The Hydrographical Office of the British Admiralty was created in 1795, one of its functions being ‘collecting and compiling all information requisite for improving Navigation, for the guidance of commanders of His Majesty’s ships’. Alexander Dalrymple was the first hydrographer. In 1808 he was succeeded by Thomas Hurd, who instituted a regular series of marine charts. The first Catalogue of Admiralty Charts was published in 1825. Under Sir Francis Beaufort, who was Hydrographer from 1829 to 1855, the Hydrographic Office became the foremost producer of charts and sailing directions, with British surveying vessels sent to all parts of the world.
The first Australian charts published by the Hydrographic Office were those of Matthew Flinders in 1814. They were followed by the charts of Phillip Parker King in 1825. By that time there were six Royal Navy surveying vessels in commission and the number grew to 24 by 1850. The first of these vessels to be sent to Australian waters was HMS Beagle, commanded by J.C. Wickham, which charted the northern and western coasts in 1837–41. It was followed by HMS Fly (1842–45), HMS Rattlesnake (1846–50) and HMS Herald (1852–61).
The collection of Admiralty charts was for a long time owned by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a learned society founded in 1783.
An Australian company, Edgewater Inc., placed the collection of Admiralty charts in the Library on long-term loan in 2002. It was purchased in 2006.
The collection comprises 99 first-issue charts and views of Australian coasts published by the Admiralty between 1814 and 1861. Apart from a general chart of Australia (1843), the charts depict particular bays, gulfs and coastlines including Port Essington, Torres Strait, Moreton Bay, Rockingham Bay, Great Barrier Reef, Newcastle Harbour, Port Stephens, Port Jackson, Botany Bay, Port Phillip, Geelong Bay, Bass Strait, Portland Bay, Gulf St Vincent, Port Elliot, Cockburn Sound, Swan River, King George Sound and Exmouth Gulf. There are also engravings of four coastal views by William Westall, the artist on HMS Investigator in 1799–1803.
The earliest charts were based on the surveys carried out by Matthew Flinders in 1798–1803. Among the other surveyors represented in the collection are Captain Phillip Parker King (1818–23), John Septimus Roe (1822–39), Captain H.J. Rous (1828), William W. Johns (1827–28), Lieutenant T.M. Symonds (1836), Lieutenant H.R. Henry (1836), Commander J.C. Wickham (1837–41), Captain John Lort Stokes (1838–51), C.J. Tyers (1839–40), Captain Francis Blackwood (1842–45), Captain Owen Stanley (1847–49), Lieutenant C. Yule (1848), T. Lipson (1851), Captain D. Bethune (1853), Bloomfield Douglas (1856) and Commander J. Hutchison (1857).
The Royal Society of Edinburgh Admiralty Charts Collection is held in the Maps Collection. The charts have been catalogued individually and the call numbers have the prefix MAP British Admiralty Special Map Col.
Ingleton, Geoffrey C., Charting a Continent, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1944.