Old Maps Showing Pembury by Tony Nicholls

This is not a history of Pembury. I have not the authority nor knowledge to start down that track, but I have read many local history books. Most have been written by life long residents bursting with tales from the past, and nearly all suffer from the same irritating defect: the lack of maps and plans that would otherwise greatly assist the reader. I have two general criticisms with all local historians:

  1. The author usually assumes the reader to be a local and comes with an inherited background knowledge of the area.
  2. The author generally writes for today, giving little consideration for that fact that their book may be picked up in 10 or 20 years time as a reference work. Referring to key locations as ” … the old brown building currently occupied by Jones the Butcher” is of no use to anyone. Jones the Butcher has long since been replaced by a Blockbusters Video shop, the building is now bright yellow, and the reader is climbing the walls with rage. This has happened to me many times – sheer frustration at completely losing the plot, when a few supplementary maps would work wonders. Histories, of any kind, can never have too many maps!

I have a passion for maps, and I have assembled here a collection of edited sections that may be of interest to local residents. The maps were produced between 1580 and 1860. I have compiled a few notes regarding bygone surveying and mapping that may help you understand the data on the maps, and may prevent you from making some wrong assumptions. It’s very easy to believe what is seen on old maps.

Maps fall into two categories ; printed and manuscript.

  • Manuscript maps are hand drawn and are one-offs. They generally reside in libraries, museums and record offices, and were usually commissioned by land owners or farmers as an account of their estate.
  • Printed maps were produced in commercial quantities and can still be acquired by map collectors for intimate scrutiny and hours of quiet drooling.

The early years

The reign of Elizabeth I was the age of discovery, and a time when the countryside was first surveyed and mapped. The first atlas of county maps was produced by Christopher Saxton in about 1579 from a series of surveys carried out from 1573 to 1579. John Norden conducted another survey a few years later, but the epic atlas of the age came in 1611 from John Speed. His work was based mainly on the surveys of Saxton and Norden. Speed’s maps were modified and reprinted for the next 160 years. The early editions did not show the roads. The first road atlas was produced in 1675 by John Ogilby, and was copied and repackaged for the next 100 years or so. The smaller road maps were set into pocket sized atlases for the busy executives travelling the King’s highways by coach or mail wagon.

Publishing piracy was rife – copyright was unheard of – all map makers copied from their predecessors and re-branded the products as their own. Most maps claimed ‘from new and accurate surveys’ , but there were very few new surveys, and the accuracy is dubious. Many publishers relied on submitted corrections for their updates. Spelling was not standardised in those days – the first common dictionary, by Samual Johnson, did not appear until 1755.

Surveyors did not personally trek around to every village, every hamlet, up every muddy track, and along every river bank in the land to acquire their data. They probably visited key towns on main roads and drew data from local sources. It’s anyone’s guess as to the true extent of these surveys.

What’s in a name!

Communications in those days was poor. There was no TV, no radio, and no general means of sharing information. Most people very rarely left their village, and if they did, it was probably to go no further than the next village. Knowledge was gained locally, and shared locally. Family and neighbours were the main source of what you were, where you were, and what you called it. If the people in the next village called it something different, that was their problem. There were no national standards.

Travelling surveyors would ask locals the names of towns and villages and would write down their phonetic interpretation of the name. The village may be pronounced slightly differently between residents and neighbours, or between neighbours to the north and neighbours to the south. Two surveyors asking six locals could end up with a dozen different names! Imagine that Pembury had always been Pembury, and a surveyor happened on a local with a stammer – “it’s P…P …Peb .. Pepenbery”. A trifle implausible? A village could be misnamed by accident or stupidity? Well, during the compilation of Speed’s atlas a place name in Wiltshire had been missed, and they put ‘quare’ on the map – a note to go back and query the missing name. They forgot, and the map got produced with the village named ‘Quare’. Subsequent piracy and lack of fresh surveying meant that this error was passed from atlas to atlas for nearly 150 years before correction. (Emanual Bowen’s map of 1755 correctly showed it as North Burcombe). This error is well documented, many are not.

Village names were obviously spoken, and referred to verbally long before they were written. The majority of the population were illiterate, and there was probably no distinction between Pembury, Bembury or Bembry in everyday speech. The phonetic translation onto paper was a truly haphazard process. It is also possible that the pronunciation later evolved to suit the modern spelling, resulting in a further twist in the evolution. Apart from the obvious names like Edenbridge or Gravesend, always treat the so-called ‘origins’ of place names with a degree of scepticism.

