RAHS Technical Information Service Bulletin No. 15: Using Maps in Local History

From Canterbury Commons
Jump to: navigation, search

By Lesley Muir and Carol Liston

This Research Guide is courtesy Lesley Muir, Carol Liston and the Royal Australian Historical Society.

RAHS Technical Information Service

No. 15

Maps are a form of communication devised by man to convey information about places on the earth’s surface. They represent a landscape frozen at one point in time, and, for that reason, a sequence of maps can illuminate the history of an area, showing it as it appeared to its observers.

How to read a map

The first step in reading a map is to look at the margins for any information contained there. You should find some or all of these:

Orientation A north point, and, on most large-scale topographic maps, information on the relationship between true north, grid north, and magnetic north.

Scale The measured relationship between map distances and ground distances. This can be shown as a statement (e.g. One inch to a mile), as a ratio or representative fraction (1: 63,360), or as a line scale. Metrication of Australian topographic maps began in 1970, under the Metric Conversion Act.

Contour interval By the use of these lines the map can show the heights of landforms, their general shape and slope, and their size in relation to other features. Early cartographers showed topography by fine shading, rather than by contour lines.

Conventional symbols Many symbols and colours have become standardised over time, and maps usually contain a key to any signs which are not self-explanatory.

Cartographic information Date of issue and revision. Cartographer, Surveyor, and date of survey.

Grid reference system This is used to locate places on the map sheet, and can vary from the simple numbers and letters of a street directory to co-ordinates of longitude and latitude.

By using the north point, the symbols, and any co-ordinates or location diagrams, you can fix the map to a definite area of the earth’s surface. The scale will tell you how much of the landscape is shown, and the amount of detail contained. For instance, motorists who travel long distances quickly require a map which covers a large area of country, showing only main roads, rivers and major towns. Local authorities need maps which show the location of individual allotments, buildings and pathways, and so a small scale map which allows for inclusion of such detail is produced.

The contour lines are often one of the most illuminating parts of the map, as they can re-create the shape of the land, explaining the reasons for past and present land use. Almost every local area has an example of the early “country house” built on the highest point of the land commanding the best view. Early road makers avoided swampy places as much as possible, so roads tended to follow the ridges. By studying the contours of the land, it is possible to settle the question of location of tracks and buildings long since disappeared.

Slope of the land has a geographical significance which can determine possible uses. The important inclinations and gradients are:

45˚ - 35˚ Gradient 1 in 1. A slope of this order offers hard going, and hands may be used in ascent. Continuous turf cover is seldom found on slopes steeper than this, and rock debris rolls downward or progresses at a steady creep. Soil is unstable and shallow, and land is difficult to utilize.

25˚ Gradient 1 in 2. Presents a formidable obstacle to walkers, and is best ascended in a zig-zag course. Flow-off is fast and will produce destructive gullying. If soil is present, it will be retained best by forestry.

18˚ Gradient 1 in 3. Roads of this gradient are seldom found, since this is dangerously steep for motor traffic. Soil conservationists advise farmers not to clear.

11˚ Gradient 1 in 5. Presents a steep obstacle for road traffic, and formidable for heavy motor vehicles. It is the limit for ground that is to be ploughed and cut annually, and is the maximum slope that may be economically used for housing.

6˚ Gradient 1 in 10. Moderate slope for cars, and heavy traffic must use low gear. Easily cultivated and built upon.

3˚ Gradient 1 in 20. Any ground above this slope should be contoured if cultivated.

1˚ Gradient 1 in 60. Classified as undesirably steep for steam railway operations over long distances. Flow-off is brisk, and drainage ditches are required.

How to read a parish map

Australia states are divided into counties which are, in turn, subdivided into parishes. Parish maps record the transfer of land from government to individuals. They do not show changes in ownership from one individual to another, except when the original grantee had sold or mortgaged the land before the first surveyor reached the area. Though the name of a parish is occasionally the same as the name of a church, such as St James’s Parish in Sydney, the land parish has no relationship with church or denominational boundaries.

