1746 John Rocque’s Exact Survey

An Exact Survey of the City’s of London, Westminster, ye Borough of Sout[h]wark, and the Country near ten miles round begun in 1741 and ended in 1745 by John Rocque Land Surveyor & Engrav’d by Richard Parr

John Rocque* was of French Huguenot origin though his place of birth is unknown. He probably arrived in England around 1709, but remained in contact with the French Protestant community in London, and gave French and English titles to many of his works.

An outstanding surveyor and cartographer, his first published work – a survey of Richmond House and its gardens – appeared in 1734. His early works are generally plans and views of large estates around London; for instance, in 1736 he published A Plan of the Grounds at Chiswick. Some historians have criticised the accuracy of his work, describing him as just “a delineator of landscaped parks and gardens”, saying that the value of his maps “is seriously reduced by the untrustworthy drawing of the shapes and sizes of fields.” ** He worked closely with his brother, a well-known gardener, and initially called himself a ‘drawer of gardens’ (‘dessinateur de jardins’) or a Land Surveyor; soon he promoted himself to Topographer, and later Cartographer to the Prince of Wales. By 1761 Rocque was describing himself as chorographer to King George III. His measuring methods used a chain, a kind of elongated ruler, and a special kind of wheelbarrow, his ‘perambulator’, whose wheels measured as they were trundled around. ***

Rocque and his perambulator

In 1737 Rocque began discussions with John Pine, owner of a printshop in St Martin’s Lane and friend of William Hogarth, about creating a new map of the capital. Since the previous big mapping of London, William Morgan’s 1682 London &c Actually Survey’d, which stopped just west of “the Footway to Chelsey”, London had grown explosively, especially to the west. There were some recent updates, but for the Exact Survey Richard Parr was the engraver, with Rocque as the publisher taking all the risks and profits. Nearly four hundred people subscribed to buy a copy in the usual 18th century version of crowdfunding, including the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cumberland, the Lord Mayor of London, the Attorney General and 15 other dukes, fellows of the Royal Society, surveyors, clergymen, gardeners, carpenters and other tradesmen.

Rocque’s map, much delayed as he became distracted by other projects, was published in 24 sheets, spreading from Hampton Court in the west, to Woolwich in the east; from Harrow-on-the-Hill in the north, to Bromley in the south. It contained some 5,500 street and place names, though some smaller streets and industrial buildings were ignored, while he focussed on ‘considerable Houses and Gardens.’ + Assembled into one map they would have covered nearly 5m x 2m (16ft x 6ft). Rocque himself suggested that his sheets be “made into a beautiful or useful screen” or mounted on a backing of linen and then bound together and attached to a roller with a pulley so that they could be fixed to the wooden panelling “in such a manner that it may not interfere with the other furniture” and then “be let down to examine at Pleasure.” ++

Very irritatingly, Chiswick sits at the corner of four sheets (and we have spent a lot of time sticking them together and smoothing over the joins!). A large cartouche carried a dedication to the Earl of Burlington, owner of Chiswick House.

In 1750 John Rocque’s shop and entire stock in Whitehall was destroyed by fire. Four years later his Topographical Map of the County of Middlesex was published. He died in 1762 and his widow, Mary Ann, carried on the business. The maps were reprinted several times, often with small amendments.

The maps show a huge amount of information, not only about buildings and roads, but about orchards, ploughed land, pasture, hedges and fences. Chiswick is made up of four little villages – Chiswick, Strand-on-the-Green, Little Sutton and Turnham Green – separated by orchards, market gardens, common land and pasture. A milepost on the 1754 version shows the distance from Hyde Park Corner to Turnham Green, five miles.

This map is rightly one of the most famous representations of London and, given the limitations of his surveying technique, remarkably accurate.

Acknowledgements: With many thanks to Chiswick Public Library and Val Bott.

* Jeremy Black, Metropolis: Mapping the City, Conway 2015
** Andrew Davies, The Map of London: From 1746 to the Present Day, BT Batsford Ltd 1987
*** See the excellent article by Rodney Walshaw, “John Rocque: A Revolutionary Map-maker” in the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 13 (2004)” and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for John Rocque by Paul Laxton.
+ “The value of Roque’s maps is seriously reduced by the untrustworthy drawing of the shapes and sizes of fields… Rocque’s technique of representing the surface of the land was derived from contemporary French practice and from his own experience as a ‘dessinateur de jardins’, a delineator of landscaped parks and gardens,” G.B.G. Bull, “Thomas Milne’s Land Utilization Map of the London Area in 1800”, The Geographical Journal, Vol 122, No 1 (Mar 1956), pp.25–30.
++ Felix Barker and Peter Jackson, The History of London Maps, Barrie & Jenkins, 1990, p.9

Artwork and maps