Ordnance Survey

For the agency of Ireland, see Ordnance Survey Ireland. For the agency of Northern Ireland, see Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland. For an international agency, see Ordnance Survey International.
Ordnance Survey
Welsh: Arolwg Ordnans
Government-owned company overview
Formed 1791 (1791)
Jurisdiction Great Britain[Notes 1]
Headquarters Explorer House
Adanac Drive
Southampton SO16 0AS
England, UK
50°56′16″N 1°28′17″W / 50.9378°N 1.4713°W / 50.9378; -1.4713Coordinates: 50°56′16″N 1°28′17″W / 50.9378°N 1.4713°W / 50.9378; -1.4713
Employees 1,244
Government-owned company executive
Website OrdnanceSurvey.co.uk
Grid square TF from the Ordnance Survey National Grid, shown at a scale of 1:250,000. The map shows the Wash and the North Sea, as well as places within the counties of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.
Part of an Ordnance Survey map, at the scale of one inch to the mile, from a New Popular Edition map published in 1946.

Ordnance Survey (OS) is the national mapping agency for Great Britain[Notes 1] and is one of the world's largest producers of maps. Since 1 April 2015 it has operated as Ordnance Survey Ltd, a government-owned company, 100% in public ownership. The Ordnance Survey Board remain accountable to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It is also a member of the Public Data Group.

The agency's name indicates its original military purpose (see ordnance and surveying): mapping Scotland in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745. There was also a more general and nationwide need in light of the potential threat of invasion during the Napoleonic Wars.

Ordnance Survey mapping is usually classified as either "large-scale" (in other words, more detailed) or "small-scale". The Survey's large-scale mapping comprises maps at six inches to the mile or more (1:10,560,[Notes 2] superseded by 1:10,000 in the 1950s) and was available as sheets until the 1980s, when it was digitised. Small-scale mapping comprises maps at less than six inches to the mile, such as the popular one inch to the mile "leisure" maps and their metric successors. These are still available in traditional sheet form.

Ordnance Survey maps remain in copyright for fifty years after their publication. Some of the Copyright Libraries hold complete or near-complete collections of pre-digital OS mapping.


The origins of the Ordnance Survey lie in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising leading to the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Prince William, Duke of Cumberland realised the army did not have a good map of the Scottish Highlands to find the whereabouts of Jacobite dissenters such as Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat so they could be put on trial.[1] In 1747, Lieutenant-colonel David Watson proposed the compilation of a map of the Highlands to facilitate the subjugation of clans.[2] In response, King George II charged Watson with making a military survey of the Highlands under the command of the Duke of Cumberland. Among Watson's assistants were William Roy, Paul Sandby and John Manson. The survey was produced at a scale of 1 inch to 1000 yards (1:36,000)[3] and included "the Duke of Cumberland's Map" (primarily by Watson and Roy) now held in the British Library.

Roy would go on to have an illustrious career in the Royal Engineers (RE), and he was largely responsible for the British share of the work in determining the relative positions of the French and British royal observatories. This work was the starting point of the Principal Triangulation of Great Britain (1783–1853), and led to the creation of the Ordnance Survey itself. Roy's technical skills and leadership set the high standard for which Ordnance Survey became known. Work was begun in earnest in 1790 under Roy's supervision, when the Board of Ordnance (a predecessor of part of the modern Ministry of Defence) began a national military survey starting with the south coast of England.

By 1791, the Board received the newer Ramsden theodolite (an improved successor to the one that Roy had used in 1784), and work began on mapping southern Great Britain using 5-mile baseline on Hounslow Heath that Roy himself had previously measured and that crosses the present Heathrow Airport. A set of postage stamps, featuring maps of the Kentish village of Hamstreet, was issued in 1991 to mark the bicentenary.

In 1801, the first one-inch-to-the-mile (1:63,360 scale) map was published, detailing the county of Kent, with Essex following shortly after. The Kent map was published privately and stopped at the county border while the Essex maps were published by Ordnance Survey and ignore the county border, setting the trend for future Ordnance Survey maps.[4]

The original draftsman's drawings for the area around St. Columb Major in Cornwall, made in 1810.

During the next twenty years, roughly a third of England and Wales was mapped at the same scale (see Principal Triangulation of Great Britain) under the direction of William Mudge, as other military matters took precedence. It took until 1823 to re-establish a relationship with the French survey made by Roy in 1787. By 1810, one inch to the mile maps of most of the south of England were completed, but were withdrawn from sale between 1811 and 1816 because of security fears.[5] It was gruelling work: major Thomas Colby, later the longest serving director general of Ordnance Survey, walked 586 miles (943 km) in 22 days on a reconnaissance in 1819. In 1824, Colby and most of his staff moved to Ireland to work on a six-inches-to-the-mile (1:10,560) valuation survey. The survey of Ireland, county by county, was completed in 1846.[6] The suspicions and tensions it caused in rural Ireland are the subject of Brian Friel's play Translations.

