The Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty was established in 1795 following the creation of the post of Hydrographer to the Board of the Admiralty by an Order in Council. Although the Order contained no instructions regarding the prosecution of surveys, it was intended that the Hydrographer would supply charts to the Royal Navy either by purchase from external publishers or by constructing them from the survey material already available in the Admiralty. The enormous task of organizing and cataloguing the surveys in the Admiralty was given to the first Hydrographer, Alexander Dalrymple (1795-1808), who supplied the first chart (of Quiberon Bay in Brittany) in 1800. Under Thomas Hurd (1808-1823), the surveying service of the Royal Navy was brought under the direction of the Hydrographer and there was an increase in the appointment of surveyors. Admiralty Charts were made available for the first time to the Merchant Navy and the public, and Hurd oversaw the production of volumes of sailing directions and the first chart catalogue.
Under Francis Beaufort (1829-1855), the activities of the Hydrographic Office multiplied as a result of the systematic surveying of areas of navigational importance. Beaufort directed many exploring expeditions, including the British Naval Expedition, 1839-1843 (leader James Clark Ross), the searches for Sir John Franklin's lost Arctic expedition, and the surveys of South American waters by Captain Fitzroy in HMS Beagle, 1831-1836, with Charles Darwin on board.
In 1831, the Hydrographic Office acquired the full status of an Admiralty department. By 1855, the Chart Catalogue listed 1,981 charts, with 64,000 copies issued to the Navy.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the skills of surveying and chart production were consolidated and world coverage increased. During the twentieth century, the demands of two World Wars gave impetus to technical innovations in instruments and techniques. Between the wars, the Hydrographic Office took on new commitments in Oceanography and Naval Meteorology. Developments such as the Echo Sounder in the 1930s and Sonar in the 1960s brought great advances in the charting of the seabed.
From the guide to the Great Britain, Admiralty, Hydrographic Department collection, 1840-1974, (Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge)