John Kirby (c.1690-1753) was a land surveyor and Suffolk topographer who was known for estate, road and county maps. Born in 1690 at Halesworth he was first a schoolmaster of Orford and later lived in a mill at Wickham Market. He married Alice Brown in 1714 and had two sons John Joshua and William Kirby. He published a small work entitled ‘The Suffolk Traveller; or, a Journey through Suffolk. In which is inserted the true distance in the roads, from Ipswich to every market town in Suffolk … By John Kirby, who took an actual survey of the whole county in the years 1732, 1733 and 1734’, in Ipswich, 1735. It included a small map of the county. The work is claimed to be the earliest single-county road book.
The following year 1736 Kirby published the first large scale map of the county at one inch to the mile. It is exceedingly rare, indeed only ONE RECORDED EXAMPLE could be located, that being in the King’s Topographical Collection, British Library (Maps K.Top.39.4.11 TAB.) forming the geographical and topographical collection attached to the Library of his late Majesty King George III. It is charmingly engraved with the Royal coat of arms and a further 128 of landed gentry with interests in the county. The owners and occupiers of the larger estates are all identified on the map. Distances in miles are recorded on the main roads, a scale of miles lower left is decorated with two cherubs. A key nearby notes the symbols of churches and interestingly steeples in ruins! Finishing off the map are an ornate compass rose and large detailed ships offshore in full sail. It is dedicated to the Duke of Grafton whose estate is marked prominently just south of Thetford.
Those who subscribed to the 1736 map received the 1735 ‘Suffolk Traveller’ free. Although the map appears crudely engraved it has a charming naive quality about it. Although inaccuracies occur in the work it did correct many errors on earlier maps found in county atlases. The map was engraved by R. Collins who is relatively unknown, this and Thomas Warren’s plan of St. Edmunds Bury in 1747 are the only works recorded in Tooley’s ‘Dictionary of Mapmakers’. A single sheet reduction was engraved by Isaac Basire (1704-68) the following year.
Kirby died on 13 December 1753, at Ipswich, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary at Tower, Ipswich. His portrait, by Thomas Gainsborough, R.A., was in the possession of the Rev. Kirby Trimmer in 1868. A new edition of the ‘Suffolk Traveller’ was published in 1764. In 1766 an improved four-sheet map to the same scale was engraved by John Ryland and published by John Kirby’s sons John Joshua and William. Despite its condition this is the ONLY OTHER EXAMPLE. Provenance: Phillips auction Ipswich 22 November 1991 lot 680. Dictionary of National Biography; Eden (1975); Rodger (1972) no. 411.