Your City: Centre Of The Map

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We’ve all seen one, several of us may have used one and they are still seen as an essential tool to be used when out and about. But did you know that for around 170 years the famous Ordnance Survey was based in Southampton?

Ordnance Survey, for those not in the know, is the UK’s mapping agency. Not that you can tell that from its name. The origins of that go all the way back to the Napoleonic wars with France in the eighteenth century when the government of the day set up a survey set up by the Board of Ordnance (the equivalent of the Ministry of Defence) of all the military installations around the UK including forts, castles and ordnance (guns and cannon to you and me). Get it? OS was born.

The Ordnance Survey's headquarters used between 1841 and c.1940.
Ordnance Survey’s headquarters used between 1841 and 1969.

The maps OS produced were very useful for a variety of purposes that quickly expanded beyond the military. A fire in their Tower of London offices led to a move down to Southampton in 1841. Their old offices off London Road are still marked today, although at the time the site was much bigger. Some of these buildings survive, occupied by the agencies associated with the adjacent law courts, while much of the site has been lost.

Originally the site housed barracks for the Duke of York’s Royal Military School and then the Royal Military Asylum. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of these buildings were replaced when OS moved onto the vacant site. New buildings with purpose built rooms for printing the maps and, later, utilising the new invention of photography in the creation of better maps.

Ordnance Survey might still have been based there today if it were not for one thing: a war. Southampton as a city was very badly affected by the Blitz in 1940 and OS was just one of the many places hit in the city. As a result, the agency scattered to wherever it could get space, mainly in Chessington, Surrey (now home to the famous theme park) and Maybush on the western outskirts of Southampton, with some departments remaining at their HQ in the firing line.

The headquarters of the Ordnance Survey used between 1969 and 2010.
The headquarters of Ordnance Survey used between 1969 and 2010.

After fourteen years of peacetime spent in old, crampt and badly damaged buildings, OS finally returned to somewhere they could fully call home in 1969. Based off Romsey Road in Maybush, this new base would set them in good stead for the next forty years.

It was here that the first advancements into computer mapping were made and by 1995 all of the agency’s 230,000 maps were digitised. It also housed a massive custom-built facility for making the plates needed for printing the maps themselves and storing all that they produced. This they continued to do right up until 2010 when demand for internet mapping led to the outsourcing of the storage and printing functions of the service.

The current headquarters of the Ordnance Survey.
The current headquarters of Ordnance Survey.

Technological changes had caught up for the Maybush HQ and in 2010 they moved to a new, eco-friendly HQ at Adanac Park near Nursling on the extreme outskirts of Southampton. Appropriately named Explorer House, the new building was opened by The Duke of Edinburgh and has been identified as one of the most energy-efficient office buildings in the country – fitting for a civilian agency that spends much of its time recording the environment both urban and countryside.

Even to this day Ordnance Survey is proud of its heritage and of its headquarters. In the entrance to their current headquarters you can find the names and grid references of every place they have called home. For their long lasting contribution towards the city, Southampton can well and truly be called the home of the map.

You can find out more at OS’s website. There is also a wealth of information about their Southampton sites on Wikipedia.

Your City is the Wessex Scene’s series looking into the great city we call home. See more articles here.

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History student and passionate writer about everything connected to Southampton and its rich tapestry of stories and history. Due to an unfortunate case of graduation, this writer is no longer active.

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