John Brian Harley 1932-1991


Brian Harley (right) with Harry Margery at Lympne Castle, July 1989 Photo:Richard Oliver

Brian Harley - Historian of the Ordnance Survey - and much else
John Brian Harley was born in Bristol on 24 July 1932. At the age of three he was adopted, and was brought up in Staffordshire. He attended Brewood Grammar School as a boarder; he then did two years’ National Service, in Trieste, Egypt and Cyprus. Both school and the army were ‘character-building’, and no doubt the latter particularly gave him his lifelong dislike of heavy-handed authority. In 1952 he went to the University of Birmingham to read geography, with history as a subsiduary subject, narrowly missing a First. In 1955-6 he spent a year at University College, Oxford, reading for the Diploma of Education, and then returned to Birmingham to work under Professor Harry Thorpe on the geography of mediaeval Warwickshire. 1958 was a notable year; he married Amy Chatten, he published an influential article on population and agricultural trends based on the Warwickshire Hundred Rolls of 1279 in the Economic History Review, (a considerable achievement for one who was still a research student), and he moved to Liverpool as an assistant lecturer in geography. He completed his thesis the following year; only those who have actually undertaken a doctoral thesis will fully appreciate what it means to complete one in three years full-time, never mind one when the last year of work must have been much less than full-time.

Harley once said that the formative years of his life were spent in Liverpool. It was there that he made the transition from mediaeval historical geography to cartographic history, though it would be quite wrong to imply that henceforth he concentrated on the latter: he was co-editor of a research series on historical geography, and contributed a number of historical-geographical essays to various symposia. Harley was a strong advocate of humanistic historical geography; in working on his thesis, he had come into contact with Rodney Hilton, the Marxist mediaevalist, and thus a humanocentric attitude was to be expected. Harley was always very much a man of the Left, and for a short period at Liverpool he was a member of the Communist Party; he said later that he joined because he was interested in the ideas rather than anything else. Though of the Left, he was also an individualist, and it is nearly as hard to imagine him in the CP as in the British army. Certainly he was free of that gloomy secular puritanism which has been so characteristic of much of the British Left, and was capable of being genuinely amused and interested by the activities of friends who campaigned for the Conservative Party. He was also on occasion given to expressing his views in a somewhat disconcerting manner. One day in April 1979, after the unveiling of a plaque to William Roy, he walked a little way home with two friends, and, immediately after parting from them, shouted ‘VOTE LABOUR!’ to the street. The friends are still wondering to this day what effect that had on improving the Conservative vote a few days later.

At Liverpool Harley was in a department when most of the members were of much the same age as he, and lack of promotion prospects led to his becoming a sponsoring editor with Messrs David and Charles of Newton Abbot, Devon in 1969. This was a short but very productive phase, and the resulting books filled a long shelf in his home. It also kept him extremely busy, with a desk ever overflowing with paper. In 1970 an unexpected vacancy came up, for a lecturer in historical geography at the University of Exeter. Harley applied, was successful, and in 1972 was promoted to Montefiore Reader in Geography. By this time his reputation as a writer on cartographic history generally and the Ordnance Survey in particular was secure, and he was busy expanding his research interests to include North American mapping. Unfortunately, his academic standing did not progress correspondingly. Although very highly thought of by both his colleagues at Exeter and by other cartographic historians outside, and capable of forming warm friendships with those of very different opinions to his own, he was not an ‘establishment’ man. At the same time, he suffered personal losses: in June 1983 his wife died, and his son died a few months later. He was also depressed by the activities of the Conservative government; in 1985 he wrote in a letter: ‘These are sad times to live in and I am sorry I can offer no support or advice’, adding in manuscript ‘- apart from shooting Thatcher’.

