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Chapter 15 Mrs P and the A-Z

In September 2006, a story appeared on the BBC News website celebrating the life and work of Phyllis Pearsall, the woman who made the London A-Z. Had she lived beyond her eighty-nine years, Pearsall would have been 100 that month, so it was a good opportunity to retell the story of her struggle to create what would become an iconic brand. ‘Creating the first A-Z was a tough job,’ the article began. ‘Before satellite imaging or extensive aerial photography, Pearsall worked 18-hour days and walked 3,000 miles to map the 23,000 streets of 1930s London … Her completed map was rejected by publishers, so she ran off 10,000 copies and sold them to WH Smith.’ It didn’t happen quite like that, but never mind – empires are founded on less. And in Pearsall’s semi-fictionalised biography, by Sarah Hartley, there is an even more romantic and far-fetched tale. One evening, Hartley writes, Pearsall was in her bedsit near Victoria getting ready to leave for a dinner party at the home of Lady Veronica Knott in Maida Vale. There was torrential rain outside and a power cut, forcing her to get dressed in the dark. Outside, her umbrella blew inside out and when she found a bus she alighted at the wrong end 279


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of Harrow Road, requiring a long walk. When she arrived, her fellow guests spoke of how tricky it was to negotiate one’s way around London even in fine weather in daylight; only taxi drivers knew for sure where they’d end up. ‘This conversation would nag at Phyllis all through the remaining duck and brandied-plum courses, and then through the night,’ Hartley suggests. ‘The very next day, she became determined to find a street map of London.’ At Foyles bookshop she found that the last Ordnance Survey map of London had been published sixteen years before, and called up her father in New York to say she was going to produce a new modern one for simple people like her. Her father said this was best left to the professionals. At the age of thirty, Phyllis Pearsall set out to prove him wrong. She began her quest – and the trudge along the city’s 23,000 streets – at dawn the next morning. In Pearsall’s own account, From Bedsitter to Household Name, she describes a more sober beginning. There are no dinner parties and no rain storms, just a decision in early 1936 by a mapmaking colleague, the draughtsman James Duncan, to delay the publication of a new map of the United States in favour of an expanded map of London. This would cover the outer suburbs, and would base itself on the current Ordnance Survey maps (Pearsall recounts queuing up at Stanfords, the map and travel store, to buy them). As Duncan redrew and added to the maps, Pearsall visited thirty-one borough surveyors for their latest plans, as well as local estate agents. If she found discrepancies she would confirm a map’s accuracy by ‘checking on the ground’ – ie a bit of walking. Her biggest task was indexing. She used file cards in shoeboxes, but disaster struck one summer’s day when a pile of ‘T’s were pushed out of a window onto High Holborn. Her map complete, Pearsall printed 10,000 and began the task of finding shops that would sell it. She found it impossible to push through the crowds at Hatchards in Piccadilly as Queen Mary had just entered. At Selfridge’s she wouldn’t be 280


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seen without an appointment. At Foyles, according to Pearsall, Mr Foyle looked at her map and said ‘The map trade has been undisturbed for years … We’re not going to let someone new upset it.’ At Barker’s she was asked what WC in her address stood for. Pearsall replied ‘West City?’ ‘West Central,’ her inquisitor replied. ‘An inaccurate map publisher! Good day!’ Which just left W.H. Smith. Pearsall impressed a buyer at the head office in Holborn, who ordered 1,250 copies. She took them round in her wheelbarrow later that afternoon. She asked the buyer whether he thought they would sell them. ‘If anybody thinks he knows what’ll sell,’ the buyer replied, ‘he doesn’t know the trade.’ But they did sell, and within weeks she was fulfilling orders from every railway station bookstall in the south of England. F.W. Woolworth took a few thousand as well. By 1938 the London A-Z was on the map.

o For the Pearsall family it was pretty much business as usual. They had been involved in map-making since before the First World War. Phyllis’s father Alexander Grosz, a refugee from Hungary, began his sales career around 1905, selling oil lamps and electric bulbs in Brixton. He did well, expanding to other premises, although a diversion into pornographic postcards was shut down by the police. 281


