The usefulness of maps to the family and local historian should not be overlooked. They can help us try to visualise what a parish looked like at various times, the changes to it, perhaps a canal or railway coming through and bisecting the village, as at Stoke Bruerne, or how parishes were linked to each other through a network of lanes and footways. In larger towns and cities, we can look for addresses and then search for the nearest churches, chapels and schools to see where our ancestors may have worshipped or been educated.

The Record Office has a vast collection of maps, many of which can be found by searching the online catalogue at (NRO).

To get the most from a map you often need to think about why it was made, who it was made for and what they were trying to ascertain or show.

You can use a map in conjunction with a census to try and locate whereabouts your ancestors lived, or look at a series of maps to see how a village has changed over time. Where were the nearest market towns, how did they travel from one parish to another – what were roads in their time? The answers to these questions may now only remain in the landscape as public footways. Did the village layout change due to enclosure? Were there quarries or ironstone workings nearby or forested areas where your ancestors may have been employed? What other clues can you find?

Listed below are some of the more common types of maps:

Ordnance Survey: In 1790 the Board of Ordnance began a national military survey of England. There are various series and scales available. Historic OS maps can be viewed online at and covers the periods from 1840s to 1950s. Northants Archives (NRO) also has a detailed collection.

Tithe maps: These complement the tithe awards and most date from around the 1840s. Generally, they will only show in more detail the tithable land in a parish and the owners/occupiers.

Enclosure maps: These form part of the Award when the parish was enclosed and changed from open field farming. They are very detailed and usually show old and new enclosures, any new roadways, footpaths, properties and farms. Use in conjunction with the written Award to find out details of landowners, freeholders and any allotments of land granted to them.

Public Works: There exists a whole plethora of maps for railways, canals, river navigation and turnpike roads. These are to be found within the Quarter Session records as legislation stated that all new Bills for these works must be examined by a Committee. There is a detailed catalogue for these.

River Nene Navigation: As above – NRO has a large collection of maps relating to the River Nene and the draining of the Fenlands.

Estate maps: Such a valuable source! Within the Estate collections at NRO are a huge number of both parish and estate maps which include all the houses and farms and are often linked to a detailed survey showing the tenants and the land they occupied. Thus you may be able to locate the exact property where your ancestors lived!

1727 map for the Duke of Grafton

The example, left, from the 1727 map for the Duke of Grafton, shows the centre of Roade with all the cottages – beautifully drawn and accurate even down to the number of chimneys and windows, many of which are still easily identifiable today.

Sale catalogues: These often include a location map for a property or where a whole estate is being sold (for example Duke of Grafton sales in 1913 and 1920); then there are maps showing the different Lots for sale, which also include the tenants and rent paid along with a description of the property. The next image shows a section for Blisworth near the Royal Oak pub.


Field Name maps: These can be useful for pinpointing particular fields or holdings within a parish.

Factories and other Works: Perhaps your ancestor worked within the shoe or brewery trade within one of the towns – if so, you may be lucky to find maps or plans of the buildings where they worked. An example is the front elevation and section plans for the ‘New Brewery’ (Phipps) at Northampton (NRO/ZA2339 from 1880).

Holdenby House and grounds

A few more other examples taken at random from the NRO catalogue are:

  • P/2526 – photographs of a map showing the SW prospect of Northampton 1731
  • ZB1124/5 – a map of Collingtree showing the location of the line of bombs dropped 9 April 1941
  • ZA2690 – A list of people living in cottages in Barnwell 24 May 1904.
  • FH272/6 – a plan of Holdenby House and grounds (see right) – showing the house and formal gardens.

National Archives
TNA, as to be expected, has a vast collection of maps, many of which relate to crown lands, parish boundaries, enclosure awards and other surveys. Of use for the 1940s are the maps which accompanied the National Farm Survey taken during the war. The 1910 Valuation Office Survey (see TNA guide for more information) has detailed parish maps which link to a survey that details each property including owner/tenant. For those studying WW1 then Trench maps are invaluable as are the smaller maps within the War Diaries. Search for these use Discovery – their online catalogue.

British Library
As the legal deposit office then the BL has many printed maps and other manuscripts – see the online catalogue. These include early road maps for motorists, cyclists and walkers as well as guides.

This article has only given a brief overview of the usefulness of maps for both the family and local historian. So why not get searching and see what you can find! Or just enjoy maps for works of art that they are and admire the skill of the surveyor and cartographer.

All images © Northamptonshire Record Office

(AM Nov/Dec 2023)