Within a parish, each numbered portion of land corresponds to a grant of Crown land, either by free grant, a grant by purchase or by conversion of a conditional purpose or homestead selection. A parish map will give for each portion: number, size of portion, name of grantee, possibly name of estate and a reference number to survey plans held by the Lands Department. At the outer edge of the Parish map, table link the portion numbers to land title records and gazetted notices for public uses. In the accompanying section from a parish map, Portion 27 identifies a 30 acre grant of land to Charles Blakefield and gives the number of a more detailed survey plan (C424 690). The table of parish numbers repeats the survey plan number and gives the date of the grant (5-2-1814) as a starting point to trace changes in ownership through land title records.

The Lands Department in Sydney has current editions of parish maps covering NSW. The survey portion plans can be inspected in the Plan Records Room (Room 316) at the Lands Department for a small fee and copies obtained of any plans annotated on the face of the parish map. If the portion plans have been microfilmed, copies can be obtained from the Land Titles Office (formerly Registrar-General). Earlier editions of parish maps are held at the Mitchell Library and the Archives Office of NSW which also holds many early portion plans.

How to read a cadastral map

Information about changes in land ownership is registered in the Land Titles Office of NSW (formerly the Registrar General of Land). The key to its collection is the Plan Room on the second floor where the Reference Maps are lodged. Rural land is found through Parish Maps (outlined above) and the Central Mapping Authority’s 1:2000 series cadastral (property) maps describe most town and city allotments. Land Titles Office cadastral maps are complied from those produced by the CMA, and the same sheet numbering system applies, but the detailed land title information is added and updated in the Land Titles Office, and relevant maps are available only from this source. CMA maps are gradually replacing the older town and municipality maps which were formally used as the key to urban land title information.

The most important information for historians shown on the cadastral map is:

Portion number The number in heavy type refers to the Parish Portion Number, which records the dimensions of the original Crown Grant or Purchase, the name of the first owner, and date of alienation from the Crown. The portion number is the key to tracing Old System Title parcel of land, as the grantee’s title is the first in a chain traceable through the vendor’s indexes kept in the basement floor of the Land Titles Office.

Old System or Torrens Title? Boundaries of parcels brought under the provisions of the Real Property Act are shown by a double dotted line (CMA maps) or a green border (town or municipal maps). Land which is still under Old System Title has no border.

Primary Application Number This is found somewhere near the centre of a parcel of Torrens Title land, and is a number followed by (H). To bring different series of numbers into line for the CMA mapping system, the Land Titles Office added 50,000 to all existing numbers, so primary application numbers on cadastral maps are at least five digits long. The original Appn. No. can be found by subtracting 50,000, e.g.

Number on CM map: 55044(H) Primary application number: Appn.5044

Number on CMA map: 86730(H) Primary application number: Appn.36730

Bringing the property under the provisions of the Real Property Act was a process which required the applicant to lodge all deeds or documents in support of the title, and to provide a plan of survey. A survey plan is found with the bundle of documents in the Primary Application, and also on the first Torrens Title deed pertaining to the land. Occasionally the position of fences and buildings is shown on these survey plans, and they are always worth checking.

Using the index to Primary Applications, (found on the second floor of the Land Titles Office) the first Torrens Title deed referring to the parcel of land can be found, and subsequent transactions can be traced through the sequence of Certificates of Title.

Deposited Plan Number This number is found printed across the relevant lots of a subdivision of land which is under the Real Property Act. Copies of Deposited Plans can be purchased from the office; these show the subdivision and date of approval, and the number of the first Certificate of Title referring to the ownership of the estate and sale of individual allotments.

Other numbers which will refer you to useful plans of subdivisions are SP numbers (Strata plans), and the very old series of “Roll plans” and “Lithos”, which were old-system survey plans acquired later by the Land Titles Office.

Map collections for historical researchers

Before you can find a particular area on an old map, you must be able to find it on an ordinary road map or street directory. Make sure you are familiar with its relationship to nearby landmarks such as churches, schools, streets, towns or rivers. Street and suburb names may be too recent to be useful starting points so find out the names that the area has been called in the past, including the parish and county names and the local government area. A municipal library will have information about these names.

