Lon­don Pride: Phyl­lis Pearsall and the A-Z

This England - - Contents - An­ge­line Wil­cox

Ex­plor­ing Lon­don on foot is one of the most re­ward­ing ways of see­ing the cap­i­tal. It gives you the op­por­tu­nity to get off the beaten track and dis­cover some of the city’s hid­den trea­sures. For mil­lions of visi­tors ev­ery year — whether busi­ness trav­ellers or ca­sual sight­seers — nav­i­gat­ing their way through the maze of thor­ough­fares can be con­fus­ing, un­less they have a good and trusted guide. Since 1936 one map above all oth­ers has been renowned for di­rect­ing gen­er­a­tions along the right route.

Copies of the Lon­don A-Z have been a fa­mil­iar sight on the book­shelves of homes and of­fices for nearly 80 years, and to­day you can down­load Lon­don A-Z apps on your smart­phone. But for most of us, arm­chair trav­ellers in­cluded, noth­ing beats a well-thumbed, printed edi­tion of this iconic map.

Just as a jour­ney around the me­trop­o­lis is fas­ci­nat­ing, so too is the story of the A-Z and the amaz­ing woman be­hind its pub­li­ca­tion, Phyl­lis Pearsall. This artist, writer and pub­lisher was born in East Dul­wich on 25th Septem­ber 1906 to Alexan­der Gross, the founder of the map-mak­ing com­pany Geo­graph­ica Ltd., and his artist wife, Is­abella. Phyl­lis had an older brother, An­thony, and the fam­ily trav­elled ex­ten­sively, but child­hood wasn’t a happy or set­tled time. Their par­ents’ dif­fi­cult mar­riage ended and the even­tual bank­ruptcy of Alexan­der’s busi­ness cut short Phyl­lis’s ed­u­ca­tion at the pres­ti­gious Roedean School. Her fa­ther went to Amer­ica, where he later es­tab­lished another car­to­graphic com­pany, and her mother re­mar­ried, but Phyl­lis was not wel­comed by her step­fa­ther so, aged just 14, she took her­self off to live in France. This re­silient at­ti­tude demon­strated her re­solve and strength of char­ac­ter.

Af­ter teach­ing English at a girls’ school in Brit­tany, Phyl­lis headed to Paris and stud­ied phi­los­o­phy at the Sor­bonne while ek­ing out a liv­ing paint­ing por­traits and writ­ing ar­ti­cles. In 1926 she re­turned to Lon­don and mar­ried one of her brother’s friends, the artist Richard Pearsall. The cou­ple spent the next few years in Europe, but their mar­riage didn’t sur­vive and by 1935 Phyl­lis was back in Lon­don pur­su­ing her paint­ing ca­reer.

Trac­ing the pre­cise ori­gins of the A-Z leads you down var­i­ous routes lined with fact, fic­tion, re­al­ity and ro­mance. Some sources claim that Phyl­lis was inspired when she got lost go­ing to a party in Bel­gravia — oth­ers say it was a por­trait paint­ing com­mis­sion — as she was us­ing an out-of-date Ord­nance Sur­vey map. The more re­al­is­tic ver­sion, which is borne out by Phyl­lis in her memoir From Bed­sit­ter to House­hold Name: The Per­sonal Story of A-Z Maps, is that she was work­ing for her fa­ther’s Amer­i­can com­pany on another map­ping pro­ject and the idea came from that.

Phyl­lis al­ways cred­ited her fa­ther’s en­cour­age­ment and ad­mits that she wouldn’t have be­come a map pub­lisher if it wasn’t for him. In­deed, all edi­tions of the A-Z un­til her fa­ther’s death in 1958 bear the ac­knowl­edge­ment “Pro­duced un­der the di­rec­tion of Alexan­der Gross, FRGS”. In­ter­est­ingly he had wanted to call the map The OK Street At­las and Guide to Lon­don, but Phyl­lis went ahead with the A-Z.

While never claim­ing that she cre­ated the A-Z sin­gle­hand­edly, it was un­ques­tion­ably Phyl­lis’s ded­i­ca­tion, de­ter­mi­na­tion and sheer hard work which gave us the most pop­u­lar map of Lon­don. Not only did she es­tab­lish the Ge­og­ra­phers’ Map Com­pany Ltd. to pro­duce the bril­liantly de­signed and de­tailed street in­dex — be­cause all other pub­lish­ers had turned it down — but she han­dled the re­search, in­dex­ing, print­ing,

ac­count­ing, selling and even the de­liv­ery of the fin­ished copies. No won­der she be­came known as Mrs. A-Z.

