On the road

As a general rule we do not fold our atlases in half. It would be bad for them, and probably quite difficult. This is a rare example of an atlas that was designed to be folded in half.

It’s an early road atlas to be carried while travelling. When the soft, rather tattered brown leather covers are opened, it reveals that a previous owner has made some notes of place names and distances in the inside of the cover.

The book itself could be folded or rolled, making it smaller and more portable. It is Thomas Kitchin’s Post-chaise companion, and dates from 1767. It has clearly grown accustomed to being folded in half, as can be seen from the weights required to hold it open for photography:

The very earliest road atlases date from the seventeenth century. Previously travellers relied on road books, lists of names that would enable them to ask the way from one town to the next. Arguably the first road atlas was produced by Matthew Simmons in the 1630s, with triangular distance tables (like those sometimes found in modern road atlases) and very tiny maps. The big innovation was John Ogilby’s Britannia in 1675, which used strip maps to show the major roads throughout Great Britain in unprecedented detail; this design continued to be copied for over a century, as can be seen here. Britannia was however a large volume, too bulky to transport easily.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was around fifty years after the publication of Britannia before smaller, more portable versions were produced, and then rival versions by three different publishers appeared around the same time in the 1720s; one of these, by Emanuel Bowen, was reissued in multiple editions into the 1760s. Thomas Kitchin, who produced this work, had been apprenticed to Bowen, and had married Bowen’s daughter before setting up as an independent mapmaker, embarking on a long, prolific and successful career, and being appointed Hydrographer to George III.

Although many road atlases of this period survive, the binding is what makes this one unusual. Its appearance caused a certain amount of excitement in the Map Room as some of us had heard of road atlases being made to this design, but had never seen one before. Unsurprisingly the soft backed versions are less likely to have survived, being less robust and more heavily used than the hardbacks. The fact that this one has the notes relating to a previous owner’s journeys makes it additionally interesting.

Kitchin’s post-chaise companion, through England and Wales; containing all the ancient and new additional roads… by Thomas Kitchin. London: John Bowles, Carington Bowles and Robert Sayer, 1767. C17 e.2a

Further information can be found in County atlases of the British Isles, by Donald Hodson. Vol. 1. Welwyn: Tewin Press, 1984.