Great Britain, Admiralty, Hydrographic Department collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of charts prepared by the department for both Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, notes on Antarctica and correspondence and information on the archival collections held by the Hydrographic Department.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty was established in 1795 following the creation of the post of Hydrographer to the Board of the Admiralty by an Order in Council. Although the Order contained no instructions regarding the prosecution of surveys, it was intended that the Hydrographer would supply charts to the Royal Navy either by purchase from external publishers or by constructing them from the survey material already available in the Admiralty. The enormous task of organizing and cataloguing the surveys in the Admiralty was given to the first Hydrographer, Alexander Dalrymple (1795-1808), who supplied the first chart (of Quiberon Bay in Brittany) in 1800. Under Thomas Hurd (1808-1823), the surveying service of the Royal Navy was brought under the direction of the Hydrographer and there was an increase in the appointment of surveyors. Admiralty Charts were made available for the first time to the Merchant Navy and the public, and Hurd oversaw the production of volumes of sailing directions and the first chart catalogue.

Under Francis Beaufort (1829-1855), the activities of the Hydrographic Office multiplied as a result of the systematic surveying of areas of navigational importance. Beaufort directed many exploring expeditions, including the British Naval Expedition, 1839-1843 (leader James Clark Ross), the searches for Sir John Franklin's lost Arctic expedition, and the surveys of South American waters by Captain Fitzroy in HMS Beagle, 1831-1836, with Charles Darwin on board.

In 1831, the Hydrographic Office acquired the full status of an Admiralty department. By 1855, the Chart Catalogue listed 1,981 charts, with 64,000 copies issued to the Navy.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the skills of surveying and chart production were consolidated and world coverage increased. During the twentieth century, the demands of two World Wars gave impetus to technical innovations in instruments and techniques. Between the wars, the Hydrographic Office took on new commitments in Oceanography and Naval Meteorology. Developments such as the Echo Sounder in the 1930s and Sonar in the 1960s brought great advances in the charting of the seabed.


The collection is arranged chronologically.

Access Information

By appointment.

Some materials deposited at the Institute are NOT owned by the Institute. In such cases the archivist will advise about any requirements imposed by the owner. These may include seeking permission to read, extended closure, or other specific conditions.


Anyone wishing to consult material should ensure they note the entire MS reference and the name of the originator.

The term holograph is used when the item is wholly in the handwriting of the author. The term autograph is used when the author has signed the item.

Descriptions compiled by N. Boneham, Assistant Archivist with assistance from R. Stancombe and reference to Robert Keith Headland Antarctic Chronology, unpublished corrected revision of Chronological list of Antarctic expeditions and related historical events, (1 December 2001) Cambridge University Press (1989) ISBN 0521309034 and United Kingdom Hydrographic Office and Charting the seas in peace and war. The story of the Hydrographic Department of the Admiralty over a hundred and fifty years, 12th August 1795 to 12th August 1945, HMSO London (1947) SPRI Library Shelf Pam 061.1(410) and 'The Hydrographic Department of the Admiralty' by G.B. Stigant in The Journal of the Royal Naval Scientific Service (1955) Volume 10 number 1 SPRI Library Shelf Pam 061.1(410) and Charts and surveys in peace and war, the history of the RN Hydrographic Service, 1919-1970 by Rear Admiral R.O. Morris, HMSO London (1995) SPRI Library Shelf 061.1

Other Finding Aids

Clive Holland Manuscripts in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, England - a catalogue, Garland Publishing New York and London (1982) ISBN 0824093941.

Additional finding aids are available at the Institute.

Conditions Governing Use

Copying material by photography, electrostat, or scanning device by readers is prohibited. The Institute may be able to provide copies of some documents on request for lodgement in publicly available repositories. This is subject to conservation requirements, copyright law, and payment of fees.

Copyright restrictions apply to most material. The copyright may lie outside the Institute and, if so, it is necessary for the reader to seek appropriate permission to consult, copy, or publish any such material. (The Institute does not seek this permission on behalf of readers). Written permission to publish material subject to the Institute's copyright must be obtained from the Director. Details of conditions and fees may be had from the Archivist.


Further accessions possible.