The surveyor’s book

March 12, 2010

An old article by E.G.R. Taylor (Economic History Review, 17:2, 1947) draws attention to the fascinating way in which surveyors  traditionally gathered information:

A principal part of the outdoor work of the Surveyor, when he had finished his examination of the written records within doors, was to butt and bound the manor as a whole, together with its individual parcels or premises. This he carried out with the help of those tenants whose memories went back farthest, and who accompanied him on his perambulation together with some of ‘the younger sort’ who would be the witnesses of the future. Because of the very great importance attached to this operation from most ancient times, and the consequent care taken over it, such ‘bounders’ provide us with a most valuable and reliable source of information about place-names, roads and other topographical detail.

Writing of the early modern period, Taylor notes an old type of surveyor and a new type: ‘The old-fashioned Surveyor, a man of classical education possessed of sound legal knowledge, was gradually outmoded and eventually superseded by the assistant whom he had been accustomed to term a “mere land-meater”, employed to carry the measuring rod’. Taylor says that older styles of surveying involved guessing and estimating, whereas newer types involved mathematical accuracy and formal measurement. George Atwell’s Faithfull Surveyour (1658) is full of information about how surveyors should keep precise records. He explains in detail how they should keep and fill out field-books, and it is interesting to consider the types of localised information that schemes like this exclude as well as the new precision they allow:

If you intend to practise Surveying, make you a book of a quire of good strong paper, so folded, that the breadth of the leaves may be in octavo, and the length thereof may be the length of two quarters, well bound with vellum, that you may lay it on your left arm to write: and if it be your first book that you have filled, write on the cover a great (A). If the second (B). On the third (C), &c. Then page your first part of your book (A), all but some 12 leaves at the latter end, on each severall page whereof you shall write a severall letter of the Cross-row in Alphabetical order, and so your book is ready to go to work.

Testimony in surveying takes on an acutely political dimension with land disputes in the British archipelago but also the New World. It is well known that the colonisers of America used translators to talk to the natives about the land, but how their testimony was used was quite different to the way Taylor describes things functioning in the case of a country estate.


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