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His brother, Frank Grosz, an amateur cycling champion, was also a salesman, distributing various companies’ maps, atlases and globes to shops. When Alexander sold his lighting emporium to the expanding Southern Railway, he sunk the money into supplying his brother with new maps, becoming a publisher in the process. His first, which he varnished and mounted on rollers, was of the British Isles, ‘produced under the direction of [the newly anglicised] Alexander Gross.’ In Phyllis Pearsall’s privately published biography of her parents, she describes her father as domineering, boorish and radical. But his self-belief got him far. In 1908 he met Baron Burnham, owner of the Daily Telegraph, and the two began talking about the Balkans. ‘Have you ever thought of reproducing maps to pinpoint news?’ Gross asked him. ‘No newspaper has ever tried it.’ ‘Then why not you? The Ottoman Empire is crumbling, The Balkan States are on the verge of revolt. I could supply you with the maps you need. At a moment’s notice.’ Burnham agreed, and Gross supplied the Telegraph with a map of Bulgaria after Prince Ferdinand declared himself Tsar; Bosnia-Herzegovina when it was annexed by Franz-Josef; and a map of Crete when it gained union with Greece. With a five-year contract, Gross moved to Fleet Street, where he set up and expanded Geographia (named, alas, not in honour of Ptolemy, but after a photography shop in Berlin). Beyond newspapers, Gross achieved a glowing reputation among pilots. With aviation still in its infancy, and the preserve primarily of keen amateurs, all modern maps were in demand, and Gross made frequent trips to Hendon aerodrome to discuss the pilots’ needs (they were particularly keen on the large objects identifiable from the air, such as railway tracks). On one visit, he took along his young daughter, Phyllis, and a pilot lifted her into the cockpit for a spin. Gross refused to let her fly, lifted her out, and watched as the pilot took off, lost control of his plane after an explosion, and killed himself on impact. 282


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In 1911, another disaster. Gross’s maps were often produced in a great rush, and contained many errors. Their shortcomings were exposed when the Daily Mail offered a £10,000 prize in its Thousand Mile air race over England and Scotland. News of Gross’s maps had spread to France, and one of the principal competitors, Jules Vedrines, had bought many of them for his challenge. After a great start, Vedrines lost the lead at Glasgow and told the press that he could not find his landing: ‘It was wrongly marked on my map!’ At Bristol it was the same story: ‘Again my map was to blame. The landing place was marked on the right of the railway … but it was on the left.’ But then there was a resounding success. The Balkans War of 1912 led to huge demand for a new Telegraph map of the region, and Geographia produced one to reflect the contested borders in record time (including a panicky last-minute reetching of ‘Meditterranean’ to scratch off the extra t). Gross then began to make world maps for the Daily Mirror and a popular cartoon map showing an embattled Germany at the mercy of the British and Russians. With the income from his cartography, he moved his family to Hampstead Heath. But when the First World War ended in 1918, Gross found the bulk of his map stock redundant. Only one publication fared well – his pocket London Street Guide, for sale initially at tuppence and then sixpence. And then, in a not uncharacteristic moment of hubris, Gross announced plans for a wildly over-ambitious new world atlas. In this, unlike with his newspapers, he faced serious competition. It led him to bankruptcy and flight to the United States.

o Phyllis Pearsall considered herself a painter, but she was also determined to re-establish her father’s cartographic reputation. Her London A-Z was more comprehensive and 283


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accurate than anything produced by the rival companies – Bacon, Bartholomew or Philips – though they all had the same base map: the Ordnance Survey. The title was a stroke of genius. Her father had sent her dismissive telegrams from New York: ‘Call the Street atlas The OK’, Pearsall recalled. ‘But involved day and night as I was in placing 23,000 cards of London streets into alphabetical order, A to Z seemed to me the only possible title.’ When his daughter handed him the finished book he began looking for mistakes. ‘How could anyone in their senses leave Trafalgar Square out of the index?’ he asked. Pearsall explained about the ‘T’ index cards falling out of a window; despite a dash to the street below, those that had fallen on car roofs were never found.

