The Ordnance Survey

The Ordnance Survey

The Ordnance Office

Making maps at the Tower of London.

History of the Ordnance Survey


The Ordnance Survey was founded during the reign of George III (1738-1820). As its name suggests, it has its origins in the Board of Ordnance. The maps produced were originally created for military use, and from the late 19th century onwards the Ordnance Survey produced maps for civilian as well as military purposes.

  • 1716 - A Drawing Office was set up in the Tower to produce maps for military use
  • 1745 - After the Jacobite uprising, George II commissioned a detailed map of the Highlands to facilitate planning campaign strategies against the Highland clans
  • Late 18th and early 19th centuries - The Board of Ordnance produced maps of other parts of Britain. The Ordnance Survey is formally established
  • 1841 - After a fire in the offices, the Ordnance Survey headquarters move from the Tower to Southampton where they remain to this day 

George III and the Ordnance Survey

Detail from George III print by SmithIt was during the reign of George III (1760-1820) that a new branch of the Board of Ordnance, the Ordnance Survey, came into being.

In the hopes of providing the military authorities with detailed maps that would be of strategic use in times of war, the Ordnance Survey gradually produced maps with greater detail of smaller areas.

By the end of the 18th century, King George feared that a French invasion under Napoleon was close at hand. Therefore the ability of the army to have a firm grasp of the terrain on which it would fight was essential. The first one-inch-to-one-mile scale map was produced in 1801 depicting the county of Kent. This was part of an ongoing project later known as the Principal Triangulation of Britain, in which accurate standard measurements of distances were determined throughout Britain between 1783 and 1853.


The man who mapped Britain

The 3rd Duke of Richmond in the uniform of the Master General of the Board of OrdnanceCharles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond (1735-1806) served as Master General of the Ordnance from 1784 to 1795. 

He was a great lover of science and had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1755. It was during his term of office as Master General that the Ordnance Survey was formally established and began the enormous task of mapping the entirety of Britain.

Upon retiring to his family estate at Goodwood in West Sussex, the Duke indulged his passion for horse-racing by building the Goodwood Racecourse on his land. The ‘Drawing Room Stakes’, run at Goodwood every July, was named in honour of Lennox’s association with the Drawing Room of the Ordnance Survey in the White Tower.


*Images © courtesy of The Board of Trustees of the Armouries

*Image of the 3rd Duke of Richmond in the uniform of the Master General of the Board of Ordnance © by permission of the Trustees of the Goodwood Collection

This exhibition is supported by:
Ordnance Survey LogoHistory Logo

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