Above: A very small reproduction of the remaining map. Notice the gaps between the map sections which are due to the edges of the original wooden blocks being damaged. There are eight blocks – two small ones on the left and then six large ones – which form the whole map.
Before the days of printing, which paved the way for prints, text and maps to be reproduced in large quantities, a few simple maps do exist but they were one-off, hand-drawn works, produced usually on parchment by talented artists.
There were no maps of London before about 1550 – that is to say, there were no maps of London in the way that we know them today. The reason why is simple to explain – printing was not invented until about 1450. One of the earliest presses was invented by Gutenberg, in Germany. Early books were publications like the Bible. It took several decades before any serious printing started up in London. Any printed illustrations were usually woodcuts and they were not like the fine steel engraving that we have all seen, they were just simple pictures with rather chunky lines.
The earliest map – showing the City of London and places like Westminster, Holborn, Clerkenwell and parts of Southwark – is a woodcut produced by an unknown craftsman. It is undated but, by examining the map, it was probably produced about 1561. In the 18th century, a well-known antiquarian called George Vertue thought the map may have been made by a man called Ralph Agas. Agas is well-known for having made a detailed map of Oxford but the drawing is in a different style and could not have been made by him. Because the map of London lacked a name as well as lacking a known author, the wrongly-named title ‘Agas Map’ of London has continued to be used, even to this day. It provides historians with a shorthand way of describing the map, even when everybody knows the name is incorrect.
Early maps of London were not drawn as a plan but as a bird’s-eye-view. Now that have miniature drones that can be flown to take a picture from above the land, such bird’s-eye-views are easy to obtain. In the 16th century, nobody had seen London from above and the so-called maps were just works of the craftsman’s imagination.
The so-called Agas map was produced as a large woodcut on six blocks of wood, each block being about A3 in size and two additional blocks about A4 in size. The six blocks were laid out in two rows of three with each block in landscape mode. The two A4-size blocks are on the left of the other six. The sizes described are approximate, making a total length of about eight feet and nearly four feet high. The mapmaker had to work laboriously, cutting out the wood where ‘white’ was to appear on the printed map and leaving thin ridges of wood to form the lines on the finished map.
The final map shows the River Thames with parts of Westminster on the left and the Tower of London on the right. Parts of Holborn, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch extend northwards. Along the south of the map can be seen parts of Lambeth, Southwark and Bermondsey. The whole map was published about 1561 but those imprints no longer exist. The paper imprint would have been very expensive. No general member of the public would have been able to afford to buy a copy and most of the public was not able to read either. It may be that only 500 or 1,000 copies were printed with the main purchasers being noblemen or wealthy merchants.
The wooden blocks must have been stored somewhere for several decades before being used in 1633 to publish a new imprint. How do we know all this if the first imprint of the map no longer exists? It has taken a bit of detective work but the answer is because the later imprints bear a coat of arms dating from about 1633. The old coat of arms has been cut out of the map and a new one inserted. The map is otherwise unchanged. Of course, when the later imprint was produced, the map was rather out of date. Of the later imprint, only three paper copies exist and have parts missing along the edges of the original blocks. The wooden blocks have never been found and it is assumed that they were later destroyed or just thrown away.
Above: A sample of the Agas map showing a small part of the riverside. The map shows an amazing amount of detail which can be seen on the original which is even larger scale than that shown here.
All three paper copies of the map can be viewed by the public – one copy is in the Guildhall Library, one is in the Public Record Office and a third is held in a university library in Cambridge. Facsimile reproductions of the map can be purchased via the London Topographical Society Website. That reproduction is taken from the copy held by the Guildhall Library.