Walking Class Hero: Roy of the Rovers
In the middle of an unassuming patch of grass, at the end of a non-descript cul-de-sac, right on the very fringes of London, is an unremarkable memorial to a man who literally (and I do mean literally) changed the way we look at this country. The man was Major-General William Roy FRS, the cul-de-sac is the prosaically named Roy Grove and it can be found in that vague area that is close by but isn’t Teddington or Twickenham or Feltham or Hounslow – Hampton, Middlesex. (Not to be confused with the Hamptons which is an area that includes Hampton, Hampton Hill, Hampton Wick and Hampton Court and definitely not The Hamptons on Long Island, New York.)
Roy was a Scottish surveyor, antiquarian and military engineer who lived in the 18th century – 1726 to 1790. His innovation and the use of new scientific discoveries led to the accurate geodetic measurement of Britain and in turn, this work led to the founding of the Ordnance Survey in 1791. So every time you so much as glance at any of your trusty OS maps you’ve got William Roy to thank.
We take accurate mapping pretty much for granted these days, just recall the ridicule that Apple was subjected to after its September 2012 introduction of Apple Maps as a competitor to the omniscient Google. Their errors included towns sited in the wrong place, missing bodies of water and the location of shops like Woolworths and Our Price despite them being shut down for years. The global positioning system (GPS) we have become so fond of on our smart phones and sat navs is simply the use of the most advanced example of global geodetic measuring technology around at the moment.
So what is geodetic measurement? Pay attention at the back, I’ll only say this once and it needs to be remembered that I’m not a scientist! Cast your mind back to all that geometry, trigonometry and Pythagoras you learnt at school. Triangulation is the process of determining the location of a point by measuring angles to it from known points at either end of a fixed baseline, rather than measuring distances to the point directly (trilateration). The point can then be fixed as the third point of a triangle with one known side and two known angles. When applied to surveying you end up with triangulation networks.
In 1784 Roy was charged with establishing the exact distance between the London and Paris observatories and he used triangulation to discover this. And the first line (base) of the triangle went from Hampton Poor House to King’s Arbour on Hounslow Heath where Roy was based. (A distance of just over 27,400 feet in case you wanted to know.) The London to Paris project was completed in 1787 and then shortly after Roy’s death, the Ordnance Survey began field work for the surveying of Britain. This monster project was eventually finished in 1853. And today an upturned cannon barrel, planted in the ground, marks the spot of the Hampton Poor House end of the original baseline.
The choice of a cannon is appropriate. Roy, as the rank of Major-General implies, was a soldier as well as a surveyor. We tend to view maps as benign things, purveyors of information that enhances and enriches our lives. There is a sense, however, that a map somehow manages the reality it tries to show. Following the Jacobite uprising in 1745 King George proposed a military survey and a map of the Scottish Highlands that would help in the subjugation of the clans. The task was assigned to the Duke of Cumberland and one of his senior assistants was William Roy. The resulting map then subsequently did much to accelerate the Highland Clearances when governments provided financial aid for roads and bridges to assist the new sheep-based agriculture and trade.
The triangulation points that many of us are familiar with today – all 6557 of them – came from the retriangulation of Britain begun in 1935 and finished by 1962. So triangulation remained the dominant form of surveying for nearly 200 years until the arrival of satellite geodesy in the late 1950’s. It is somewhat frightening to me that I find it difficult to imagine a world without GPS, and things I don’t understand at all like very long baseline interferometry and the exotic sounding lunar laser ranging.
The early 19th century saw Roy’s work expanded to our burgeoning empire with the commencing, in 1806, of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of the Indian sub-continent. Soon, as night follows day, the arrival of surveyors in far flung corners of the world foretold the invading armies of soldiers and civil servants and clerks that was imminent. Conquest by theodolite perhaps. Maybe today the satellite is ushering in the age of empire regulated not by soldiers, civil servants or clerks but drones, file servers and offshore bank accounts.
The cannon isn’t the only memorial to William Roy in London. There is a traditional blue plaque on the wall of his London house just a couple of doors away from the Palladium just off Oxford Street and perhaps even better, well if you ask me, is the pub named after him, The General Roy, in Feltham. But pretty obviously Roy’s enduring, and merited, legacy is felt every time someone opens an Ordnance Survey map.
- The Ramblers
- Major-General William Roy
- Ordnance Survey
- The Hamptons
- Global Positioning System
- Jacobite Uprising
- Highland Clearances
- Trig points
- London Palladium
- The General Roy
Monsters Of Folk – Map Of The World
Tom Newton – COMPASS AND GUNS
Muse – Map Of The Problematique
Fionn Regan – Hunters Map
Sue Pyper – Highland Clearance
Crosby, Still, Nash – Compass – 2006 Remastered LP Version