Colby was not only involved in the design of specialist measuring equipment. He also established a systematic collection of place names, and reorganised the map-making process to produce clear, accurate plans. Place names were recorded in "Name Books",[7][8] a system first used in Ireland. The instructions for their use were: "The persons employed on the survey are to endeavour to obtain the correct orthography of the names of places by diligently consulting the best authorities within their reach. The name of each place is to be inserted as it is commonly spelt, in the first column of the name book and the various modes of spelling it used in books, writings &c. are to be inserted in the second column, with the authority placed in the third column opposite to each." Whilst these procedures generally produced excellent results, mistakes were made: for instance, the Pilgrims Way in the North Downs labelled the wrong route, but the name stuck. Similarly, the spelling of Scafell and Scafell Pike copied an error on an earlier map,[9] and was retained as this was the name of a corner of one of the Principal Triangles, despite "Scawfell" being the almost universal form at the time.

Colby believed in leading from the front, travelling with his men, helping to build camps and, as each survey session drew to a close, arranging mountain-top parties with enormous plum puddings.[10]

The British Geological Survey was founded in 1835 as the Ordnance Geological Survey, under Henry De la Beche and remained a branch of the Ordnance Survey until 1965. At the same time the uneven quality of the English and Scottish maps was being improved by engravers under Benjamin Baker. By the time Colby retired in 1846, the production of six-inch maps of Ireland was complete. This had led to a demand for similar treatment in England and work was proceeding on extending the six-inch map to northern England, but only a three-inch scale for most of Scotland.

When Colby retired he recommended William Yolland as his successor, but he was considered too young and a less experienced Lewis Alexander Hall was appointed.[7] When after a fire in the Tower of London, the headquarters of the survey was moved to Southampton, Yolland was put in charge, but Hall sent him off to Ireland so that he was again passed over when Hall left in 1854 in favour of Major Henry James. Hall was enthusiastic about extending the survey of the north of England to a scale of 1:2,500. In 1855, the Board of Ordnance was abolished and the Ordnance Survey was placed under the War Office together with the Topographical Survey and the Depot of Military Knowledge. Eventually in 1870 it was transferred to the Office of Works.

The primary triangulation of the United Kingdom of Roy, Mudge and Yolland was completed by 1841, but was greatly improved by Alexander Ross Clarke who completed a new survey based on Airy's spheroid in 1858, completing the Principal Triangulation.[11] The following year, he completed an initial levelling of the country.

Publication of the one-inch to the mile series for Great Britain was completed in 1891.

Great Britain "County Series"

Scan of the cover of the 5th series OS map Chelmsford and Southend sheet 108. Art by Ellis Martin.

After the first Ireland maps were published in the mid-1830s, the Tithe Commutation Act 1836 led to calls for a similar six-inch to the mile survey in England and Wales. Official procrastination followed, but the development of the railways added to pressure that resulted in the Ordnance Survey Act 1841. This granted a right to enter property for the purpose of the survey. Following a fire at its headquarters at the Tower of London in 1841[12] the Ordnance Survey relocated to a site in Southampton and was in disarray for several years, with arguments about which scales to use. Major-General Sir Henry James was by then Director General, and he saw how photography could be used to make maps of various scales cheaply and easily. He developed and exploited photozincography, not only to reduce the costs of map production but also to publish facsimiles of nationally important manuscripts. Between 1861 and 1864, a facsimile of the Domesday Book was issued, county by county; and a facsimile of the Gough Map was issued in 1870.

From the 1840s, the Ordnance Survey concentrated on the Great Britain "County Series", modelled on the earlier Ireland survey. A start was made on mapping the whole country, county by county, at six inches to the mile (1:10,560). From 1854, to meet requirements for greater detail, including land-parcel numbers in rural areas and accompanying information, cultivated and inhabited areas were mapped at 1:2500 (25.344 inches to the mile), at first parish by parish, with blank space beyond the parish boundary, and later continuously.[13] Early copies of the 1:2500s were available hand-coloured. Up to 1879, the 1:2500s were accompanied by Books of Reference or "area books" that gave acreages and land-use information for land-parcel numbers. After 1879, land-use information was dropped from these area books; after the mid-1880s, the books themselves were dropped and acreages were printed instead on the maps.[14] After 1854, the six-inch maps and their revisions were based on the "twenty-five inch" maps and theirs. The six-inch sheets covered an area of six by four miles on the ground; the "twenty-five inch" sheets an area of one by one and a half. One square inch on the "twenty-five inch" maps was roughly equal to an acre on the ground. In later editions the six-inch sheets were published in "quarters" (NW,NE,SW,SE), each covering an area of three by two miles on the ground. The first edition of the two scales was completed by the 1890s. A second edition (or "first revision") was begun in 1891 and completed just before the First World War. From 1907 till the early 1940s, a third edition (or "second revision") was begun but never completed: only areas with significant changes on the ground were revised, many two or three times.[15][16]

