London Pride: Phyllis Pearsall and the A-Z
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she got lost going to a party in Belgravia — others say it was a portrait painting commission — as she was using an out-of-date Ordnance Survey map.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.
A-Z MAP CO. LTD. © CROWN COPYRIGHT 2015
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’