Gem From The Archives: The Wombwell Map

Paul Stebbing, BMBC’s Archives & Local Studies Officer, examines the earliest large scale map to be found in the archive collections, dating back to 1625.

Have you ever walked along a street and wondered what it was like centuries ago? Maps are an invaluable historical source that can show when your house was built, where your great grandfather went to school or what occupied the local housing estate before it was there. Often underused or ignored by family and local historians, maps are historical records just like census returns or parish registers. They offer a unique glimpse into the past.

It is thought that Britain was first mapped in AD 150 by Claudius Ptolemaeus – a mathematician and geographer from Alexandria. His early map listed tribes, the coordinates of their settlements and the major towns. It wasn’t however until the late 16th and early 17th centuries that maps started to appear in larger numbers – predominantly of entire counties. The most famous cartographers of the day were John Speed and Christopher Saxton. Portraying an entire county, the detail on these maps is understandably minimal and they are of a scale too small to be practical, but it is still fascinating to compare them with modern maps to see the changes in the landscape. In recent years, modern reproductions of these county maps have been sold around the country in huge numbers to those curious to see what their county looked like four centuries ago.  

By the 18th century, more localised estate maps started to appear, along with enclosure and tithe maps of specific localities. We also saw the emergence of very detailed Ordnance Survey maps from the 1790s onwards, which began essentially as a military survey. As a general rule of thumb, the earlier the map, the less informative and less accurate it will be.

approx area covered by the map, from 19th century OS map

Barnsley Archives and Local Studies are fortunate to have in their collections a small map of Wombwell which dates back to November 1625, when the ill-fated King Charles I had just come to the throne. Wombwell is a very ancient settlement, recorded in the Domesday book of 1086 as ‘Wanbella’. It is speculated that it may mean “Womba’s Well”, or “well in a hollow”.

The Wombwell map was transferred to Barnsley in 2010 from Sheffield Archives and very little research had been undertaken into it. What makes it so important is that it is rare to find a map or plan of such a small area dating back so far. It offers a glimpse of Wombwell from a time long before small towns and villages were generally mapped. The fragile document, which is labelled ‘Mapp of Wombells Lands’, shows field boundaries, acreages and names, which include ‘Stonelacke meade’, Barnetts Crofts, and ‘Ryefield’.

View from the top of Smithley Lane, April 2012.jpg

Initial research by archives staff and by Wombwell historians, examining field names and watercourses, has shown that the map however does not cover the entire settlement of what we now know as Wombwell. It covers a relatively small area to the north west of the centre of the modern day town, an area just north of Smithley Lane and the site of Wombwell Main Colliery. There is still much work to be done on the map – to understand it and to interpret it, and local historians are encouraged to help in this process. We are delighted though to have the map back here in the borough and it remains one of the gems of Barnsley’s archive collections – a snapshot of Wombwell from almost 400 years ago!

Explore more of our collections online

Although Covid19 means The Archives Discovery Centre is currently closed and document retrieval is unavailable we are continuing to make more of our catalogues available online, simply visit

‘Gem From The Archives’ was first published in Memories of Barnsley magazine. It is being republished by Barnsley Museums by kind permission from Pen & Sword Books Limited


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