The combination of bereavement, the refusal of a personal chair and the direction of British politics meant that the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee were knocking at an open door when in 1985 they sought a Professor of Geography with an interest in cartographic history, and invited Harley to fill the post. In August 1986 he moved to Milwaukee, and there entered into a particularly fruitful phase of his career. Air travel meant that it was easy to return to England twice a year to see his family and confer with collaborators and friends. In some ways he became Americanised; one recalls meeting him at Baker Street station, fulminating against the inability of London Transport to accept credit cards for a single from Metroland: ‘In America you pay for everything with a card. You pay for beer with them.’ (This tendency to italicisation was a marked feature of his speaking style, both in conversation and in addressing an audience, though it found no place in his epistolatory style.) On the other hand, distance did not lend enchantment to the view of British politics: the one thing guaranteed to enrage him in Milwaukee was any mention of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. He was also prepared to be in a minority: he was a forthright opponent of the Gulf War. But there were compensations: he was able to move into a house large enough for an entire floor to be given over to his study-cum-library, there to write and to telephone around the world, the floors not bare but covered with neat piles of folders waiting to have their contents processed. (His one definite failure took place here: he was unable to master a micro-computer. When the house was burgled, it was the only thing stolen: Harley cheerfully wrote it off as ‘an Act of God’, and went back to his portable typewriter.) He developed new interests in his spare time, too. Apart from his well-known partiality for a tipple, he enjoyed his food, and as well as exploring to the full the numerous ethnic restaurants in Milwaukee he was an enthusiastic cook. Those who had known him at Exeter commented on how Milwaukee seemed to have given him a new lease of life, which made his sudden death from a heart attack on 20 December 1991 all the more shocking, particularly for those who had had the pleasure of meeting him on his last visit to England just over a fortnight earlier. His three daughters survive him.

Brian Harley had something of the artist as well as of the scholar about him, and one can divide his career into the customary artistic ‘early’, ‘middle’ and ‘late’ periods. The divisions come first around 1960 when he made the move from historical geography/economic history to cartographic history, and then around 1980, when he moved away from an empirically-based approach towards one more of interpretation.

The primary reason for the change of specialisation around 1960 was that Harley felt that he could not compete satisfactorily in the area of economic history, to which his thesis pointed, but a secondary reason must have been that Harry Thorpe, who had been his supervisor at Birmingham, was an enthusiast for studying past landscapes through maps; it was at this time that Thorpe and P.D.A. Harvey were completing their Printed Maps of Warwickshire 1576-1900. There was also the association with Rodney Hilton; it was at Hilton’s suggestion that Christopher Greenwood, county map-maker was written and published, in 1962. Shortly afterwards there appeared a series of articles in The Amateur Historian which in 1964 were reissued as a booklet, The Historian’s guide to Ordnance Survey maps. Christopher Greenwood and the Historian’s guide both broke new ground; if the Ordnance Survey was more apparently ‘mainstream’, and was also attracting attention at this time from R.A. Skelton, then head of the Map Room at the British Museum, the fact remained this was the first ‘user’s guide’ to old maps to be published. Although in later years Harley practically disowned the Historian’s guide and refused to allow it to be reprinted, and its accounts of the small-scale maps in particular have been superseded, it still stands up quite well in parts; perusal of the notes (he approved of those who took the trouble to look at foot and end-notes) will show how much work went into compiling it. It may be suggested that, for British audiences at least, it is possibly his best-known work. In 1967-9 he wrote another series of articles, this time on non-OS maps, which were republished in 1972 as Maps for the local historian.

For a few years after the appearance of the Historian’s guide Harley reverted to studying county map-making of the period just before or contemporary with the early years of the Ordnance Survey, but then came an unusual and extraordinary opportunity. In the later 1960s one of the most remarkable British publishing houses was David and Charles, run by David St John Thomas, interested in railways, and Charles Hadfield, a canal historian. David and Charles were publishing a considerable number of facsimile books at this period, and it seemed a logical development to observers when they announced a reissue of the ‘First Edition’ of the Ordnance Survey One-inch map. They recruited Harley as editor of the series, and as author of the cartographic notes. As with the Historian’s guide, the fact that these maps have effectively been superseded, and are now not much thought of, should not blind us to what an extraordinary achievement they were in their day. They were published in 1969-71 at the rate of one a week, and the carto-bibliographic notes were compiled by dictating notes to a secretary in the British Museum map-room and elsewhere. These notes have subsequently been put to the test by map collectors and others and found fully adequate. Harley himself knew that they were merely an outline, and that there was room for improvement. He also knew that the facsimiles were less than ideal; he said that he ‘fought tooth and nail’ to have them described as ‘Old Series’ rather than as ‘First Edition’, which explains why the former appears in the notes and the latter in publicity. David St John Thomas had insisted that the maps reissued should be states showing railways, which meant using late states, often complicated by other revisions and defaced by plate-wear. Harley was apparently genuinely surprised that the maps were continuing to sell in the 1980s; he also believed the labourer to be worthy of his hire, and was a little irritated that his percentage from the sales of the maps was only half that of the OS!