Black map mystery

Ashburton Museum is home to thousands of individual maps and plans of various sorts, carefully kept in 100 large and purpose-designed map drawers. An ongoing project for the museum is the cataloguing of these maps and plans so that they can be more accessible and useful for researchers. An important type of map in the collection are the cadastral plans, colloquially known as cadastral maps.

Cadastrals are a common and important type of map. The English word cadastral comes from the French cadastre, which in turn comes from the Latin capitastrum and the Greek katastikhon meaning a ‘register’ or ‘list’.

The very earliest cadastral maps were ordered by Roman emperors such as Vespasian in 77AD, to define land boundaries so that (you guessed it) taxes could be collected.

Apparently, when the Roman Empire collapsed, the use of cadastral maps went with it, until around the turn of the seventeenth century when their use began again in Holland.

Since then, cadastral maps have been a tool to define boundaries and can be used to show property ownership. While they provide the legal description or ‘appellation’ for a piece of land, most people do not have a lot of use for a cadastral map, except perhaps in researching, dispute resolution, or when planning a new building.

In effect, cadastral maps are those maps that have specific survey information showing legal property boundaries. Because they are very accurate, they are frequently overlaid to show specific kinds of information, such as locations of shingle pits, grader driver beats, snow and flood damage.

Older Ashburton Borough cadastral maps are always fascinating, as they show previous road names and house sections yet to be developed, along with other information. For example, a 1949 Borough map is overlaid to clearly show Ashburton’s schools, parks and green belts.

One of the oldest cadastral maps held at Ashburton Museum is the first town map produced by Robert Park in 1864. There are also later ones drawn by William Harper in 1879, who based his map on earlier ones by Park (1864), William Frederick Moore (1864) and Leuwin Alfred Slater (1877).3. A 1949 Ashburton Borough cadastral map showing schools, parks and green belts. COPY FOR WORDPRESS.png

Types of cadastrals

Cadastrals work at three different scales: title plans, survey plans and maps.

A cadastral title plan shows a property’s legal boundaries, areas and dimensions. A cadastral survey plan shows a larger area, often with the deposited plan numbers and detailed survey observations. Both types include survey office plans and Māori land plans.

A cadastral map joins together the information found on cadastral survey plans to give a picture of a region. Together, these provide information about specific properties, locations and regions. Over time, they can show property changes in the area, and be a useful source of Māori and Pakeha place names and the names of landowners.2. Mr Charles Edward Fooks. From 1888, Fooks was Ashburton town’s clerk and engineer responsible for cadastral plans. COPY FOR WORDPRESS.png

Black, red and green maps

The oldest cadastral maps in Canterbury date back to at least 1849. The oldest cadastral map at Ashburton Museum is a provincial map of Canterbury. As well as showing major property boundaries, it records the names of some property owners. It dates to 1856, and is known as a ‘Black Map’.

The term Black Map is of uncertain origin. Other early maps are known as Red Maps and Green Maps. It is thought that these colours are part of a cataloguing system distinctive to Canterbury. Black Maps are the oldest maps, with later versions known as Green or Red Maps.

Notes written in the 1920s indicate that the original Black Maps were taken from Surveyor’s Field Books. They were then drawn up by different groups of draughtsmen, sometime between 1880 and 1920. This may suggest that the different colours indicate who drew the plan, or which map was the original and which were copies.

Green Maps are thought to be mainly copies of already published maps, or historical originals which were not strictly survey or cadastral maps. It has also been suggested that they were given these names because that was the colour of the shelves they were kept on. Here is a project for an historian: what is the origin of the term Black Maps, and what is their relationship to the Red and Green versions?1. BM311, a ‘Black Map’ of Ashburton North Bank, 1864, from a survey by Robert Park..jpg

The value of cadastrals

Today, Geographic Information Systems are able to put multi layers of land information into digital maps so that all sorts of interesting map information can be found from the comfort of your cell phone, tablet or laptop.

Surveyor field books and cadastral maps are a priceless source of information. Archives and museums have a great responsibility in preserving these sources for future generations.

By Glenn Vallender



  1. The 1903 sale plan of suburban lots situated in Allenton.
  2. Mr Charles Edward Fooks. From 1888, Fooks was Ashburton town’s clerk and engineer responsible for cadastral plans.
  3. A 1949 Ashburton Borough cadastral map showing schools, parks and green belts. It has half-mile marks drawn in a circle centred on Baring Square.
  4. B.M. 311, a ‘Black Map’ of Ashburton North Bank, 1864, from a survey by Robert Park. Its ongoing use can be seen in the handwritten annotations and signs of wear. Black maps could also be colourful. Here, reserves are coloured pink.

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