Maps, Modernity and False Economies

Simon Briercliffe is a first year doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, working on research entitled “The Stafford Street Area of Wolverhampton c1800-1871: space, housing and ethnicity”. His interests are in applying spatial and digital theory and analysis to urban “history from below”, which is usually an excuse to study as many maps as possible. Simon can be found on Twitter (@sbriercliffe) and WordPress (

Caption: Section of Robert Syar Hoggar’s plan of Wolverhampton, 1851-4. This is scanned from the remaining copy of the map retained by the Wolverhampton Council Sewerage Committee and later annotated with the completed works. Used by kind permission of Wolverhampton City Archives and Local Studies, ref. no. MAP/388b.

Caption: Section of Robert Syar Hoggar’s plan of Wolverhampton, 1851-4. This is scanned from the remaining copy of the map retained by the Wolverhampton Council Sewerage Committee and later annotated with the completed works. Used by kind permission of Wolverhampton City Archives and Local Studies, ref. no. MAP/388b.

In 1851 an advertisement appeared in The Builder, the Wolverhampton Chronicle and the Staffordshire Advertiser inviting tenders for a new survey and map of the growing town of Wolverhampton. Located at the edge of the South Staffordshire mining district, the town had swelled to 51,000 inhabitants by the time of the 1851 census and had been rewarded with incorporation as a municipal borough three years previously. Despite geological and geographical advantages, the most pressing concern identified by the Inspector of Public Health, Robert Rawlinson, was the lack of a general sewerage system. This new survey was a necessary step to implement such a scheme.

Amongst the twenty tenders was that of Robert Syar Hoggar, an engineer and cartographer based in Oxford, where he had been working on a sanitary plan of the town with the eminent engineer William Cubitt, who provided one of several glowing references. Hoggar’s was the lowest tender by some distance (£274 to complete within 9 months; nevertheless, the Council’s Streets & Sewerage Committee, who had placed the advertisement, felt it necessary to qualify their decision to select Hoggar for the job:

“If it were not for the testimonials received in favour of Mr Hoggar your committee would have felt some diffidence in recommending the acceptance of his tender merely on the ground of its being the lowest, especially as it is so disproportionate in amount to those of several surveyors of known high character and talent; but in the face of the letters of Mr Cubitt, Mr MacDougall Smith and the Town Clerk of Oxford your committee feel bound to recommend the employment of Mr Hoggar in the proposed works.”[1]

It must have been an exciting time in Wolverhampton. Its rapid growth and subsequent incorporation in 1848 had seen a flurry of activity, new committees all vying for funds and powers to transform Wolverhampton. To my mind, we’re at the cutting edge of modernity in British urban society – that point where the dirty, complicated town becomes the clean, integrated city. Patrick Joyce identifies the abstraction of space into map (particularly in the wake of the Health of Towns movement) as symbolic of bringing a modern, liberal order to the city, and that tension between old and new is certainly seen here.[2]

Mr Hoggar set about his task, key among which was an accurate assessment of the “levels” of the town, crucial to implementing the sewerage system. As weeks, then months ticked by, the various parties with a stake in the project became tetchy. On 20th July 1852, the Streets committee wrote to Hoggar reminding him of the terms of his contract.[3] He attended the committee himself in the October stating three weeks until completion, though four weeks later he sent a letter requesting a cash advance to finish the surveying. The committee, as you might guess, were less than impressed.[4]

Almost another year went by before Hoggar managed to submit his plan to the General Board of Health in London. Their response, unfortunately, was that the levels and therefore the plan were thoroughly flawed, and therefore unusable in their current state. For the sake of the urgency of completing the sewerage works, the council were advised to purchase the faulty plans and get someone to re-survey. This done, the linen-mounted, hand-coloured (and, it must be said, rather beautiful) maps were purchased for a reduced fee; when Hoggar supplied a multiple order however, the grave errors that remained on the plans made them completely unfit for purpose and they were sent back without payment.[5]

I don’t know who to feel more sorry for here. Hoggar took the council (unsuccessfully) to court to try and reclaim some of his fee, and it’s hard not to feel a little pity for an enthusiastic engineer who found himself way out of his depth. Unlike his previous plans, for the small Northumbrian town of Morpeth and the larger town of Oxford, in which he was assisted by some venerable names, in Wolverhampton Hoggar found himself up against the stony face of the “shopkeeper class” of town councillor in a rapidly-expanding industrial town. Perhaps he was managing a project,or at least its finances, by himself for the first time, and soon regretted the cheapness of his tender.

Then again, Hoggar’s work was just plain wrong, and hindered the cause of town improvement in Wolverhampton for many years. It wasn’t until 1865 that the town managed to commence its sewerage scheme. Like Hoggar, the town council was inexperienced too, its brief existence giving little opportunity for major tenders such as this. They lived to regret their choice, though not to learn from it – the same story was repeated when the contract for collecting the euphemistically-entitled “night soil” was put to tender later in the decade.

There’s been much said about the inefficiency, or downright stubbornness of councils in implementing modernising processes like sanitary reform.[6] Particularly notable was the intransigence of the many councillors who owned land themselves that ought to have been reformed. In Wolverhampton, these were even slandered by means of some particularly poor verse:

“Are there not owners of small tenements

Whose only incomes are the hard wrung rents

There noisome houses yield; and who would fain

The ills ‘neath which their tenants’ droop retain

Rather than wisely spare the smallest fraction

To give their tenants health and satisfaction.[7]

However, Wolverhampton’s council records give every impression of champing at the bit for reform, frustrated at every turn by the inefficiencies of their contractors or their colleagues. Certainly I think they had one eye on posterity and wanted to appear on the right side of history, if only in a council minute book. But I wonder if, as the modern world dawned on this industrial city, this incident actually reveals just how new all this was, how inexperienced everyone was, and how the scale and pace of modernity’s advance really did take some getting used to.[8]


[1] Wolverhampton Council Streets & Sewerage Committee minutes, 14th April 1851

[2] Patrick Joyce, Maps, blood and the city: The governance of the social in nineteenth-century Britain, in Joyce (ed) The Social in Question: New Bearings in History and the Social Sciences. Psychology Press, 2002, p.99, 102.

[3] Wolverhampton Council Streets & Sewerage Committee minutes, 20th July 1852

[4] Wolverhampton Council Streets & Sewerage Committee minutes, 5th October 1852, 2nd November 1852

[5] Wolverhampton Council Streets & Sewerage Committee minutes, 13th November 1855

[6] See Trainor, R.H., Black Country Élites: The Exercise of Authority in an Industrialized Area, 1830-1900. Oxford University Press, 1993 for a discussion of this in relation to the Black Country.

[7] Quoted in Barnsby, G.J. A History of Housing in Wolverhampton, 1750 to 1975. Integrated Publishing Services, 1976.

[8] As Christopher Hamlin notes in a very useful article: “urban improvement really was a matter of staggering complexity.” (Christopher Hamlin, Muddling in Bumbledom: On the Enormity of Large Sanitary Improvements in Four British Towns, 1855-1885. Victorian Studies, 32(1), 1988



5 responses to “Maps, Modernity and False Economies

  1. Reblogged this on Up The Oss Road and commented:
    Rather than a normal post today, here’s one I prepared earlier, for the British Association for Victorian Studies. It stems from some of the research I’ve been doing using Wolverhampton Council’s committee minutes from the 1850s-1870s – so all thanks to the team at Wolverhampton City Archives for their help.

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