Time Travel Explorer Blog

Unmapped: why Ordnance Survey tried to hide the Post Office Tower

by Peter Watts 18. November 2010 10:22

Post Office Tower


Thanks to Rocque, Horwood and Greenwood, London mapping was already an established art by 1848, but despite some extravagant detailing, none of these commercial cartographers took accuracy quite as seriously Ordnance Survey. That’s because the OS were a military body who made their first maps (of the South Coast) in anticipation of a French invasion from Napoleon, so considered forensic accuracy to be their martial duty. Their staggeringly detailed maps of the capital took two years to produce and the results were remarkable, if completely unusable for the average punter, who really didn’t need to know the size and shape of every single office within the Bank of England – unless they were preparing the mother of all bank jobs, that is.

The OS also cartographers wanted to incorporate height differences into their maps – something that even the likes of Wren had ignored in his post-fire map – so they set up a succession of highly placed ‘control points’ or ‘observatories’ from which they could view the streets of London from above to better gauge its hills and valleys. One such vantage point was placed right on top of St Paul’s Cathedral, which must have provided an extraordinary viewing point over London in the days before tower blocks and skyscrapers. Other high points selected for this process included natural hills and factory chimneys.

Ironically given its supposed accuracy, Ordnance Survey later became best known for an absence of one particular high point. For years, the unmistakable – and unmissable - Post Office Tower was deliberately left off OS maps because it was deemed to be an ‘official secret’ and therefore of such great military importance nobody was allowed to know about it even though it had become one of the most recognisable buildings in Britain as soon as it was opened by Tony Benn, and had even appeared in early episodes of Doctor Who. It did not make it onto OS maps until well into the 1990s, by which time the tower was more than 30 years old.

Men Behind the Maps: John Rocque

by Matt Brown 12. November 2010 17:23

The earliest map on Time Travel Explorer London is also one of the most famous in the capital’s history. The John Rocque map of 1747 was far and away the most detailed up to that time, surpassing many of those that followed. Unlike earlier maps, the Rocque charts show the innumerable alleys and courts as well as the main thoroughfares. It stands as one of our greatest sources on the early Georgian city.

But who was John Rocque? His early years are a little shady. We know he was born no later than 1709, when he moved to London from France with his parents and three siblings - a family of Huguenots fleeing religious persecution on the continent. ‘Jean’, as he was originally known, seems to have taken to horticulture as a young man, and produced plans and diagrams of several notable gardens in the south-east in his 20s and 30s while living with his brother Bartholomew, himself a landscape gardener. He built up a solid reputation as a cartographer and engraving, working from premises in Great Windmill Street, Soho.

His masterpiece came in 1737. The map of London took ten years to produce, and was carried on 24 separate sheets. It is a work of both beauty and clarity, as can be readily seen in Time Travel Explorer. As well as recording the centre of London in great detail, it also stretches out to regions of farmland and hamlets that we now think of as relatively central parts of London. To the North, much of Bloomsbury and Kings Cross are little more than fields, with the River Fleet still flowing openly down from Hampstead. West, and Knightsbridge is shown as ‘the Five Fields’. South of the river, villages such as Newington and Walworth are surrounded by open country. While to the East, development is limited mostly to the ancient tracks of Old Kent Road and Mile End Road.

The map’s success led to Rocque’s appointment as cartographer to the Prince of Wales in 1751. He went on to construct maps of other cities, counties and the whole country. He married twice, first to a lady known as Marthe, and later to a Mary-Ann Bew. The latter carried on the family business after Rocque’s death in January 1762.

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Millbank Tower...What Came Before?

by Matt Brown 10. November 2010 15:54

Millbank Tower in Westminster is very much in the news today, as students protest at the rise in tuition fees proposed by the Coalition government. A minority of those attending the rally have turned to violence, smashing windows and starting fires.

The tower itself was one of the tallest structures in London when it was first built in 1963. Then known as the Vickers Tower, it was the first major office tower in the capital. In recent years, it's dropped somewhat from public consciousness thanks to more shouty buildings like the Gherkin and the Shard. Today, it's right back in the news again.

But what was there before the office complex? Time Travel Explorer offers the perfect tool to find out. Here are views from 2010, 1862 and 1746.


The site of Millbank Tower, in 1862, is largely unmarked. It appears to be some kind of stone mason's yard. The most obvious feature, however, is the huge Millbank Penitentiary, a vast prison which held captives destined for deportation. The prison was demolished in 1890, but its outline can still be partly traced in the street layout of Pimlico. Further back, in 1746, and the area was all fields. Pimlico was a swampy hinterland with very little development.

Finding your way to the workhouse

by Peter Watts 4. November 2010 22:01

For a good idea of how odd and intriguing maps can be, take a walk up Marshall Street, the road lined with trendy boutiques that runs parallel to Carnaby, and turn down Broadwick Street into tiny Dufours Place. Then get out your TTX app and use the slider to time travel back to 1862. The building you are looking at will suddenly change on your screen from an inconsequential brick wall into the brutal square of the St James Workhouse, walls outlined in thick black ink, like an indelible mark on the landscape, a prisoner of the past, and a warning to all who observed the map that there but for the grace of God, went them.


This is a stark reminder of the harsh inequalities of the time. There was no benefit systems then, no sate-sanctioned safety nets for the poor, and the effect on Victorian London has been chronicled by writers such as Henry Mayhew’s London Labour And The London Poor – as well as much of the work of Charles Dickens. Anybody could conceivably end up in the workhouse, as it was easy enough to pick up a career-threatening injury while doing backbreaking work. Jack London's People Of The Abyss, about the East London poor, is full of tales of hard workers fallen on harder times. 


For some insight into the workhouse conditions, check out the London Lives site, which tells us that the workhouse at St James’s could hold 300 people who were looked after by 14 members of staff. It goes into some detail about the daily routine of the inmates, which basically involved getting up early, eating little, working hard and praying. That is pretty much the complete opposite of what you’ll find going on in Soho today.