Meanwhile, funding had been agreed in the 1850s for a more detailed survey of towns and cities. From 1850–53, twenty-nine towns were mapped at 1:528 (10 feet to the mile). From 1855 1:500 (10.56 feet to the mile) became the preferred scale. London and some seventy other towns (mainly in the north) were already being mapped at 1:1056 (5 feet to the mile). Just under 400 towns with a population of over 4000 were surveyed at one of these three scales, most at 1:500. Publication of the town plans was completed by 1895. The London first edition was completed and published in 326 sheets in the 1860s–70s; a second edition of 759 sheets was completed and brought out in the early 1890s; further revisions (incomplete coverage of London) followed between 1906 and 1937. Very few other towns and cities saw a second edition of the town plans.[17][15]

From 1911 onwards  and mainly between 1911 and 1913  the Ordnance Survey photo-enlarged many 1:2500 sheets covering built-up areas to 1:1250 (50.688 inches to the mile) for Land Valuation and Inland Revenue purposes. About a quarter of these 1:1250s were marked "Partially revised 1912/13". In areas where there were no further 1:2500s, these partially revised "fifty inch" sheets represent the last large-scale revision (larger than six-inch) of the County Series. The County Series mapping was superseded by the Ordnance Survey National Grid 1:1250s, 1:2500s and 1:10,560s after the Second World War.[15]

From the late 19th century to the early 1940s, the OS produced many "restricted" versions of the County Series maps and other War Department sheets for War Office purposes, in a variety of large scales that included details of military significance such as dockyards, naval installations, fortifications and military camps. Apart from a brief period during the disarmament talks of the 1930s, these areas were left blank or incomplete on standard maps. The War Department 1:2500s, unlike the standard issue, were contoured. The de-classified sheets have now been deposited in some of the Copyright Libraries, helping to complete the map-picture of pre-Second World War Britain.

20th century

Front cover of a one-inch to the mile New Popular Edition, from 1945.
Detailed scan of a complete 7th series sheet

During the World War I, Ordnance Survey was involved in preparing maps of France and Belgium. During World War II, many more maps were created, including:

After the war, Colonel Charles Close, then Director General, developed a strategy using covers designed by Ellis Martin to increase sales in the leisure market. In 1920, O. G. S. Crawford was appointed Archaeology Officer and played a prominent role in developing the use of aerial photography to deepen understanding of archaeology.

In 1935, the Davidson Committee was established to review Ordnance Survey's future. The new Director General, Major-General Malcolm MacLeod, started the retriangulation of Great Britain, an immense task involving the erection of concrete triangulation pillars ("trig points") on prominent hilltops as infallible positions for theodolites. Each measurement made by theodolite during the retriangulation was repeated no fewer than 32 times.

The Davidson Committee's final report set Ordnance Survey on course for the twentieth century. The metric national grid reference system was launched and 1:25000-scale series of maps was introduced. The one-inch maps continued to be produced until the 1970s, when they were superseded by the 1:50000-scale series  as proposed by William Roy more than two centuries earlier.

Ordnance Survey had outgrown its site in the centre of Southampton (made worse by the bomb damage of the Second World War). The bombing during the Blitz devastated Southampton in November 1940 and destroyed most of Ordnance Survey's city centre offices.[18][19] Staff were dispersed to other buildings and to temporary accommodation at Chessington and Esher, Surrey, where they produced 1:25000 scale maps of France, Italy, Germany and most of the rest of Europe in preparation for its invasion. Until 1969, Ordnance Survey largely remained at its Southampton city centre HQ and at temporary buildings in the suburb of Maybush nearby, when a new purpose-built headquarters was opened in Maybush adjacent to the wartime temporary buildings there. Some of the remaining buildings of the original Southampton city-centre site are now used as part of the city's court complex.

The then-new head office building was designed by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works for 4000 staff, including many new recruits that were taken on in the late 1960s and early 70s as draughtsmen and surveyors. The buildings originally contained factory-floor space for photographic processes such as heliozincography and map printing, as well as large buildings for storing flat maps. Above the industrial areas are extensive office areas. The complex is notable for its concrete mural by sculptor Keith McCarter and the concrete elliptical paraboloid shell roof over the staff restaurant building.

