William Birchynshaw’s Map of Exeter, 1743

Todd Gray explains how he came about a new map of Exeter, which turned into the newest publication from the Devon and Cornwall Record Society: William Birchynshaw’s Map of Exeter, 1743.

In 2018 an unusual printed map of Exeter came up for sale at a local auction. I have a passing familiarity with the maps of Exeter: in 2006 I had curated an exhibition of the city’s maps at Exeter Guildhall and had acted as general editor to five volumes of Devon maps including three for the Devon & Cornwall Record Society.  To my eye this map looked `new’, that is unknown.  But the framing did not allow inspection of the back and I was not certain if it was an original, a copy or possibly even a fake.  Was it a Victorian imagining of Exeter? 

On a gamble I purchased the map and it went for a considerable price (there was one other bidder).  Once at home I removed its frame to discover it had been glued to a hard board in possibly the 1970s or even 1960s.  The map itself had the date 1743 and the name of William Birchynshaw as its creator.  No map of any other part of England appears to have been drawn by him and the only individual with that name in Exeter at that date was a peweterer.  I then set out to discover its provenance.  It transpired the map had come from a house clearance but no further details could be gleaned.

A breakthrough came when I enlisted the aid of Dr Richard Oliver and Professor Roger Kain, who are not only leading experts in cartography but they both have research interests in Exeter.  It was their opinion that the map was genuine: it appears to be the only surviving copy.  Oliver and Kain were interested in its old-fashioned depiction of the city – Birchynshaw had drawn his map more in the style of the sixteenth-century than that of the mid eighteenth-century.  He drew individual buildings one of which had been recently built.  The Devon & Cornwall Record Society then accepted it for publication and later this year it will be available as a facsimile volume, together with reproductions of another several dozen maps of the city. 

The discovery of a `new’ town map is rare and it is exciting to put this into print for all those interested in maps and in Exeter.


TODD GRAY MBE is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and the author of more than a dozen books on Exeter.

RICHARD OLIVER is a historian and has been a Research Fellow in the History of Cartography at the University of Exeter since 1989.

ROGER KAIN CBE is a Fellow of the British Academy and its Vice-President (Research and Higher Education Policy). He is Professor of Humanities in the School of Advanced Study, University of London and was previously its Dean and Chief Executive, 2010-17.

William Birchynshaw’s Map of Exeter, 1743 is to be published 20/12/2019.

William Birchynshaw’s Map of Exeter, 1743
Edited by by Richard Oliver, Roger Kain and Todd Gray
Hardback, 9780901853974, 35 b/w illus., £25 or $34.95

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