John Speed was born at Farndon in Cheshire in 1552 and followed his father's trade as a tailor until nearly fifty. He lived in London (probably in Moorfields) and his wife Susanna bore him twelve sons and six daughters! His passion in life, however, was not tailoring; from his early years he was a keen amateur historian and map maker, producing maps for the Queen and the Merchant Tailors Company, of which he was a Freeman. He joined the Society of Antiquaries and in 1597 his interests came to the attention of Sir Fulke Greville, who subsequently gave Speed an allowance for his research. As a reward for his earlier efforts, Queen Elizabeth granted him the use of a room in the Custom House.
Although Speed assembled much of his material from the earlier works of Saxton, Norden and others, a considerable part of the up-to-date information especially relating to the inset town plans depicted in his maps was first-hand. The first individual maps engraved for the Atlas were printed in 1605-06 and were on sale between then and 1610-11, when the Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine and the History which it accompanied, appeared in complete form. This seems all the more remarkable when it is remembered that all Speed's draft material was taken to Amsterdam, to be engraved by Jodocus Hondius, before the plates were returned to London for printing.
In 1627, just before he died, Speed published A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World which, combined with the 1627 edition of the Theatre, became the first World Atlas produced by an Englishman.
The name of John Speed is synonymous with early county maps of Great Britain. The reasons why this should be so are not far to seek - his predecessors, Saxton, Norden and one or two lesser figures had laid the groundwork for the first mapping of England and Wales in the expansive days of Queen Elizabeth but by the end of the sixteenth century the rate of development was accelerating, increasing overseas trade was linking ports with inland towns, travel was becoming more commonplace and in consequence a need arose to replace the then outdated maps prepared thirty or forty years before. Speed's maps, with their detailed town plans, boundaries of 'hundreds' and descriptive texts filled the needs of the time and quickly replaced the Saxton atlases generally in use until then. Not only were they more up to date but undoubtedly the beauty of the engraving, the fine lettering and the elaborate ornamentation appealed to the original buyers as much as they do to us today. The popularity of the new maps was immediate and fresh editions appeared throughout the 1600s and, indeed, until about 1770 when the first moves towards a general 'Ordnance Survey' were being made.
Although there are many references to Speed being born in Farndon, there is little about his early life and nothing in the village to record the event. It is said he made his first explorations into cartography by mapping the village from the church tower. Maybe you will find a suitable memorial to John Speed at St. Giles, Cripplegate where John Speed finally came to rest on the 28th July, 1629. He was aged 77 and had suffered blindness and gall stones in a time when little could be done for either. Nevertheless, he work lives on and much pleasure is derived by collectors who own his original maps. An inspited and hard-working character of the Tudor/Stuart period.