans of most English boroughs.

To ensure that the boundary commissioners could complete their work, each commission set about the task of creating enlarged, up-to-date plans of each borough using official and unofficial maps. These plans were created at a scale of 2 inches to 1 mile in England and Wales, and 6 inches to 1 mile in Scotland and Ireland.

1831-2 Boundary Commission Map and Report with initial proposed boundary for Airdrie © Martin Spychal 2021

In England and Wales this task was undertaken by a team of 70 surveyors, 9 lithographers and 10 colourers. From late August 1831 a central team of surveyors based at Downing Street in London completed at least one enlarged tracing of every constituency for England and Wales.  These tracings were then sent to the boundary commissioners ahead of their arrival in each constituency, where they were also accompanied by at least one or two surveyors. 

While they were in each locality the commissioners and their surveyors refined and updated their basic town plans, documented local legal boundaries (many of which were known only to officials in the localities) and recorded their proposed parliamentary boundary.

The commission’s original ordnance survey tracing with updated town plan of Llantrisant, National Archives, T72/10/16

These tracings were then sent back with the commissioners’ reports to London for approval. Once a parliamentary boundary was approved, the new maps were submitted to one of the nine London-based lithographers used by the commission, who produced copper plates of the maps ahead of the printing of the commission’s final reports. This entire process was developed and overseen by the chair of the English and Welsh boundary commission, Thomas Drummond, and was replicated by the Scottish and Irish commissions.

The labour and resources required to complete the commission’s maps was expensive.  The hourly wages of the surveyors and colourers employed to create the English and Welsh commission’s initial maps cost £4,200 (around £3.6 million in relative labour costs today). Particularly expensive were the services of the York-based surveyor Robert Cooper and Manchester-based surveyors Richard Thornton and William Smith, who worked closely with the commission to provide the first state-sanctioned maps of many towns in the north of England.

A detailed survey of proposed future building sites in the West Derby township of Liverpool completed by the commissioners in conjunction with surveyor Richard Thornton, National Archives, T72/10/10

The subsequent process of engraving, lithographing, printing and colouring 2,000 copies of each map for the English and Welsh commission’s final reports cost a further £8,557. Map-making alone amounted to around 50% of the final costs of the commission.

This large outlay of financial and human resources, combined with diligent management, ensured that the 1831-2 boundary commissions for England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland were hugely efficient map-making enterprises. In August 1831 no official central repository of constituency maps existed for the United Kingdom. By June 1832 the boundary commissions had surveyed and published up-to-date, detailed official plans for all 357 UK towns and cities involved in sending borough MPs to the reformed Parliament.


Further reading

J. Andrews, A Paper Landscape: the Ordnance Survey in Nineteenth-century Ireland (2002)

C. Close, The Early Years of the Ordnance Survey (1969)

R. Hewitt, Map of a Nation (2010)

B. Robson & T. Wyke, ‘Surveying the Surveyors: Richard Thornton and his Publishers’, Northern History (2019)

M. Spychal, “One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act’, Historical Research (2017)

Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.K. Pound Amount, 1270 to present,’ MeasuringWorth, 2021 []

‘Great Reform Act Plans and Reports, 1832, National Library of Scotland

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4 Responses to Surveying the UK’s parliamentary boroughs: map-making and the 1831-2 boundary commissions

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