To com­pile the map, Phyl­lis, who be­gan work­ing from her bed­sit in Horse­ferry Road, checked 23,000 street names, house num­bers, land­marks, bus and tram routes. She worked 18-hour days, pounded the city streets and vis­ited 31 Bor­ough Surveyor’s De­part­ments to ob­tain the in­for­ma­tion needed to up­date ex­ist­ing maps. As­sem­bling the in­for­ma­tion was a colos­sal task. Phyl­lis card-in­dexed all the Lon­don streets to pro­vide the es­sen­tial al­pha­bet­i­cal for­mat. These pre­cious in­dexes were ini­tially stored in shoe boxes. One story tells how a miss­ing in­dex card meant that Trafal­gar Square was omit­ted on the proofs. Thank­fully the glar­ing er­ror was spot­ted be­fore the in­dex went to print.

The map, which ap­peared in light­weight book for­mat rather than a tra­di­tional fold-out ver­sion, was drawn up by one of her fa­ther’s draughts­men, C.H. Foun­tain, and sev­eral free­lancers. Although the A-Z wasn’t Lon­don’s first street in­dex and at­las, it was the most ex­ten­sive, de­tailed and easy to use.

By 1936 Phyl­lis was based in a small of­fice in High Hol­born and work on the first edi­tion was com­plete. She had 10,000 copies printed and ap­proached book­sell­ers in­clud­ing Foyles and Hatchards, but they re­fused. Even­tu­ally, W.H. Smith or­dered 1,250, which Phyl­lis de­liv­ered on a hand­cart bor­rowed from a nearby pub!

While pub­lish­ers and book­sell­ers had failed to see the po­ten­tial of Phyl­lis’s un­der­tak­ing the public im­me­di­ately ap­pre­ci­ated the ben­e­fits of the new rea­son­ably-priced, pocket map. Sales in­creased and or­ders soon came in from more book­shops and Lon­don’s rail­way sta­tions. This suc­cess was in­ter­rupted by the war due to the re­stric­tions placed on map pro­duc­tion and sales. How­ever, copies of the orig­i­nal A-Z were pur­chased by Amer­i­can GIS and Com­mon­wealth troops as they at­tempted to find their way around Lon­don.

Through­out the con­flict, Phyl­lis worked for the Home In­tel­li­gence Di­vi­sion in the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion. When the war ended she took up the com­pany reins once more, but pa­per short­ages meant that the A-Z had to be printed in the Nether­lands. While she was re­turn­ing from a trip to the print­ers in Hol­land, she was in­volved in a plane crash and suf­fered poor health for the rest of her life. But this didn’t di­min­ish her en­thu­si­asm for work and she over­saw the steady growth of the Ge­og­ra­phers’ Map Co. Ltd. un­der the motto of “On we go”. And that was ex­actly what the com­pany did as it rolled out the A-Z for­mat to cover cities through­out Bri­tain.


Know­ing of her artis­tic back­ground it would be easy to as­sume that Phyl­lis would not in­volve her­self in the fi­nan­cial and man­age­rial side of the com­pany, but she was an as­tute, for­ward-think­ing busi­ness­woman. Re­gard­ing the in­creas­ing num­ber of staff as her fam­ily, she was con­sid­er­ate to­wards her em­ploy­ees and con­cerned as to their wel­fare. Anx­ious to se­cure a safe fu­ture for them, and per­haps re­flect­ing her in­de­pen­dent spirit, she turned the com­pany into a trust in 1966 to guar­an­tee that it could never be bought out. As the com­pany grew it moved to Gray’s Inn Road and then to Kent where it re­mains to­day.

In 1989 Phyl­lis was awarded the MBE and although so much of her life was fo­cused on pub­lish­ing maps she con­tin­ued paint­ing and writ­ing. An ex­hi­bi­tion of her work was held at the Royal Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety in 1986 to celebrate the com­pany’s (now known as the Ge­og­ra­phers’ A-Z Map Com­pany) 50th an­niver­sary.

It was in­evitable that Mrs. A-Z would never take to re­tire­ment easily. She held the po­si­tions of Chair­man and joint Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor un­til her death, at her home in Shore­ham-by-sea, Sus­sex, in 1996, aged 89. In her life­time she had wit­nessed, and em­braced, in­cred­i­ble changes to car­tog­ra­phy from pen and ink to dig­i­tal de­sign. More than that though she helped to change the way we see Lon­don. Thanks to Phyl­lis’s en­ter­pris­ing spirit and bold vi­sion, she con­tin­ues to guide mil­lions of us as we fol­low in her foot­steps right across the cap­i­tal.

‘Phyl­lis de­liv­ered copies on a hand­cart’

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