MITCHELL LIBRARY The Mitchell Library holds an extensive collection of Australian maps. Maps are catalogued using the Boggs and Lewis variation of the Dewy decimal system. The map catalogue is on the left when entering the new Mitchell Reading Room. Each area in Australia has been allocated a specific number and the main map catalogue is arranged numerically. The number of each district is marked on key maps kept in a case on top of the car catalogue. The key maps divide, for example, NSW into counties and parishes and assign a number to each.

To discover the holdings of the Mitchell Library for a particular district, first consult the key map to find the catalogue number. This number will be overprinted on the key map in bold type, e.g. on the key map for the state of NSW, was the county of Durham in the Hunter Vallet is annotated 811.24 while the key map for the County of Cumberland (Sydney Metropolitan Area) shows Campbelltown in the Parish of St Peter as 811.1136. Look up the number from the key map in the card catalogue. The key number will be on the top left hand corner of the catalogue card while on the opposite side of the card, in the top right-hand corner, will be the specific number for a particular map. This number will be similar to the key number but will also include location symbols (M2) and dates (1885). Numbers preceded with Z indicate the map has be copied onto microcard.

For example, checking the number 811.1136 reveals several cards for Campbelltown, one of which has the number Z M2 811.11362/[1844]/1. This number must be used on the stack request slip for the librarian to retrieve this particular map of Campbelltown, an 1844 subdivison map of Bradbury Park estate surveyed by R.W. Goodall.

In the centre of the catalogue card are details giving the author’s name and date of the map, area covered, scale and feature’s marked such as roads, bridges or landowners’ names. As each district has a unique number, all maps for that area will be together in the catalogue, arranged in date order. As areas are identified by number, there is no catalogue of place names but there are subject (e.g. agricultural, roads) and author series.

The Mitchell Library also holds parish maps, catalogued by county, then alphabetically by parish within each county. The catalogue cards note the editions held by the library. There is a similar index to town and county maps and Admiralty charts. In the adjacent map drawers are various key maps and lists, such as guides to local government areas, keys to Central Mapping Authority series and a list of subdivsion boxes of real estate agents plans.

ARCHIVES OFFICE OF NSW The Archives Office holds thousands of non-current maps created by many government departments and agencies such as the Departments of Lands, Public Works, Local Government and Registrar-General (Land Titles Office). Often these are copies of the same base map, such as a parish map, but marked with different annotations by the departments that used them. The Archives Office has published several guides to its map collections and these are essential tools for finding maps. A list of these guides is included in the bibliography.

The card catalogue in the reading room is arranged alphabetically, usually by parish name but more specific place names, such as suburbs or municipalities, are also included. Each map has a location number (AO Map). Most of the oldest maps have been copied onto mircocard and are readily available at the Globe Street Reading room but, because of the size of the collection, many of the maps are kept at the Kingswood Branch. Two days’ notice is required to have them brought to the city reading room.

Local historians will find the Survey-General’s records the most useful because the printed maps, sketch maps, sketch books and surveyor’s field books can be linked together and cross-referenced with correspondence. The Archives Office also has various indexes and catalogues created by the Surveyor-General in the 19th century which are still useful for locating maps e.g. Surveyor-General Catalogue of Maps and Plans 1792-1887 (AONSW COD 84-87), Catalogue of Plans of land for Churches, Schools and Cemeteries 1831-87 (AONSW 4/6186), Road Plan Catalogue Books 1826-1928 (AONSW 2/35-43,9/359-361).

All maps will have two identifying numbers – one allocated by the Surveyor-General when the map was drawn, and a more recent location number added when the map was acquired by the Archives Office. You will need the Archives Office number to retrieve the actual map but you also need the Surveyor-General’s number to link the map to other sources. Archives Office Guide No 23 Surveyor-General, Select List of Maps and Plans 1792-1886, together with the supplement, Guide No 26, lists maps with their original Surveyor’s-General’s number and the Archives Office location number. The guides also include a description of the area covered by the map, the name of the surveyor and the date of the map. As the Lands Department still uses some of the Surveyor-General’s older maps, it is necessary to consult the Archives Office shelf lists to confirm that a particular map has been transferred to the archives from the Lands Department.