In 1995, Ordnance Survey digitised the last of about 230,000 maps, making the United Kingdom the first country in the world to complete a programme of large-scale electronic mapping. In 1999, the agency was designated a Trading Fund, required to cover its costs by charging for its products and remit a proportion of its profits to the Treasury. Officially, it is now a civilian organisation with executive agency status.

By the late 1990s, the need for vast areas for storing maps and for making printing plates by hand had been made obsolete by technological developments. Although there was a small computer section at Ordnance Survey in the 1960s, the digitising programme had replaced the need for printing large-scale maps, while computer-to-plate technology (in the form of a single machine) had also rendered the photographic platemaking areas obsolete. Part of the latter was converted into a new conference centre in 2000, which was used for both internal events and made available for external organisations to hire.

21st century

The former headquarters of Ordnance Survey in Maybush, Southampton, used from 1969 until 2011.
The headquarters opened in 2011.

In summer 2010, the announcement was made that printing and warehouse operations were to be outsourced, ending over 200 years of in-house printing.[20] As already stated, large-scale maps had not been printed at Ordnance Survey since the common availability of geographical information systems (GISs), but, until late 2010, the OS Explorer and OS Landranger series were printed in Maybush.

In April 2009 construction began on a new head office located at Adanac Park on the outskirts of Southampton.[21]

As of 10 February 2011, virtually all staff had relocated to the new "Explorer House" building and the old site had been sold off and redeveloped. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, officially opened the new headquarters building on 4 October 2011.[22]

On 22 January 2015 it was announced that the organisation was planned to move from a Trading Fund model to a government owned limited company, with the move expected to be completed in April 2015. The organisation would remain fully owned by the UK government and retain many of the features of a public organisation.[23][24]

On 6 March 2015, a new CEO was announced to replace Vanessa Lawrence, who had left in 2014. Nigel Clifford, CEO of Procserve Holdings Ltd was appointed by Business Minister Matthew Hancock.[25]

In September 2015, the history of the Ordnance Survey was the subject of a BBC Four documentary entitled A Very British Map: The Ordnance Survey Story.[26]

GB map range

Ordnance Survey produces a large variety of paper maps and digital mapping products.

Business mapping

Ordnance Survey produces a wide variety of different products aimed at business users, such as utility companies and local authorities. The data is supplied by Ordnance Survey on optical media or increasingly, via the Internet. Products can be downloaded via FTP or accessed 'on demand' via a web browser. Organisations using Ordnance Survey data have to purchase a licence to do so. Some of the main products are:

OS MasterMap 
(see below) Ordnance Survey's most detailed mapping showing individual buildings and other features in a vector format. Every real-world object is assigned a unique reference number (TOID) that allows customers to add this reference to their own databases. OS MasterMap consists of several so-called "layers" (see below) such as the aerial imagery, transport and postcode. The principal layer is the topographic layer.
OS VectorMap Local 
A customisable vector product at 1:10,000 scale.
OS Landplan 
a raster map at 1:10 000 scale.
Meridian 2, Strategi 
Mid-scale mapping in vector format.
A joint venture with Royal Mail producing datasets with address information to allow postcode searches, etc.
Mapping showing administrative boundaries such as counties, parishes and electoral wards.
10,000, 1:25,000, 1:50,000, 1:250,000 scale raster : Raster versions of leisure maps.
OS Street View 
A highly simplified mapping focusing on streets and their names at the expense of other features.
Land-Form PROFILE, PROFILE Plus, Panorama 
Digital terrain models.

Leisure maps

Illustration of the Ordnance Survey National Grid coordinate system, with Trafalgar Square as an example

OS's range of leisure maps are published in a variety of scales:

