Benchmarks

Ordnance Survey Bench Marks

Overview

Bench marks are the visible remains of height measurements made by the Ordnance Survey. When used in conjunction with older Ordnance Survey maps they indicate the height above sea level at the point of the bench mark. The maps show a bench mark symbol, the letters BM (or B.M.) and the measured height above sea level. Since 1921 all heights are measured relative to a measure sea level at Newlyn in Cornwall.

The measurements were made and carried around the country by a network of around 190 fundamental bench marks (FBMs). From these FBMs tens of thousands of lower-order bench marks were established. There are a small number of standard designs:

  • Fundamental Bench Marks (FBM)
  • Flush Bracket Bench Marks (FL BR)
  • Projecting Bracket Bench Marks
  • OSBM Bolts
  • Cut Marks
  • 1GL Bolt
  • Rivet or Pivot Bench Marks

The network of bench marks has had little maintenance since the early 1980s when satellite technology took over. Many bench marks are now “lost” due to building work, demolition, and the widening of roads.

Ordnance Datum (Great Britain)

To talk consistently about the height of something (or its altitude) we need to establish point of reference. The most common point of reference you will come across it “above sea level”. But what does “above sea level” mean because the level of the sea goes up and down with the tides?

Between 1915 and 1921 accurate measurements of tide heights were made at Newlyn in Cornwall. From these measurements an average, or mean, tide height was calculated, and this is “sea level”. All heights are measured relative to the mean tide level at Newlyn. Before this, other data were in use. The 1840 levelling was carried out using a datum at St John’s Church in Liverpool (now demolished). From 1844 this was changed, and the datum was a tidal pole at Victoria Dock in Liverpool. There were other measuring points, but Liverpool and Newlyn are the main two as far as Great Britain is concerned.

Newlyn and Liverpool only cover Great Britain. Alternative data were established for islands and regions.

Today, when we say “above sea level” what we are saying is above the calculated mean tide level, or Ordnance Datum, at Newlyn. This is abbreviated to ODN – Ordnance Datum Newlyn.

When an Ordnance Survey map shows you that the summit of Mount Snowdon is 1,085 metres, that height is relative to ODN.

Levelling

The height of all the bench marks was established in a process called levelling and measures the heigh relative to an Ordnance Datum. There were three such levelling exercises carried out for England. The first took place between 1840 and 1860. The second levelling was carried out between 1912 and 1921 and the third levelling was carried out between 1951 and 1956. The second and third levelling process were relative to ODN. 

Fundamental bench marks

Unlike other types of bench marks, the fundamental bench mark (FBM) is still in use and they are maintained by the Ordnance Survey. There are 180 FBMs and they provide the basic levelling framework across the country. They are located about 40 km apart along lines of levelling. There is a brass bolt at the top of a small concrete pillar which is used for everyday purposes. For more accurate measurement there are two further reference points: a gunmetal bolt and a flint in a hurried chamber.

The Ordnance Survey Fundamental Bench Mark at Hoghton in Lancashire.

Flush Brackets

After the FBM the next type of bench mark is the flush bracket (FL BR). These are common on Ordnance Survey trig points, bridges, and church buildings. It is a metal plate about 9cm wide and 17.5cm tall. They are spaced about 1½km apart along levelling lines and at important junctions of secondary levelling lines. Each bracket carries a unique reference number. The height is measured at the top of the arrow on the face via a small metal platform that attaches using the two slots at the top. 

Flush brackets are spaced about 1½ km apart along lines of levelling. 

FL BR S0928 NO546 CHISWICK HIGH RD SW FACE S ANG. (AGL 0.6, ODN 9.238)

Projecting Brackets

These are not common. Like a flush bracket, they are mounted on vertical surfaces and consist of a small metal plate with the letters O S B M and a small arrow cast into it. A bracket projects from the base of the metal plate. There are about 260 of these known to have been used and as far as I can tell only 33 have survived.

BRACKET: PROJECTING BRACKET SCH KITCHEN SW SIDE MAIN RD NE FACE 10.1M E ANG (ODN 142.399m, AGL 0.5m).

OSBM Bolts

Bolt bench marks are mushroom-headed brass bolts engraved with the letters ‘OSBM’ and an arrow. They are normally found in horizontal surfaces like steps, foundations or concrete blocks. The bolt has a 60mm diameter.

BOLT: NBM OSBM BOLT STEP DIS LYCH GATE ST MARKS CH (ODN 47.5385m, AGL 0.1m).

Cut marks

The cut mark is ubiquitous and can be found on houses, walls, stones, churches … even boulders. They consist of a cut bar with an arrow below. The height is measured at the horizontal bar and they are always on vertical surfaces. You will sometimes come across an inverted cut mark; this normally indicates that the cut mark has been cancelled and shows that it may have been relocated.

CUT MARK: NO34 CHURCH ST SW ANG (ODN 186.730m, AGL 0.4m)

Public Abstract (1 GL) Bolt bench mark

The bolt bench mark looks like a cut mark and appear on vertical surfaces. The cut mark is accompanied by a small metal bolt. The bolt can be incorporated into the bar or to one side. PA Bolts tend to be placed before 1921 so are frequently measured relative to other datum points (i.e. Liverpool).

Rivet or Pivot 

Rivet and Pivot bench marks are like each other. Found on horizontal surfaces, although the arrow mark is sometimes on a vertical surface, they comprise a cut mark and either a brass bolt (or rivet) or a small hollow (a pivot).

Bench Marks I have Found

You can see a list of the bench marks I have found here on the bench-marks.org.uk site.

You can also see the bench marks I have found on a Google map tile. I update this infrequently.

Where Can You Find Bench Marks

The Ordnance Survey still has a database listing the grid reference and a description of bench marks. You can access it from their web site.

Ordnance Survey Bench Mark Locator

There is a very active Facebook group discussing and sharing photographs of UK bench marks. People there are very helpful and always willing to share their knowledge.

The Bench Mark Database is used by many bench mark hunters to both log their finds and to plan days out hunting. This site contains lots of useful information and advice.