Robert Morden’s maps of 1695 and 1722 onwards did much to standardise the spelling of place names, but you will see many variations of Pembury through the ages, and not in a very progressive order. It was not until John Cary’s maps and the first ordnance surveys in approx 1790 – 1801 that the spellings of many place names were set in concrete.

Do not agonise over the spellings on old maps. Do not be tempted to configure some sort of evolution to the name of this village through its umpteen ancient spellings. The fanciful variations you see are mostly due to ignorance and misinterpretation.

From obscurity to prominence

Just why many of today’s names have found their way on to maps will be never known, but take one modern example that illustrates how a name can rise from obscurity to prominence in just a few years: For decades, maybe even centuries, an obscure, winding lane in Surrey meant nothing – not even to the farmer and his animals that used it. In the late 20th century a motorway service area was built on the southern side of the M25, and it took its name from the nearest thing that had a name – Clacket Lane. Now, it’s virtually a household name, and it is prominent on all maps of the area.

Mapping conventions

We’re all fairly well conditioned to the symbols used on modern maps, but it wasn’t always like that. Hills and hollows were depicted as hills and hollows – contour lines had yet to be invented!

Road maps, starting with Ogilby in 1675, were depicted as scrolls, with the road stretching linearly along the scroll. Change of direction was indicated by a new compass point. Sometimes the same scroll will have several compass points indicating a change in the road’s direction relative to the orientation of the scroll.

In the mid 18th century the fashion of scrolls was dropped, in favour of plain strips.

Later road maps, such as Laurie & Whittle, abandoned the strip format for more conventional layouts.


It is important not to get too fixated with dates on these maps. Academics do, and spend years gleefully shuffling and re-shuffling these old pieces of paper into their correct chronological order. Dates generally indicate the year of publication. Most maps were published in books or atlases and had several printing runs and revised editions over many years. The information contained in the map was the result of earlier surveys or the pilfering from earlier publications. For the purposes of historical analysis it is convenient to attribute ‘Circa’ to a date, and express it as, say, C1740. This conveys its approximate age. As the integrity of the data contained in the map is in question, there seems little point in fretting over the pin-point accuracy of the map’s age.

Local names found on maps.

“Wood Cote” or “Woodscote” or any similar variation is taken to be the area around the road junction of the A264, High Street and the Tonbridge Road.

“Copping Crouch Green” or any similar variation is taken to be the triangular green – the village green – opposite the Camden Arms.

“Pembury” or any of it’s variations is taken to be the old village church or that end of Lower Green Road – the original settlement.

Maps from 1800 might indicate “Pembury” at the new location – the coaching road passing along the dry elevated ridge (they were not called ‘high streets’ for nothing!).

“Rumford” is Romford – the estate in Romford Road.

“Hundred” is not a town or village. Kent, along with many other counties, was divided into administrative areas called ‘hundred’s. They were abolished in the Victorian era with the introduction of boroughs and councils.

“Half Way House” is not a local name. There were hundreds of them. It is a generic term for basic road side stops for the traveller to be fed and watered. They were not as fancy as coaching inns that were generally located in towns and providing full service facilities. The maps in this collection feature several half way houses in the Pembury area. As a child I can remember the Blue Boys at Kippings Cross being used as a half way stop for the London-Hastings day trip coaches.

Errors and Omissions.

Do not assume that the absence of a road, or building, or village, from a map means that the item did not exist at the time. Common sense would dictate that two adjacent villages would have an interconnecting road or track. Mapmakers inserted only the data that they wanted to insert. For reasons of clarity, cost, effort, and of course data to hand, maps could be either sparse or congested.

As seen before, with Quare in Wiltshire, place names can be wrong, and can stay wrong for many years. This does not signal stability or acceptance of the name.

Distances were as variable as the weather. The mile was different in just about every county. Morden’s maps show three scales of short, medium and long miles. Despite maps having scales they should not be used. Never scale an old map!

Villages might appear on the wrong side of a road or a river. Rivers may follow unfamiliar courses. Roads have branches that don’t go anywhere and some often appear with breaks as if the middle portion of highway is missing (similar to our phantom bit of the A21 at Castle Hill!)

Note to remove that last comment in 2068 when the A21 dual carriageway is complete.

That concludes our brief sermon on the joys of bygone mapping. May you go in peace with the understanding that the potential for misinterpreting old maps is enormous.


The article above was originally prepared for the PVN in 2003