The Hydrographical Department of the Admiralty was established in 1795 by Order in Council, and a Hydrographer to the Board of Admiralty appointed. His duties were to take charge of such plans and charts as were already deposited at the Admiralty, and those which would thereafter be accumulated. He was also charged with selecting and compiling information for improving navigation.
The Admiralty had accumulated a quantity of original surveys, unpublished charts and plans which needed analysis in order to furnish the officers commanding ships of the Royal Navy (whether engaged in warfare, maritime exploration or in trading voyages) with the necessary navigational information to ensure safe passage. The Board noted that other countries had already established hydrographic departments, and determined to follow suit. Furthermore, following the heavy losses in the war against France 1793, the result not of enemy action but of inadequate navigational charts, there had been a demand for improved navigational information to be supplied to the Royal Navy.
Alexander Dalrymple, (a civilian geographer with the East India Company) was appointed as the first Hydrographer. He was primarily concerned with the arrangement and analysis of the information already held. As a consequence he compiled charts and engraved plates, but did not produce and distribute charts derived from this analysis until November 1800. He did however recommend setting up what became the Admiralty Chart Committee in 1808, to review and recommend procedures for supplying charts to the Navy.
Several explorations and surveys of both UK and foreign coasts had been undertaken by the time of the establishment of the Hydrographical Department. From the reign of Charles II onwards, hydrographers were appointed by reigning monarchs, although such appointments were grants of titular privileges rather than salaried. The first post of Admiralty Surveyor was created in 1751 for charting the home waters.
The Admiralty holdings in Dalrymple's charge in 1795 had been accumulated from disparate authorities in the pay and employ of the Admiralty, but who were not part of the naval service. Hence there was no well defined connection between them and no overall programme or strategy. They were obliged to deposit their original surveys at the Admiralty, but were at the same time free to publish for their own benefit. Included in this arrangement were, among others, Grenvile Collins, James Cook, J W F Des Barres, George Vancouver, William Bligh, Murdoch Mackenzie and Graeme Spence. Information had also been gathered from other authorities including captured material from foreign governments.
For some time after the establishment of the Hydrographical Department, there continued to be no connection with the Naval Service afloat. After Dalrymple, the post of Hydrographer was held by naval officers who specialised in surveying. The first of these, appointed in 1808, was Captain Thomas Hurd. He established the Surveying Service of the Navy (1817) as part of the Hydrographical Department under the control and supervision of one person (with staff and ships dedicated to the task) and who was responsible to the Board for the regular supply of charts and other navigational material to the Fleet. Hurd also oversaw the production of the first chart catalogue (in 1821) and obtained permission of the Admiralty for its charts to be made available to seafarers beyond the confines of the Royal Navy (i.e. the Mercantile Marine and the public in general).
Subsequent Hydrographers to the Navy were responsible for developing the hydrographic surveying services both in administrative terms and through their enthusiasm for scientific advancement and international co-operation. Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, appointed 1829, supervised the establishment of the Hydrographic Department as a separate Admiralty Department (1831) with responsibility for its own programme of work and financial estimates. Through the proliferation of surveys by the British Navy all over the world to expand and improve coverage, and by establishing the principle of thorough checking of detail before publication of a chart, Francis Beaufort laid the foundations of a word-wide surveying service renowned for its accuracy, and which subsequently emerged as the model on which other foreign governments shaped their hydrographic service.
The change from sail to steam (1860-1914), affecting the capabilities and thus the output of the survey ships, and the abolition of the Indian Navy in 1862 (when all hydrographic duties connected with India were transferred to the Hydrographic Department), were influences on the subsequent survey and scientific exploration programmes.