The Surveyor-General’s record used a unique system for numbering maps based on a 19th century filing arrangement that seems strange for modern users. Researchers need to be familiar with the map numbering system to get maximum benefit from the interlocking collection of records. Areas are identified by the place name that they had in the 1830s. Places within the old settled districts are, therefore, easy to find but more remote areas require some lateral thinking. Country towns are sometimes catalogued under their names but more often appear under the name of a squatting district such as Murrumbidgee or Blige, or even under ‘I’ for Interior. Some maps are catalogued by subject rather than place so researchers should routinely check headings such as roads, ranges (mountains), coast, church lands, lithographs.

Map G.18.1481 is a map of the gold field at Trunkey Creek complied by surveyor J.W. Deering in 1870. As Trunkey Creek did not exist in the 1830s when the Surveyor-General’s catalogue system was established, maps of the district were catalogued according to subject – gold mining. The Trunkey Creek map is therefore catalogued by the Surveyor-General under ‘G’ for Gold Diggings and the Archives Office guide retains this alphabetical description. The two numbers indicate the specific copy of the map and identify the area numerically. The first number, 18, is known as the ‘large number’ and identifies this map as the 18th in a series of maps of the goldfields. The second number, 1481, is the ‘small number’ and is occasionally printed in small type. Each named district or subject heading has a specific small number so most local or parish roads will have a small number 1603 while maps of a place within the old districts, such as Campbelltown, will have a small number 1129. Thus map C.4.1129 indicates C. (for Campbelltown), 4 (fourth map in series) and 1129 (small number for Campbelltown).

PARLIAMENTARY PAPERS Maps printed in parliamentary papers are a convenient source for historians. Maps were often included to show areas effected by a new policy or to illustrate a report from a committee or government department, especially if the report involved land acquisition and building. As well as delineating the area, maps may include the name of land owners or the layouts of buildings and estates.

Parliamentary papers are well indexed in annual and consolidated indexes but the easiest way to find the maps is to use the guides prepared by D. Collins and J. McQuilton and listed in the bibliography. These guides list maps in the parliamentary papers chronologically then indexes them by place name and subject. Sets of parliamentary papers are held by the State Library, most university libraries and are available on microfilm at many colleges of advanced education.


The Deposited Plans and Lithographic Plans held by the Land Titles Office are the official record of land subdivision and sale in NSW. However, many plans were produced by Real Estate Agents for advertising purposes, and the Mitchell Library has large and very useful collection. The index to the Subdivsion Plans is contained in a typescript, kept with the other map indexes. Plans are stored in large boxes, grouped together by type:

• Country properties grouped alphabetically by county • Town subdivisions grouped alphabetically by town • Sydney subdivisions grouped alphabetically by suburb • Sydney city subdivisions grouped numerically by classification number

The “Subdivision boxes” contain not only estate agent’s plans and subdivision posters, but also any small survey plans of properties, roads and transport routes which may have been acquired by the library. The office of the well-known surveyor, F.H. Reuss, donated in 1930 all survey plans no longer required, and these are a wonderful source of sketch plans showing houses, outbuildings, property boundaries and land use. Estate agent’s plans often contain advertising information which can be useful for social history, like details of prices and repayment schedules, existing houses and gardens, proposed (or hopefully anticipated) transport routes, statements on perceived advantages of the district, and the lengths to which the agent would go with free transport and champagne lunches to sell the land.

Some of the subdivision plans have been photographed on to aperture cards, and these are grouped together under the Mitchell Library map classification number. This process aids in the preservation of these fragile documents, and copies are available for study or for reproduction.

Maps Created by Public Utilities

The Lands Department holds a collection of early road survey plans, filed under the road number shown on the Parish Map. These plans show not only roads, bridges and watercourses, but also any encroaching fences and buildings (including the building material), names of owners and/or occupiers, cultivated paddocks, natural vegetation, and position of adjoining roads, tracks and pathways. These plans can be used in conjunction with the Lands Department Road Files in the Archive Office, which contain petitions from residents, correspondence, and surveyor’s field notes pertaining to the survey.

The various Water Boards hold very detailed plans which were usually drawn at the time of connection of water and/or sewerage services. These show the shape of houses and outbuildings, and position of drains and external water connection points. Search technique in these authorities vary, and it is advisable to consult the authority concerned.

