Charting the World for Over 200 Years
A brief history of the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office
In 1795, King George III appointed Alexander Dalrymple FRS as the first Hydrographer to the Admiralty. Dalrymple set to work reviewing the 'difficulties and dangers to His Majesty's fleet in the navigation of ships'. The first Admiralty Chart (of Quiberon Bay in Brittany) appeared in 1800.
The second Hydrographer, Captain Thomas Hurd RN, served from 1808-1823. Having received permission to sell charts to the public, he oversaw the production of volumes of sailing directions and the first chart catalogue.
The third Hydrographer, Rear Admiral Sir W Edward Parry, KT, LLD, FRS, was better known for his skills as an explorer than as a hydrographer of the Navy. He served for the relatively short period of six years.
The fourth Hydrographer, Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort KCB, FRS, was appointed in 1829. He worked tirelessly until 1855, organising surveys worldwide to expand and improve chart coverage, and encouraging international co-operation. Among his many accomplishments was the Beaufort Scale of wind strength still familiar today, the introduction of official tide tables in 1833 and of Notices to Mariners in 1834. By 1855, the Chart Catalogue listed 1981 charts, with 64,000 copies issued to the Fleet. The Admiralty now led the world in the techniques of hydrography and cartography, thanks to the efforts and vision of Beaufort.
Developments such as the echo sounder in the 1930s and sonar in the 1960s brought huge advances in the charting of the sea bed. Recent technology has brought accuracy and data handling abilities unimaginable only a few years ago.
Since 1958, we have accepted the responsibilities of an authorised place of deposit under the Public Records Act, which allows us to maintain our own archive. This contains a vast collection of charts, books, journals, manuscript documents, letters and miscellaneous papers dating from 1755, used as source information for navigational publications.
This priceless resource also includes original eighteenth and nineteenth century hydrographic surveys by historic figures including Greenville Collins, James Cook, William Bligh, Francis Beaufort, George Vancouver and Matthew Flinders, to name but a few. Copies of Admiralty charts are a valuable source of knowledge for researchers, both within the UKHO and all over the world.
Download the UKHO timeline