Katy Stickland goes behind the scenes at Imray and discovers the treasures held by the nautical publisher


‘Great Andaman where Inhabitants are said to be Cannibals’. These ominous words hang in the air, which is thick with the smell of old paper, ink and dust as we gingerly leaf through piles of ‘blueback’ charts in the basement of Imray, Laurie, Norie and Wilson Ltd.

Yachting Monthly is being given a tour of the nautical publisher’s HQ in Wych House in St Ives, Cambridgeshire.

We are poring over some of the company’s oldest charts including this one from 1784 of Andaman and the Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean.

The chart is marked in black and red ink, with everything in red highlighting an amendment.

Old Imray chart of the Andaman Islands

A 1784 chart of the Andaman Islands with amendments in red ink. Credit: Katy Stickland

It also includes remarks from one Captain Phineas Hunt, detailing the Nicobar Islands’ channels and harbours as well as where there is an ‘abundance of Hogs & Fowls’, vital information for Merchant Navy ship captains in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Although Imray as it is today was incorporated in 1904, the roots of the three chart publishers that formed it – James Imray & Son, Norie & Wilson and RH Laurie – can be traced back to the mid 1700s.

For centuries these London-based firms, along with a few other companies, were responsible for producing what became known as blueback charts because of the distinct blue manila paper which was used to back them.

This not only strengthened but also distinguished them from the British Admiralty charts, which were published on heavier-weight paper.

These privately printed charts were mainly used by the Merchant Navy; publications for recreational sailors only really became available from the 1890s.

Old charts at Imray

Imray director Lucy Wilsons shows YM some of the firm’s old blueback charts. Credit: Theo Stocker

By then, competition from Admiralty charts was damaging the traditional private chart trade, a threat that would eventually lead to the amalgamation of the three firms.

It was Norie & Wilson which took the prudent step in publishing Fore and Aft Seamanship for Yachtsmen: With Names of Ropes, Sails, and Spars in a Cutter, Yawl, or Schooner in 1878.

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But it wasn’t until after the First World War that recreational sailing started to become the focus of Imray’s business, partly because of the growth of yachting in the UK.

The C and Y series charts were launched in the late 1920s.

Opposite Wych House’s basement are a framed 1962 C4 chart of the Needles Channel to Portland, and a 1947 chart of the London Docks and the River Thames.

Decades later, the yellow and green colouring on the C4 is still almost psychedelic, competing for eye gaze with the vibrant reds and greens used for colouring the London chart.

Old Imray chart

Some of the early charts feature the routes of ships

The C4 also has some of the same features of the original bluebacks.

Within the chart are smaller charts for Weymouth Harbour, Christchurch and Lulworth Cove.

The addition of large scale harbour plans were always considered good value for money by Merchant seamen, as it meant they didn’t have to buy additional charts, a continuation which was warmly welcomed by recreational sailors.

Today, Imray C charts cover the whole of the British Isles and parts of Europe.

Imray also rewrote some of its pilot books to include anchorages and passages accessible by smaller sailing boats.

modern Imray chart

Imray still retains the ethos of its founders: to produce charts using accurate hydrographic data

Previously, pilot books had just concentrated on the needs of larger ships.

The Pilot’s Guide to the English Channel and The Pilot’s Guide to the Thames Estuary and the Norfolk Broads were both rewritten by Eric Wilson and published in 1932 and 1934.

The initial success of Imray’s foray into the yachting market was abruptly halted by the start of the Second World War, which saw Imray move its offices from London to Cambridgeshire.

St Ives was chosen because the print works Enderby & Co were based there, and it had lithographic printers large enough to print charts.

Norie's Nautical Tables

Modern and older versions of Norie’s Nautical Tables for astro navigation

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Imray established itself as a publisher for cruising sailors.

It started producing folded charts, and in 1979 ended the lining of charts with blue manila paper.

In 1999, the first digitally drawn charts using GIS (geographic information system) software were produced.

Recently Imray has undergone another major change in its production system allowing it to develop new products such as Imray Electronic Navigation Charts (ENCs), update products more frequently, align book, chart and digital products more closely with each other and receive and manipulate data more easily.

Despite advances in technology, Imray still retains the ethos of those three original publishers: to produce charts using accurate hydrographic data.

It is appropriate our tour ends in the boardroom, where the portraits of those early founders stare down at us, alongside the tools of their trade.

The brass protractor belonging to Norie’s founder William Heather; Lord Nelson’s favourite chair which was given to Heather by a friend who served with Nelson on the HMS Boreas and the early editions of Norie’s Nautical Tables, still produced by the company.

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