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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own