Essex history: The maps that detail our county's heritage
PUBLISHED: 10:51 03 July 2018 | UPDATED: 16:27 04 July 2018
Maps are one of the historians key tools in deciphering our heritage. Here Hannah Salisbury from the Essex Record Office explains the treasures of Samuel Parsons' maps of Essex
Historic maps are some of the most interesting and beautiful things to be found in the collections at the Essex Record Office (ERO).
Maps can tell us all sorts of things about life for those who lived in Essex before us; how towns and villages have grown and changed over the centuries, how people used land for agriculture and industry, and how people could travel around. Some maps come with written records, which can even tell us who was living in individual properties.
ERO is lucky to look after a collection of estate maps, the earliest of which date from the 16th century. Estate maps were commissioned by landowners as useful tools for ensuring profitable management of their land.
These often elaborate and beautifully drawn maps also often served as status symbols for their wealthy owners.
Some of the surveyors who made this type of map were extremely skilled, and produced amazingly accurate maps given the tools and methods available to them. One such surveyor was Samuel Parsons, who made maps in the early 17th century.
The ERO looks after two maps made by Parsons, one of land around Notts Farm in Grays dating from 1631 (which has only recently been deposited with the ERO), and the other of land around Coggeshall Grange dating from 1639.
Both maps are highly detailed, the Coggeshall map showing Coggeshall Grange Barn, which is today a National Trust property. On the Grays map, meanwhile, ‘The River of Thames’, bordered by salt marshes, flows along its southern edge.
We also have a written survey made by Parsons of land in Little Bentley in Tendring dating from 1627, the accompanying map for which is sadly lost. Notably, Parsons didn’t sign this survey as a surveyor, but as ‘Samuell Parsones Practitioner in the Mathematicks’, which led scholar A Stuart Mason to suggest that possibly Parsons was a teacher of maths alongside his surveying work.
Surveyors such as Parsons made their maps for wealthy, landowning clients. The survey of Little Bentley was made for Sir Paul Bayning, who was from a wealthy family of London merchants.
The map of Notts Farm in Grays was made for George Whitmore, a wealthy merchant and Lord Mayor of the City of London. In the decade after this map was made for him, Whitmore supported the king during the Civil War and was imprisoned by the Parliamentarians.
Parsons also made maps and surveys in Middlesex, Berkshire and Yorkshire. His map of Dringhouses in York (1624-29) is the earliest surviving large-scale plan of any part of York and its neighbourhoods, and even shows the names of the local people who farmed the land.
However, most of Parsons’ surviving maps were made in Shropshire. Indeed, there is a connection between some of Parsons’ Shropshire maps and his map of Grays as some of his Shropshire work was for the Whitmore family of Apley Hall, of which George Whitmore (the commissioner of the Grays map) was a member.
Apart from his surviving maps and surveys, little is known about Parsons. Possibly he was based in London, meeting his wealthy clients there and being despatched around the countryside to survey their estates.
The only known records of Parsons’ life are the beautiful maps which he made.
Trace Your History
Each month the Essex Record Office helps Essex Life trace the history of a particular aspect of county life. For more information about the Essex Record Office, call 033301 32500 or visit essexrecordoffice.co.uk
Leaflets explaining how to begin to research your family or house history are available free of charge on receipt of a SAE.