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by popular television presenter Adam Hart-Davis

Major Willoughby Verner

and his Cavalry Drawing Board

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When I’m out on my bike, I often need maps to find my way around – the A-Z in London, for example, and the Ordnance Survey when I’m out in the country.  The army has always needed maps too.  But often they aren’t easy to get hold of.  When you want to invade some other country you can’t really send your declaration of war with a P.S. asking for all their detailed maps of the country.  No… the army have always had to draw up their own, and the man who provided the neatest piece of map-drawing apparatus and the clearest instructions was Major Willoughby Verner.


William Willoughby Cole Verner was born in 1852, joined the rifle brigade in 1873 and passed through the Staff College at Camberley, taking first place with honours, even though he spent most of his time climbing trees looking for birds’ nests.  He saw action in the Camel Corps in 1884 and was involved in the fighting with General Gordon.  He fought in South Africa in 1899 and 1900, but was severely wounded when his horse, at full gallop, tripped over its own feet, fell, and crushed him.


Even in the thick of the action he kept chasing birds; he was really chuffed to secure the nest of a black-and-red weaver bird while under heavy fire during the Nile campaign.  He wrote a wonderful account of his life with wild birds in Spain, where he went to extraordinary lengths to pursue the poor things with a camera, and he also wrote vividly about his time in Africa, published with his own illustrations in Sketches in the Soudan.

One evening when he was waist deep in a river stalking geese, a crocodile put its head up a few yards away, but didn’t notice him – or perhaps didn’t fancy him – and crawled out of the water by the geese.  He sketched them lovingly, then shot the crocodile with his Martini-Henry carbine.  They picked up the corpse downstream a few days later.  The bullet-hole was one inch behind the eye.


So William Willoughby Cole Verner was an eccentric military bird-watcher, but he was also a fine artist, and in 1887 he patented the cavalry sketching board; in later years he went on to patent a couple of improvements.  I was interested to note that he then promoted it in various Manuals of field reconnaissance.  The board was marketed in catalogues of military field equipment for 30 years; presumably the army didn’t mind enterprising officers making money this way.


He himself was not only confident about his board – he wrote “I am convinced that once any man has mastered the extremely simple process of sketching with this board, he will never use anything else for rapid work in the field.” – but also highly proficient; his sketch maps show amazing detail.


To measure the precise distance he had travelled, he got his horse to trot – that was more accurate than cantering – and allowed three yards for each time that he rose to the trot.


And I’m delighted to say that the board was later modified for use on a bicycle – although I am not very proficient at trotting on my bike – so now I can draw my own maps, and I don’t need the Ordnance Survey anymore.  Thanks to Major Willoughby Verner of the Rifle Brigade.

William Willoughby Cole Verner

Verner patent drawing board

Verner Compass

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