Tour (c. 1:100,000, except Scotland) 
One-sheet maps covering a generally county-sized area, showing major and most minor roads and containing tourist information and selected footpaths. Tour maps are generally produced from enlargements of 1:250,000 mapping. Several larger scale town maps are provided on each sheet for major settlement centres. The maps have sky-blue covers and there are eight sheets in the series.
OS Landranger (1:50,000) 
The "general purpose" map. They have pink covers; 204 sheets cover the whole of Great Britain and the Isle of Man. The map shows all footpaths and the format is similar to that of Explorer maps, albeit with less detail.
OS Landranger Active (1:50,000) 
Select OS Landranger maps available in a plastic-laminated waterproof version, similar to the OS Explorer Active range. As of October 2009, 25 of the 204 Landranger maps were available as OS Landranger Active maps.
OS Explorer, (1:25,000) 
Specifically designed for walkers and cyclists. They have orange covers, and contain 403 sheets covering the whole of Great Britain (the Isle of Man is excluded from this series). These are the most detailed leisure maps that Ordnance Survey publish and cover all types of footpaths and most details of the countryside for easy navigation. The OL branded sheets within the Explorer series show areas of greater interest in England and Wales (such as the Lake District, the Black Mountains, etc.) with an enlarged area coverage. they appear identical to the ordinary Explorer, except the numbering and a little yellow mark on the corner (a relic of the old Outdoor Leisure series). The OS Explorer maps, together with the erstwhile Outdoor Leisure series, superseded the numerous green-covered Pathfinder maps. In May 2015 Ordnance Survey announced that the new release of OL series maps would come with a mobile download version, available through a dedicated app on Android and iOS devices.[27] It is expected that this will be rolled out to all the Explorer and Landranger series over time.
OS Explorer Active (1:25,000 scale) 
OS Explorer and Outdoor Leisure maps in a plastic-laminated waterproof version.
Activity Maps 
An experimental range of maps designed to support specific activities. The four maps packs currently published are Off-Road Cycling Hampshire North, South, East and West. Each map pack contains 12 cycle routes printed on individual map sheets on waterproof paper. While they are based on the 1:25,000 scale maps, the scales have been adjusted so each route fits on a single A4 sheet.

Until 2010, OS also produced the following:

Route (1:625,000) 
A double-sided map designed for long-distance road users, covering the whole of Great Britain.
Road (1:250,000) 
A series of eight sheets covering Great Britain, designed for road users.

These, along with fifteen Tour maps, were discontinued during January 2010 as part of a drive for cost-efficiency.

However, the Road series has been reintroduced in September 2016.[28]

App development

In 2013, Ordnance Survey released its first official app, OS MapFinder, and has since added three more apps.

OS MapFinder 
Available on iOS and Android, the free to download app allows users to access maps direct to their devices, plan and record routes and share routes with others. Users can purchase and download OS Landranger and OS Explorer high-resolution maps in 660dpi quality and use them without incurring roaming charges as maps are stored on the device and can be used offline – without WiFi or mobile signal.
OS Maps Web
Available as a web page - it allows users to access maps from the web using modern web browsers, planning of custom routes and printing of maps is possible similarly to what the mobile applications can do
OS Locate 
Launched in February 2014 and available on iOS and Android, the free app is a fast and highly accurate means of pinpointing a users exact location and displays grid reference, latitude, longitude and altitude. OS Locate does not need a mobile signal to function, so the inbuilt GPS system in a device can be relied upon.
OS Ride 
Launched in 2014 on iOS, the free app uses Ordnance Survey’s detailed outdoor mapping including OS Landranger Maps (1:50 000 scale) enabling cyclists to successfully navigate and track their progress as they ride the pre-loaded routes and follow in the tracks of the 2014 Grand Depart professional cyclists.

Custom products

Ordnance Survey also offers OS Custom Made, a print-on-demand service based on digital raster data that allows a customer to specify the area of the map or maps desired. Two scales are offered  1:50,000 (equivalent to 40 km by 40 km) or 1:25,000 (20 km by 20 km)  and the maps may be produced either folded or flat for framing or wall mounting. Customers may provide their own titles and cover images for folded maps.[29]

Ordnance Survey also produces more detailed custom mapping to order, at 1:10,000 (Landplan) and at 1:1,250 or 1:500 (Siteplan), from its large-scale digital data. Custom scales may also be produced from the enlargement or reduction of the existing scales.

Educational mapping

Ordnance Survey supplies reproductions of its maps from the early 1970s to the 1990s for educational use. These are widely seen in schools both in Britain and in former British colonies, either as stand-alone geographic aids or as part of geography textbooks or workbooks.

During the 2000s, in an attempt to increase schoolchildren's awareness of maps, Ordnance Survey offered a free OS Explorer Map to every 11-year-old in UK primary education. By the end of 2010, when the scheme closed, over 6 million maps had been given away.[30] The scheme was replaced by free access to the Digimap for Schools service provided by EDINA for eligible schools.[31]

With the trend away from paper products towards geographical information systems (GISs), Ordnance Survey has been looking into ways of ensuring schoolchildren are made aware of the benefits of GISs and has launched "MapZone", an interactive child-orientated website featuring learning resources and map-related games.

Ordnance Survey publishes a quarterly journal, principally for geography teachers, called Mapping News.

Derivative and licensed products

One series of historic maps, published by Cassini Publishing Ltd, is a reprint of the Ordnance Survey first series from the mid-19th century but using the OS Landranger projection at 1:50,000 and given 1 km gridlines. This means that features from over 150 years ago fit almost exactly over their modern equivalents and modern grid references can be given to old features.

