The A to Z of Phyllis Pearsall

What a can of worms! Today’s blog was meant to be about the rather wonderful Phyllis Pearsall (1906 – 1996), creator of London’s best known indexed street map – the A to Z (pronounced A to Zed by all and sundry). In the process, I have spent a day embroiled in the family melodrama surrounding this amazing piece of design.

To recap – before the age of the internet and GPS smartphones – every Londoner/ visitor/ sane person had a copy of the A to Z in their bag or their glove compartment in case they got lost. Car journeys were stopped when you pulled over & squinted up at a building to determine the street you were on. It sounds clunky in a modern era but the A to Z was brilliant in the days before we all had Google maps on our phones – all you needed was a street name and you could work out where you were.

The A to Z is one of the most user-friendly pieces of information design ever created. With its Eric Gill typeface and wide roads, data is simplified to street level usefulness – roads, junctions, street names and one-way systems are all prioritised.The whole of London is clearly divided in a grid reference at the front and each grid square corresponds to a page. All the streets and place names are indexed in the short form gazetteer at the back. Find your street name, turn to the right page, located your grid reference and you know where you’re at. (Good pub quiz fact - apparently cabbies call the ‘A’ and ‘B’ roads oranges & lemons because of their colours!)

It’s the way in which the A to Z came to be that was deeply controversial.

Phyllis Pearsall was the daughter of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who founded his own cartographic business, Geographia Ltd, which produced street maps of Britain but went bankrupt.

The story that his artist daughter Phyllis promoted was that one night she was en route to a party and couldn’t find it despite having the best map available – a 1919 Ordnance Survey map. Inspired, the next morning she got up and began to map the city, working 18 hour days walking 3,000 miles to check the names and house numbers of London’s 23,000 streets.Once finished, she was unable to find a publisher so, encouraged by her father, set up her own company, the Geographers' A-Z Map Company and self published 10,000 copies. They say that Trafalgar Square was left out of the first index because the box containing the ‘T’ index cards accidently fell out of a window!

Phyllis tried to sell her map to various shops and was met with rejection. When WH Smith ordered 1250 copies, she said she delivered them herself in a wheelbarrow and only when they sold out did the other retailers catch on – the map has been in continuous production ever since.

Alas this wonderful myth is rather refuted by many in the map world who suggest that there were previous street maps of London and she built on that information rather than starting the mapping from scratch which her story would suggest. They say the A to Z was a newer version of a map that her father’s company had already produced, updated to include newly built areas of outer London – which she may or may not have mapped on foot (by all accounts the street information was held in Local Council offices and it was probably there that she traipsed to).


Peter Barber, Head of Maps at the British Library said:

“She was a great myth-maker. But English Heritage investigated the story and decided not to award her a blue plaque because it was not felt she’d done anything to deserve one. It was marketing and it’s a very pervasive myth, she was a lovable character and people want to believe it”.[Southwark Council eventually put a blue plaque on her birthplace for her contribution to London life]

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that she was a formidable business woman and reminds me of an early-day Richard Branson who knew that it was all about personality and that the right story would capture people’s imaginations, and sell maps.

The sadness seems to be the bad blood the promotion of this story created in her family – was her father’s contribution glossed over? Did she tell the truth? Her brother’s website on the matter is utterly fascinating (if a little angry).

What we do know is that the company she founded to publish the map was created on sound business principles and she remained involved on a daily basis until her death in 1996, aged 89. It even survived the War Years when they were prohibited from selling maps – their only product.

The objectives of the business were to be commended:

“a commitment to natural and sustainable growth... in the hope of bringing together a work team that would appreciate and thrive (both in work and in their private lives) in an atmosphere of stability, mutual trust, honesty and high endeavour”.

And, as a proto John Lewis, she signed her share of the business into a trust for her employees to protect the ethos of the company.

Whether her story is true or not, the fact is that her map, in the style she presented it, continues to be one of the clearest methods of street level navigation.

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