The Wikipedia entry for George William Frederick of Hanover, better known as King George III of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, is full of details but misses out one key aspect of his life. In addition to concurrently being King, Duke and prince-elect of Brunswick-Lüneburg he was also a map addict and avid map collector.
During the course of his reign between 1760 and 1801, George amassed a collection of around 60,000 maps and views, all of which were housed in a room in Buckingham House (which eventually became Buckingham Palace in 1837) which was right next to his bedroom.
Upon his death, the map collection was bequeathed to the nation and now resides in the British Library and last night a lucky group of people, Alison and myself included, were given a rare chance to get to grips with some of the collection that focused on London. I use the phrase get to grips in the most literal sense. This was no viewing of maps in frames or behind glass. The maps were spread over the table of the library’s boardroom and we were encouraged to get really close and do what we so often want to do with an old map but aren’t usually allowed to. We got to touch them. We were even allowed to take photos too.
But how did George manage to amass such a prolific collection in 40 odd years? The collection started as the everyday working map library of previous British monarchs, dating back to 1660 and including maps from the times of Charles II, James II and Anne. With this smaller collection as a starting point, George continued his childhood fascination with maps and grew the collection by almost any means possible. When you’re a King almost anything and any means are possible.
Some maps were formally commissioned by George, or were presented to him as gifts as a sort of cartographic backhander. Some came into the collection during times of war or conflict, particularly some of the military maps in the collection. Some were stolen outright from foreign sources, whilst some came from much closer to home, from his own subjects.
There are stories that George would make random and unannounced visits to people who just so happened to have fine maps on their walls. If George expressed a liking for a map, this was supposed to be a signal that the map’s owner, might, just possibly, want to consider giving the map to the King, as a gift you understand. Most people who were the beneficiaries of one of the King’s unannounced visits took the hint and the collection grew steadily. But people also got wise to having their houses gatecrashed by their monarch and learned to keep their good maps hidden away. Just in case the next knock on the door turned out to be the King.
At the British Library, George’s map collection is formally known as King George III’s Topographical Collection, often shorted to the informal KTop. Of the 60,000 maps in KTop over 1,000 are of London. Work has been started on cataloging and ultimately digitising at high resolution all of the London maps. We will all get to benefit from this as the images will be made available for all to come and see on the British Library’s website. This is no trivial endeavour. To catalogue and digitise just the 1,000 London maps in the collection will cost £100,000, of which £10,000 is hoped to be raised through public donations. Yet this is just the start. The final goal is to do the same with the remaining 59,000 maps in the collection.
But until then, the collection remains safely stored somewhere in the depths of the library’s buildings on London’s Euston Road. I count myself very very lucky indeed to not only have seen some of the KTop with my own eyes but to have been able to reach out and touch a part of cartographic history.