The digitisation of the data has allowed Ordnance Survey to sell maps electronically. Several companies are now licensed to produce the popular scales (1:50,000 and 1:25,000) and their own derived datasets of the map on CD/DVD or to make them available online for download. The buyer typically has the right to view the maps on a PC, a laptop, and a pocket PC/smartphone, and to print off any number of copies. The accompanying software is GPS-aware, and the maps are ready-calibrated. Thus, the user can quickly transfer the desired area from their PC to their laptop or smartphone, and go for a drive or walk with their position continually pinpointed on the screen. The price for an individual map is more expensive than the equivalent paper version, but the price per square km falls rapidly with the size of coverage bought.


The Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain use the Ordnance Survey National Grid.

The Ordnance Survey's original maps were made by triangulation. For the second survey, in 1934, this process was used again and resulted in the building of many triangulation pillars (trig points): short (approx. 4 feet/1.2 m high), usually square, concrete or stone pillars at prominent locations such as hill tops. Their precise locations were determined by triangulation, and the details in between were then filled in with less precise methods.

Modern Ordnance Survey maps are largely based on aerial photographs, but large numbers of the pillars remain, many of them adopted by private land owners. Ordnance Survey still has a team of surveyors across Great Britain who visit in person and survey areas that cannot be surveyed using photogrammetric methods (such as land obscured by vegetation) and there is an aim of ensuring that any major feature (such as a new motorway or large housing development) is surveyed within six months of its construction. While original survey methods were largely manual, the current surveying task is simplified by the use of GPS technology, allowing the most precise surveying standards yet.[32] Ordnance Survey is responsible for a UK-wide network of GPS stations known as "OS Net". These are used for surveying and other organisations can purchase the right to utilise the network for their own uses.

Ordnance Survey still maintains a set of master geodetic reference points to tie the Ordnance Survey geographic datum points to modern measurement systems such as GPS. Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain use the Ordnance Survey National Grid rather than latitude and longitude to indicate position. The Grid is known technically as OSGB36 (Ordnance Survey Great Britain 1936) and was introduced after the 1936–53 retriangulation.

Whereas cartography is the art and science of mapmaking, cartographic design concerns the map user. It governs the design of a map and it is the cartography that ensures the intended message is delivered both efficiently and aesthetically.

Ordnance Survey's CartoDesign team performs a key role in the organisation, as the authority for cartographic design and development, and engages with internal and external audiences to promote and communicate the value of cartography. They work on a broad range of projects and are responsible for styling all new products and services.[33]

OS MasterMap

Ordnance Survey's flagship digital product, launched in November 2001, is OS MasterMap, a database that records, in one continuous digital map, every fixed feature of Great Britain larger than a few metres. Every feature is given a unique TOID (TOpographical IDentifier), a simple identifier that includes no semantic information. Typically, each TOID is associated with a polygon that represents the area on the ground that the feature covers, in National Grid coordinates.

OS MasterMap layers

OS MasterMap is offered in themed layers, each linked to a number of TOIDs. As of September 2010, the layers are:

The primary layer of OS MasterMap, consisting of vector data comprising large-scale representation of features in the real world, such as buildings and areas of vegetation. The features captured and the way they are depicted is listed in a specification available on the Ordnance Survey website.
Integrated transport network 
A link-and-node network of transport features such as roads and railways. This data is at the heart of many satnav systems. In an attempt to reduce the number of HGVs using unsuitable roads, a data-capture programme of "Road Routing Information" was recently undertaken, aiming to add information such as height restrictions and one-way streets.
Orthorectified aerial photography in raster format.
An overlay adding every address in the UK to other layers.
Address 2 
Adds further information to the Address layer, such as addresses with multiple occupants (blocks of flats, student houses, etc.) and objects with no postal addresses, such as fields and electricity substations.

Pricing of licenses to OS MasterMap data depends on the total area requested, the layers licensed, the number of TOIDs in the layers, and the period in years of the data usage. OS MasterMap can be used to generate maps for a vast array of purposes and maps can be printed from OS MasterMap data with detail equivalent to a traditional 1:1250 scale paper map.

Ordnance Survey states that thanks to continuous review, OS MasterMap data is never more than six months out of date. The scale and detail of this mapping project is unique. By 2009, around 440 million TOIDs had been assigned, and the database stood at 600 gigabytes in size.[34] Currently (March 2011), OS claims 450 million TOIDs.[35] As of 2005, OS MasterMap was at version 6; 2010's version 8 includes provision for Urban Paths (an extension of the "integrated transport network" layer) and pre-build address layer. All these versions have a similar GML schema.