All of London, mapped and indexed in the first A to Z – but you’ll be wanting a decent pair of specs to find your way. 284


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The first A-Z was printed in black and white with a cumbersome title framed within a drawing of an open Tower Bridge: ‘A to Z Atlas and Guide to London and Suburbs with House Numbers Containing Large Coloured Map Giving 23,000 Streets (9,000 more than any other similar atlas index).’ The ‘to’ between the A and the Z was not yet a dash, but a neat linking arrow. It cost one shilling. The guide contained no introduction, legend or glossary, and most of the text on the map strained your eyes. Still, the early editions did have one fascinating feature reflecting the rapidly expanding capital: Pearsall had obtained a list of some 2,000 name changes from the London County Council. You used to live in Albion Street, E3? That was now English Street. Broker’s Alley WC2? That was now Shelton Street. Many of the updates simply replaced confusing duplicates: there were, for example, five Caroline Places, which became Sally Place, Carolina Place, Donne Place, Caroline Walk and Mecklenburgh Place. The ten Charles Streets became Aylward Street, Scurr Street, Greville Street and so on. Some new municipal projects had never featured on maps before, such as Lambeth Bridge, completed in 1932. And whole areas that had appeared as slums on Charles Booth’s maps had been replaced by new streets that had not featured on a map before. On the back of the revised map from 1938/39 was a list of all the other London publications already available from Pearsall’s company: The Premier Map of London, The Standard Street Guide to London, The Ever Ready Guide to London, and others. Some of these were fold-out maps, some had photographs, and none covered the suburbs. But they do suggest that the A-Z was a natural development of these, as maps always are: building on what has gone before with a particular purpose in mind. In 1939, Geographia’s plans for an ‘All In One War Map’ were curtailed when the government made it illegal to sell maps with a scale of or under one inch to the mile. Pearsall got a job in the Ministry of Information, which enabled her 285


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father to claim that her daughter worked directly for Winston Churchill. When the war was over, with paper restrictions still in place and London full of overseas troops, Pearsall placed an order for A-Zs to be printed in Holland. She was injured in a plane crash on her return from the printers to London, but her recovery was cheered by the unprecedented demand; the run of 250,000 copies sold within months. The maps were updated every five years, regional versions appeared throughout the UK, colour was introduced in the 1980s (it was really the colour that made the maps iconic), and at its peak in the 1990s Pearsall’s company was selling about a half a million maps a year. Both the A-Z logo and the distinctive look of the maps themselves achieved – by longevity and utility – the sort of brand recognition that results, inevitably, in teeshirts, mugs and an unspoken feeling of London pride. In a poll for London’s Design Museum and BBC’s Culture Show, the A-Z took its place on a list beside the Mini, Concorde and the Underground map. And of course in the biography of its founder that accompanied this accolade on the Design Museum website, Phyllis Pearsall is walking 23,000 streets for eighteen hours a day.

o To get to the offices of Geographers’ A-Z Map Company Ltd in Borough Green, Kent, one takes a train from London’s Victoria Station and walks for about a minute. One doesn’t need a map at all. The low building is neither a remarkable nor an attractive one, but the walls inside are brightened by some pretty watercolours of rural landscapes. They were painted by Phyllis Pearsall, and alongside the English idylls are examples of her other work – sketches of people hard at work on maps. 286


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One of the sketches, from the early 1990s, drawn a few years before she died, shows the company’s first computer in the corner of the drawing office, looking lonely. There are also two large armchairs entirely covered in material showing a London A-Z map, and a man called Norman Dennison who jokes that he is almost an exhibit himself, having worked at the company for forty-five years, most recently as joint managing director. Like everyone at the company, Dennison called Phyllis Pearsall ‘Mrs P’. ‘You could near her coming right from the other end of the corridor. She could be difficult. The idea of the A-Z was to fund her love of painting really, and she wanted to re-establish her father’s reputation. She was very poetic. She loved all the names, like Bleeding Heart Lane [in Holborn]. ‘I think she did get up at 5 am and walk a lot,’ Dennison maintains, ‘but perhaps not 23,000 streets. Recently I had to go to a school in Dulwich, near to where she was born in Court Lane Gardens. They’ve named one of the school houses after her – Pearsall House. I always say: “In 1936 there weren’t any easy maps to use, and she got lost on her way to a party one night, and came up with the idea of the A-Z and she walked the 23,000 streets.” They do like to hear that.’ Dennison says that the company’s best year for sales was 2004. When the new edition of the A-Z came out in that year the number of streets had grown from 23,000 to more than 70,000, and the company was also selling about 350 other publications – a huge range of city maps and atlases in many formats, a lot of A-Z branded merchandise. But in September 2008 there was a new addition to the range: an A-Z Knowledge Master sat nav, the melancholy acceptance of a changing landscape. It included more than 360,000 streets, postcodes, and Point of Interest entries, and had all the usual madness: Nokia Smart2go software, 3-D vistas, speed camera alerts, an SD card covering the boulevards of Europe. The unit, which cost almost £300 (compared to the standard dead-wood edition at £5.95), was aimed primarily at London’s cab drivers. 287


