Obituary: Helen Wallis

Helen Wallis was one of Britain's leading historians of cartography.

She was already involved with early maps of the South Seas for her Oxford thesis when she was appointed assistant to R. A. Skelton, Superintendent of the Map Room at the British Museum, in 1951. Together, they created a national institution out of the map library. Behind the formidable door in the North Wing, with its intimidating bell and uniformed attendant, the visitor encountered infinite help and the friendliest atmosphere.

It was natural that Wallis, who had the vision of transforming the museum's collections into a National Map Library, should be appointed successor to Skelton in 1967. By the time that she retired in 1986 she had added an international to her national reputation.

Side by side with her administrative duties, Wallis furthered the study of the history of cartography academically and its development organisationally. Among her research publications the two volumes of Cartaret's Voyage round the World 1766-1769 which she prepared for the Hakluyt Society and an edition of Jean Rotz's Book of Hydrography, 1542 stand out. Together with A.H. Robinson, she published the study Cartographical Innovations. A Historian's Guide to Early Maps of the British Isles appeared shortly before her death.

She had especial interests in the Vinland Map, the Dieppe Maps of North America and the voyages of Captain Cook, about all of which she wrote. Exhibitions at the British Library made demands upon the map collection as well as calling for contributions to catalogues. Wallis was as much at home in the great cartographic collections at Washington and Los Angeles as she was among those of Europe. She helped with the transfer of three important exhibitions to the United States - "The American War of Independence" (1975), "The Voyage of Francis Drake" (1977) and "Raleigh and Roanoke" (1988).

Both national and international cartographic organisations claimed her allegiance. Wallis was the first woman president of the British Cartographic Society. From 1976 to 1987, she was the chairman of the standing commission on the history of cartography of the International Cartographic Association and in 1986 she became president of the International Map Collectors' Society. The Geography and Map Section of the International Federation of Library Associations owes much to her initiative as a founder member. From 1972 to 1988 she was chairman of the Society for Nautical Research.

Helen Wallis had an exceptionally wide circle of friends. There were those from her childhood, which was spent with her twin brother in north London, where her father had been a headmaster; those from the musical circles which she much enjoyed; from St Paul's School for Girls, in London; from St Hugh's and the School of Geography at Oxford, where she added a DPhil to her MA in 1954. Her geographical interests were kept abreast of the times through membership of the Institute of British Geographers and she was for many years an invaluable member of the Frederick Soddy Trust. But it was on her retirement that the friendships that she had struck up became manifest. She was almost overwhelmed by the number of invitations to fill visiting lectureships and chairs. She found those from Australia, New Zealand and the United States irresistible.

The honours and distinctions that came her way were many and varied. They ranged from an OBE in 1986, an Hon DLitt from Davidson College, North Carolina, and an Honorary Fellowship of Portsmouth Polytechnic to the Gold Medal of the British Cartographic Society and the Caird Medal of the National Maritime Museum.

Throughout her professional life, Wallis had been closely associated with the Royal Geographical Society. She served on the council, was a member of the Library and Maps Committee for over 20 years and its chairman for nine. Her friendliness was especially appreciated by the staff of the society's house in Kensington. In 1988, she became an honorary vice- president. She enjoyed the convivial company of the Geographical Club, to the ranks of which she was an early recruit when it opened its membership to women.

Beyond her academic and other achievements, she will be remembered for her enthusiasm, her modesty, the light touch with which she conducted her affairs - indeed, the fun that she seemed to get out of life. It was an inspiration to encounter the same optimism and quiet laughter only a few days before her death in St John's Hospice, in St John's Wood, the spirit of which was one of her strong Christian beliefs.

W. R. Mead

Helen Margaret Wallis, historian of cartography: born Barnet 17 August 1924; OBE 1986; died London 7 February 1995.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album