Ordnance Survey is encouraging users of its old OS Land-Line data, a first-generation product consisting of tiles of map data, to migrate to OS MasterMap. In June 2007, it announced its notice of Land-Line's withdrawal as of 30 September 2008.

Geographical information science research

For several decades, Ordnance Survey has had a research department that is active in several areas of geographical information science, including:

Ordnance Survey actively supports the academic research community through its external research and university liaison team. The research department actively supports MSc and PhD students as well as engaging in collaborative research. Most Ordnance Survey products are available to UK universities that have signed up to the Digimap agreement and data is also made available for research purposes that advances Ordnance Survey's own research agenda.

More information can be found at Ordnance Survey Research.

Data access and criticisms

Ordnance Survey has been subject to criticism. Most centres on the point that Ordnance Survey possesses a virtual government monopoly on geographic data in the UK,[36] but, although a government agency, it has been required to act as a Trading Fund (i.e. a commercial entity) from 1999 to 2015. This meant that it is supposed to be entirely self-funded from the commercial sale of its data and derived products whilst at the same time the public supplier of geographical information. In 1985, the Committee of Enquiry into the Handling of Geographic Information was set up to "advise the Secretary of State for the Environment within two years on the future handling of geographic information in the UK, taking account of modern developments in information technology and market needs".[37] The Committee's final report, published in 1987 under the name of its chairman Roger Chorley, stressed the importance of accessible geographic information to the UK and recommended a loosening of policies on distribution and cost recovery.

In 2007 Ordnance Survey were criticised for contracting the public relations company Mandate Communications[38] to understand the dynamics of the free data movement and discover which politicians and advisers continue to support their current policies.[39]

OS OpenData

In response to the feedback from the consultation, the government announced[40] that a package of Ordnance Survey data sets would be released for free use and re-use. On 1 April 2010, Ordnance Survey released[41] the brand OS OpenData under an attribution-only license compatible with CC-by.[42] Various groups and individuals had campaigned for this release of data, but some were disappointed when some of the profitable datasets, including the leisure 1:50,000 scale and 1:25,000 scale mapping, as well as the low scale Mastermap were not included. These were withheld with the counter-argument that if licensees do not pay for OS data collection then the government would have to be willing to foot a £30million bill per annum to obtain the future economic benefit of sharing the mapping.[43]

In mid-2013, Ordnance Survey described an "enhanced" linked-data service with a SPARQL 1.1-compliant endpoint and bulk-download options.[44]

Historical material

Ordnance Survey historical works are generally available, as the agency is covered by Crown Copyright: works more than fifty years old, including historic surveys of Britain and Ireland and much of the New Popular Edition, are in the public domain. However, finding suitable originals remains an issue as Ordnance Survey does not provide historical mapping on 'free' terms, instead marketing commercially 'enhanced' reproductions in partnership with companies such as GroundSure and Landmark.

The National Library of Scotland has been developing its archive to make Ordnance Survey maps for all of Great Britain more easily available through their website.[45]

This can be contrasted with, for example, the approach in the Republic of Ireland in more recent times, where Ordnance Survey Ireland claims regular copyright over its mapping (and over digital copies of the public domain historical mapping). All Ordnance Survey Ireland maps (historic and current) are available free to view on their online website.

See also


  1. 1 2 Note that the Ordnance Survey deals only with maps of Great Britain, and, to an extent, the Isle of Man, but not Northern Ireland, which has its own, separate government agency, the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.
  2. Read as "1 to 10,560"; in other words, with 1 inch on a map representing 10,560 inches on the ground.