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‘You could hear her coming from the other end of the corridor…’: Mrs P at the Geographia HQ.

‘It’s slowly gone down and down,’ Dennison says three years later, referring to his company’s paper map sales. ‘A lot of other things have hit us too – the price of fuel, fewer petrol stations because of the supermarkets selling petrol, that’s hit us because that was our main place to sell maps. Then of course Google Maps came along, and broadband, so you could download maps easily. Our reps in London tell us that they see people walking around with bits of paper they’ve just printed out, or looking at their phones for directions.’ The company is now selling about half the number of A-Zs it sold at its peak, but as Dennison points out, the bound paper 288


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map still has many advantages. It is cheaper and easier than a sat nav, more aesthetically satisfying and better indexed than a phone map. And there is a broader attribute. ‘If we don’t use maps we lose the idea of where we’re really going. Where London lies in relation to Bristol or Newcastle is getting lost to the youngsters – you just enter the postcode now.’ Dennison takes me upstairs to the open-plan drawing room and introduces me to Ian Griffin, the graphic designer, and Mark McConnell, the chief draughtsman. The talk swiftly turns to Phyllis. ‘She always said there weren’t any other maps around, but there were,’ Griffin says. ‘We used to take the old Ordnance Survey county sheets and draw over the top of those. We enlarged the main roads so they stood out, and the B roads, and we added street numbers so you knew which end you were on a long road – with the full index, that was one of her major innovations.’ McConnell takes me through the old process with the old tools – tracing paper, pens with interchangeable nibs to vary the thickness of the line. After hand-lettering there was rubdown lettering: ‘The great skill was in writing round corners, sometimes in italics, having to plan ahead like chess.’ He looks at an old sheet with trams on it, and compares it with a modern one. ‘London has totally been redrawn,’ he says. ‘But what always amuses me most about this is that London’s not really there at all. It’s just the streets and the place names, but London as we know it, the houses and the shops, the people, the soul of the place isn’t there, it’s done away with.’ New editions of the A-Z now appear each year, and on one a few years ago there were more than 10,000 alterations and additions (predominantly minor things like building names and footpaths, but a new development by the docks would easily add 500 entries to the index). The handwriting and Letraset have long gone, of course. A man called Tim Goodfellow curves the road on a computer now, and new streets take seconds rather than days to appear. One small 289


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change will digitally reorientate the entire area, recognising which roads have priority in the colour scheme; on the A-Z sat nav, a new road block in the City will automatically recalculate the journey time from the Strand to St Paul’s. I asked Goodfellow if he was ever tempted to place some personal detail on the map – the name of a loved one, perhaps, easily excused as a way of protecting it from copyright infringement. ‘We do have security roads within each publication,’ he said.’ We refer to them as phantoms. We would just add something and choose a name that’s sympathetic to the area so that it doesn’t look out of place. So if you have an estate where all the side-roads are flowers, we wouldn’t put in a name of a stone.’ ‘But you can’t invent whole roads?’ ‘You could. If it was a main thoroughfare then that would be wrong, because you’d be misleading, but you can add a small cul de sac. We have people calling up and saying “there isn’t a road there,” and then we tell them why. Often we’ll then move it.’ The whole A to Z of London – complete with the odd phantom diversion – rests in a single file on Goodfellow’s computer. It is driven, nowadays, by French software, supplied by Michelin. We gaze at his large computer screen. Even backlit, even digitised, even French, the map is still a beautiful thing.

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