An Historical Atlas of Oxfordshire

Kate Tiller + Giles Darkes (editors)

Oxfordshire Record Society 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
An Historical Atlas of Oxfordshire has 74 entries, each consisting of a double-page spread with an essay on the left facing a map on the right (or, in a few cases, two or three such double-pages).

The entries are organised chronologically, from "Topography", "Geology", and "Prehistoric Oxfordshire" down to "Maternal and Infant Welfare in the 20th Century" and "Tourism". Other topics covered include agriculture, industry, demographics, wealth and property, transport, religion, war, education, and planning.

Most of the maps are based on an outline map of the county — the historic county, excluding the Vale of White Horse — showing either parish boundaries or the basic geography of rivers and elevation. Some of the entries use multiple such maps on the one page. "The Church of England in 1835", for example, has three maps based on data from the report of the Ecclesiastical Revenues Commission, showing who controlled the patronage of the parishes, how valuable the livings were, and church accommodation as a fraction of the parish population.

A few entries do something completely different. "Tudor Rebellions", for example, has more detailed maps of smaller areas, showing the route of the rising of 1549 and of a planned rising in 1596. The maps covering Oxford naturally vary in scale as the city changes in size; there are also maps of medieval Bampton and Anglo-Saxon Yarnton.

The maps are of a high standard, clearly laid out and without clutter, using colour schemes which are subtle but clear and should work for red-green colour-blind readers. Some are fairly sparse, but most convey considerable amounts of information.

The shared cartographic base helps hold the Atlas together. With forty authors contributing, the essays accompanying the maps are more varied. A few spend too much time summarising or repeating information in the accompanying maps, but most complement that nicely, discussing background or context, touching on historiographical issues, providing a narrative of events, and so forth. There's generally a good mix of detail and overview, with the presentation pitched at non-specialists. Nine pages of endnotes provide general sources rather than specific references.

One problem is that, for many of the topics covered, the county — and Oxfordshire is particularly problematic here — has no logic as a unit. And the decision to use the historic county rather than the modern one aggravates this. There's no good reason, for example, for a map of "University and College Properties in 1500" to leave out properties just southeast of Oxford that happened to be in historic Berkshire. (The introduction offers the excuse that "The Vale of White Horse is included in Berkshire's atlas of 1998", but I doubt that work covers this particular topic.) Similarly, the links of Henley-on-Thames towards London are invisible, making it seem something of an anomaly on some of the maps.

The Atlas can be used as a reference, but for many purposes works with greater geographical breadth will be more useful. The obvious audience will be county residents or regular visitors as well as local history specialists. It's really best suited to opportunistic browsing, with the diversity of material covered ensuring that readers will find something new in it — and not just isolated facts but broader patterns, ideas, and connections.

August 2011

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%T An Historical Atlas of Oxfordshire
%E Tiller, Kate
%E Darkes, Giles
%I Oxfordshire Record Society
%D 2010
%O paperback, maps, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780902509634
%P 193pp