  1. Hewitt 2010, p. xix.
  2. Porter, Whitworth (1889). "History of the Corps of Royal Engineers". I. London: Longmans, Green, and Co: 167–68. Retrieved 14 August 2008.
  3. Hindle 1998, pp. 114-115.
  4. Hindle 1998, p. 117.
  5. Seymour, W.A., ed. (1980). A History of the Ordnance Survey. Folkestone: Wm Dawson & Sons. p. 71
  6. Hindle 1998, p. 114.
  7. 1 2 Tim Owen and Elaine Pilbeam, Ordnance Survey - Map Makers to Britain Since 1791, publ. 1992, ISBN 0 31 900249 7. Freely available online at the Ordnance Survew, Owen and Pilbeam
  8. Ordnance Survey Maps Six-inch, 1st edition, Scotland, 1843-1882 - National Library of Scotland. maps.nls.uk. Retrieved on 2014-04-12.
  9. Facsimile reprint, Thomas Donald Historic Map of Cumberland 1774, ISBN 9781873124369
  10. Our history | About. Ordnance Survey. Retrieved on 2014-04-12.
  11. Seymour 1980, p. 139
  12. "Key dates". London Fire Brigade. Archived from the original on 18 June 2008.
  13. Harley, J. B., Ordnance Survey Maps: a descriptive manual, O.S. Southampton, 1975
  14. Oliver, Richard, Ordnance Survey Maps: a concise guide for historians (London 2005), pp.35, 54
  15. 1 2 3 Oliver, Richard, Ordnance Survey Maps: a concise guide for historians (London 2005)
  16. Oliver, Richard, and Hellyer, Roger, Ordnance Survey of Great Britain: Indexes to the 1:2500 and six-inch scales, David Archer, Newtown, Montgomeryshire, 2002
  17. Hindle 1998, pp. 131-132.
  18. "Mapping the Southampton Blitz 70 years on". Ordnance Survey. 30 November 2010. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  19. "Southampton Blitz: Ordnance Survey map of bomb sites". BBC. 30 November 2010. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  20. Morris, Helen (6 September 2010). "BT&D awarded map contract as Ordnance Survey bows out of print". PrintWeek. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  21. "Ordnance Survey breaks ground at Adanac Park". Ordnance Survey. 3 April 2009. Retrieved 17 December 2009.
  22. "Duke opens new Ordnance Survey head office". Ordnance Survey. 5 October 2011. Retrieved 21 June 2012.
  23. "Ordnance Survey set to become a Government owned company". Ordnance Survey. 22 January 2015. Retrieved 22 January 2015.
  24. "Ordnance Survey Change in Operating Model". UK Parliament. 22 January 2015. Retrieved 22 January 2015.
  25. "Business Minister Matthe Hancock announces the appointment og Nigel Clifford as the new Chief Executive of Ordnance Survey". ordnancesurvey.co.uk. Retrieved 6 March 2015.
  26. "A Very British Map: The Ordnance Survey Story". Timeshift. 9 September 2015. BBC Four.
  27. "Ordnance Survey maps undergo their greatest innovation for over 200 years". os.uk. Ordnance Survey. Retrieved 20 May 2015.
  28. https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/shop/maps.html?cat%5B0%5D=20&cat%5B1%5D=138
  29. "Custom Made". Ordnance Survey. Ordnance Survey. Retrieved 2 December 2013.
  30. Schools urged to order free maps now! | About. Ordnance Survey. Retrieved on 2014-04-12.
  31. Archived 1 October 2010 at the Wayback Machine.
  32. "Surveying guidelines". Business & government. Ordnance Survey. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  33. "Carto Design team". Business & government. Ordnance Survey. Retrieved 22 January 2014.
  34. Public sector mapping agreements | Business and government. Ordnance Survey. Retrieved on 2014-04-12.
  35. OS MasterMap products | Business and government. Ordnance Survey. Retrieved on 2014-04-12.
  36. Guardian
  37. Chorley, R.R.E. (1987) Handling Geographic Information. Report of the Committee of Enquiry chaired by Lord Chorley, London: HMSO.
  38. Greg Clark Written Questions, 1 May 2008 col. 668W Ordnance Survey: Mandate Communications
  39. Cross, Michael (21 August 2008). "Ordnance Survey hires PR company to lobby politicians". The Guardian.
  40. "Policy options for geographic information from Ordnance Survey: Consultation – Government Response". Department for Communities and Local Government. Retrieved 5 April 2010.
  41. "Ordnance Survey launches OS OpenData in groundbreaking national initiative". Ordnance Survey. 1 April 2010. Retrieved 16 April 2010.
  42. "OpenData License Terms and Conditions" (PDF). Ordnance Survey. Retrieved 5 April 2010.
  43. "The Ordnance Survey has opened up its map data for free after a long campaign. Find out what was released". The Guardian. 2 April 2010. Retrieved 16 April 2010.
  44. "New Ordnance Survey Linked Data service proving popular with developers" (Press release). Ordnance Survey. 17 July 2013. Retrieved 28 July 2013.
  45. "Ordnance Survey Maps". National Library of Scotland. National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 21 May 2015.


  • Margary, Harry (1992). Old Series Ordnance Survey Maps of England and Wales. Unknown. ISBN 0-903541-01-7. 
  • "Official Homepage". Official Homepage. Retrieved 29 September 2005. 
  • "History of Cartography". Academic research by the University of Exeter. Retrieved 29 September 2005. 
  • Hewitt, Rachel (2010). Map of a Nation - A biography of the Ordnance Survey. Granta. ISBN 978-1-847-08254-1. 
  • Hindle, Paul (1998). Maps for Historians. Phillimore & Co. pp. 114–115. ISBN 0-85033-934-0. 
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