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Estate maps

Estate maps are plans that were drawn up for the owners of estates both large and small. Typically an estate map was a large-scale map that plotted enclosures and subdivisions, and had boundaries marked so that the owners could refer to them in any boundary disputes or other legal battles over land.

Before the 16th century it was not common to have an estate map; instead a descriptive written document may have been created. But after that time the more important landowners would get a surveyor to draw up a plan in a visual form. The early estate maps pre-date enclosure and tithe maps, and are so are a unique resource if they have survived. Landowners commissioning their own estate maps continued even after the Ordnance Survey began to map the country in the 1870s with 25″ maps for the government. An estate map was also on a larger scale than the late 18th century county maps and so it would show more detail of the estate’s fields than would appear on a county map.

A large landowner could have held an entire parish in his estate, in which case the estate records would be a description of that whole community. Smaller estates would together comprise a parish and the maps would detail where the boundary of each estate was. Often a survey of an estate was done at the time that it changed hands in order that the new owner knew exactly what it comprised and what he was purchasing. 

Badminton estate map volume 3 (cropped) – National Library of Wales, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Most estate maps will not reveal the occupier of the land, however there is an exception. When the tithe survey was carried out in early Victorian times some estate owners paid for an extra copy of the tithe map to be made for their private use as an estate map. This was a very cost effective way for a landowner to map his landholding rather than commissioning his own mapping and as tithe maps include plot numbers that identify owners and occupiers in the accompanying books, then an estate map that was also a tithe map will give these details.

Do estate maps reveal owners and occupiers?

Like the tithe maps, estate maps were often accompanied by a written book that referenced the plan though their focus was different. While tithe apportionment books would reveal the owners and occupiers of the various plots the estate terriers (the associated books with the estate maps) were much less likely to identify who lived in or owned the specific properties. These books did, however, often list named tenants and give acreages and perhaps the terms of the tenants’ leaseholds but didn’t identify them on the map.

What can I see on an estate map?

Estate maps were often drawn in colour and show the main houses, farms and barns that were on the estate. The maps will also depict where the churches, inns, almshouses and schools were situated as well as some of the industrial buildings such as kilns, mills, saltings, gravel and sand pits and so on. The maps will be unlikely to show any of the neighbouring estate’s features, but will show rivers and waterways as these were important for drinking water, waterborne transport, power for mills and very often as boundaries. Roads will be mapped usually, even including the smallest of lanes, droveways, tracks and bridlepaths, as well as any toll bars, fords, bridges and ferries. This sort of detail of the surroundings that our forebears lived in can allow the family historian an unequalled picture of their ancestors’ surroundings and thus estate maps are useful maps to seek out.

Where can I find estate maps?

The estate map was drawn up for an estate’s owner and so they were private documents that will probably have remained private in the papers of the families that owned or had once owned the land in question. Getting access to private estate records and their maps can be difficult.

There is no one answer to where the estate maps will be stored today as it can be in a number of places. It may be that they are still in the family’s personal archives or muniments room and kept among all their other documents such as their deeds and so on. The estate maps may be in safe storage at the family’s lawyer’s office, or they may have been deposited at the county records office. Be aware, though, that this may not necessarily be the most local records office because many landowners held estates in different parts of the county and their main seat could have been a long way away from the place that you are interested in. At the time of depositing the family papers they would have been kept together and the whole collection sent to the county records office near to their main home, while a few may have been deposited with The National Archives in Kew (see more on our map collections page). It is always worth asking the local archives and history society about the estate you are interested in as some estate maps may have been copied and then added to a local collection.

Estate maps can be very useful for gaining a picture of the environment in which our ancestors lived if somewhat difficult to access.