The State Rail Authority archives hold trial surveys and working plans and sections for public transport routes built throughout NSW. Some of the plans for routes proposed but never built are also held in the collection. Like the road survey plans, these often show names of owners and/or occupiers, properties affected, and encroaching buildings and cultivated areas.

Other authorities creating or holding plans are: the Mines Department, for maps showing mining interests and surveys; Main Road Department, for motorways, roads, alignments and re-alignments under the Main Roads Act; Maritime Services Board, for harbours and adjoining properties; Public Works Department, for surveys of the sites of public works; city, shire and municipal councils, for lands under their control; Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board for water connections; the Army, for military maps showing detailed landscape features and structures. Maps created by these authorities may still be held by the authority or may have been transferred to the Archives Office or the Mitchell Library.

As well as two dimensional, scaled drawings like maps, other drawings were used to depict places. Isometric views – three dimensional perspective drawings – were published for many towns in the 1870s and 1880s and give a bird’s eye view of a locality. They should be used with care because sometimes the artist altered a feature or a building to give a more satisfactory picture. Modern aerial photographs and orthophotomaps provide a more accurate, contemporary view of the landscape.

Not all geographical guides are drawings. A gazetteer lists place names and describes their location and features. One of the most useful is W.H. Wells, Geographical Dictionary of the Australian Colonies (1848). Modern gazetteers are also useful. The Central Mapping Authority has prepared a gazetteer to the 1:250,000 scale maps, which indexes all place names appearing on maps of this scale, giving map co-ordinates and latitude and longitude. Such a gazetteer is very helpful for identifying obscure place names so often found on birth or death certificates.

Directories are another type of word map. Francis Low’s City of Sydney Directory 1844-45 included a street guide which listed residents living along a particular street, noting the cross streets and the features on the corners. Post office directories, such as Sands Directories, not only listed people in an alphabetical series but usually included “street directories” for city streets and many suburban areas listing who lived next to whom.


Archives Authority of NSW, Guide No. 18 Guide to Records Relating to the Occupation of Crown Lands (AONSW, Sydney 1977)

Archives Authority of NSW, Guide No. 23 Surveyor General: Select List of Maps and Plans 1792-1886 (AONSW, Sydney 1980)

Archives Authority of NSW, Guide No. 26 Surveyor General: Select List of Maps and Plans 1792-1886 Supplement (AONSW, Sydney 1984)

Archives Authority of NSW, Information Leaflet No. 6 Maps and Plans (AONSW, Sydney 1981)

Central Mapping Authority of NSW Catalogue of NSW maps. Issued July each year.

Collins, D. & McQuilton, J., Guide to Maps in the NSW Parliamentary Papers 1836-1912 (Historical Geography Monograph No.3, History Project Incorporated, Kensington n.d.)

Cox, R., “Land records of NSW as a Genealogical Source”, Descent, Vol 8, Pts 4-5, 1978

Eslick, C., Hughes, J. and Jack, R. Ian, Bibliography of NSW Local History (NSW University Press, Kensington 1987)

Gyford, G., A Beginner’s Guide to the Registrar General’s Office (Nepean District Historical Archaeology Group, 1981)

Gyford, G., A Beginner’s Guide to Lands Department Buildings (Nepean District Historical Archaeology Group, 1984)

Hallmann, Frank M. Legal aspects of boundary surveying as apply in NSW. Institution of Surveyors, Australia, NSW Division: Sydney, 1973.

McQuilton, J. & Collins, D., Guide to Maps in the NSW Parliamentary Papers 1904-1980 (Historical Geography Monpgraph No.4, History Project Incorporated, Kensington n.d.)

Roberts, S.H., History of Australia Land Settlement 1788-1920 (1924 and Macmillan, Melbourne 1968)


Lands Department 23-33 Bridge Street, Sydney

Lands Titles Office Prince Albert Road, Sydney

Archives Office of NSW 2 Globe Street, The Rocks, Sydney

Mitchell Library Macquarie Street, Sydney

_____________________ First Published July 1988 Revised  ?