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Secret Maps

David Sherren, Map Librarian at the University of Portsmouth

Southsea Lifestyle

What do the University Library building, Kingston Prison and the site of a former warehouse alongside the Inner Camber have in common? The answer is that they are among a handful of buildings highlighted in purple on a ‘secret’ map of Portsmouth published by the Soviet army in 1988 and printed at a factory in Tashkent. Most people are unaware of the university’s map collection, but when-ever we have visitors, this is the map I love to show them. The map is one of more than 90 city plans of the UK created during the Cold War. The exact purpose of the maps is still unclear.

A number of features really stand out when you see the map for the first time. The local names of places and roads are shown phonetically in Cyrillic. Southsea Castle, for example, is transliterated as САУТСИ Касл and Albert Road becomes АЛЬБЕРТ РОД. Some buildings of significance are coloured – green for military, black for industrial and purple for government and administrative offices. So why the University Library is purple but not the Guildhall or Civic Offices is rather curious.

The quality of these maps is excellent, but the information used to compile them came from a range of sources and not all of it was up to date. The depiction of the Portsdown & Horndean Light Railway along London Road at Cosham is testament to this. Satellite imagery was certainly used, but also Ordnance Survey maps from the 1930s to provide height information. Some details can only have been gleaned by people on the ground.

The city maps are just a small part of a colossal global mapping programme and you can read about their intriguing story in an excellent book by John Davies and Alex Kent, The Red Atlas. I first came across these maps in the mid-1990s but it wasn’t until last year that I managed to get hold of an original copy of the Portsmouth sheet, together with the adjacent map for Fareham and Gosport. Other maps of other cities show extraordinary detail. A small extract of the River Elbe flowing through Hamburg tells us that it has a metal road bridge 300 metres long with a load capacity of 60 tonnes, the river is 11 metres deep and flows at 0.8 metres per second. You won’t find that on an OS map! 

Anyone interested in these cartographic curiosities (or our fine collection of historic Ordnance Survey maps of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight) is welcome to visit the Map Library at the University Library, Cambridge Road, Portsmouth. To view them you can email and make an appointment.

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