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O.S. 404, Character of writing for Ordnance Survey plans, was probably first issued to Ordnance Survey staff in November 1881. Then, during his years as Director General between 1883 and 1886, Colonel R.H. Stotherd wrote a booklet entitled How and Where, which in its 24 tiny pages instructed the public in how to obtain Ordnance Survey maps, and in what formats, followed by a description of those maps from the smallest scales to the largest, with emphasis on the County Series and Town maps and their sheet numbering systems, and concluded with a short section illustrating the various alphabets and a few of the characteristic symbols in use upon them. That this was probably no more than semi-official is suggested by the fact that it was published not by the Survey, but by one of its agents, Edward Stanford. But the notion of keeping this information officially in the public domain would be perpetuated when in 1888 the Ordnance Survey published the first of a sequence of Descriptions pamphlets of their own, incorporating most of the information given in How and Where, sometimes copying its text word for word. Added were two sections not present there: a list of the abbreviations used on Ordnance Plans, and, at the end, a revised version of Character of writing for Ordnance Survey plans, though still dated November 1881. Specimens of maps at each scale in use were introduced at the end of the booklets from about 1897 onwards.

This somewhat formal document survived several revised printings until replaced after the First World War by separate Descriptions of large- and small-scale maps, in a new format obviously intended to have much more popular appeal, enhanced by cover illustrations and lettering by the artists Arthur Palmer and Ellis Martin. A third series, describing medium-scale maps, was added in 1947. The final editions of these booklets at all three scales appeared in the mid-1950s, and only once since has the Ordnance Survey attempted any similar publication in book form, with the appearance, on a much grander scale than any of its predecessors, of J.B. Harley’s Ordnance Survey maps a descriptive manual (Southampton: Ordnance Survey, 1975).

The Charles Close Society is presenting this list of descriptions as one of a series in which it is intended that comprehensive details of all the serial publications of the Ordnance Survey will be permanently available to anyone who requires access to this information. The intention is to create a union listing of all known copies of these Descriptions until the First World War, after which the large number of surviving copies make this impractical.

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