The London A-Z, that indispensable guide to the streets and landmarks of the City, has been used by countless numbers of people seeking to navigate London’s streets. Everyone has heard of the London A-Z, though most have no clue as to it’s origins.
Meet Phyllis Pearsall – the eccentric British artist who single-handedly mapped London’s A-Z and created a publishing phenomenon. Born Phyllis Isobella Gross, her lifelong nickname was PIG. The artist daughter of a flamboyant Hungarian Jewish immigrant, and an Irish Italian mother, her bizarre and often traumatic childhood did not keep her from becoming one of Britain’s most intriguing entrepreneurs and self-made millionaires. Pearsall was left to her own devices as a teenager, especially after her father had gone bankrupt and fled to the U.S. Pearsall herself told an interviewer that one day soonafter, she returned home to find the door was answered by the fully decked-out Maharajah of Patiala, who was in the midst of having his portrait painted by Alfred Orr, Phyllis’s mother’s lover. ”Then mother said: ‘Alfred has an artistic temperament and couldn’t possibly have a little girl in the house. Get a live-in job,’ ” Mrs. Pearsall related.
Displaying much pluck, at the age of 14 Pearsall went to France to teach English at a girls school at Fecamp. With French as her second language she went on to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, always living on the edge of poverty, sleeping on the street under a newspaper blanket and drying her laundry on library radiators.
Eventually earning a meagre living by painting portraits and writing articles for various magazines and newspapers, Pearsall returned to England and in 1926 met and married Richard Pearsall. The marriage lasted for about eight years, during which time she had established a reputation for her writing and for her etchings and painting and the couple moved to Spain. Eight years later, the 30-year-old Pearsall became a divorcee, returned to London and turned to full-time portrait painting in order to support herself.
Some accounts say that it was the difficulty Pearsall had in finding the homes of her portrait sitters in London that prompted her to create the A-Z. Others that she couldn’t find the address of a party she wanted to attend in Belgravia. Still other accounts relate that Pearsall’s father, Alexander Gross, wrote to ask her to publish in England a map of the world produced by the map company he’d built in the United States – after losing the map company he had originally established in Fleet Street. Reluctantly she agreed, and had to learn all the technical jargon involved in reproduction and printing before setting about selling direct to the customer. It was on one of these selling expeditions that she got lost because of the out-of-date London street map she was using. This was the beginning of her idea of how useful an up-to-date map would be – a map that all could use for business and pleasure.
Without hesitation she covered London’s 23,000 streets on foot during the course of one year, often leaving her Horseferry Road bedsit at dawn. Pearsall collected street names, house numbers along main roads, bus and tram routes, stations, buildings, museums, palaces etc, in addition compiling the street index in alphabetical order.To publish the map, and in light of its enormous success, she set up her own company, The Geographer’s Trust, which still publishes the London A-Z and that of every major British city. The first A-Z was published in 1936. She abandoned the traditional design of the large fold out map in favour of a book format where each page was a small section of a large-scale map. All of the streets were coded to enable them to be referenced, indexed and searched for. Pearsall printed 10,000 copies of her maps, selling them as indefatigably as she had compiled them. She persuaded a reluctant buyer at W. H. Smith, the British bookseller, to place an order for 250 copies, promising a refund if they went unsold. The maps were an instant success, and have sold countless millions of copies since.
Pearsall ran her publishing company successfully for many years and reported to work well into her 80’s, arriving in a red Mercedes that she bought at the age of 59, when she passed her driving test after taking more than 200 lessons.
Mrs. Pearsall wrote several books, including an account of her trips through Spain, a collection of short stories, a company history and a volume describing her business philosophy, in which she advocated generosity (”bonuses to everyone”), courtesy (”no aggressive selling”) and frugality (”Micawber housekeeping”). In 1986 she was made a Member of the British Empire.
Phyllis Pearsall died at Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex on 28 August 1996 at age 89.
What a dame.
Blue Plaque at Pearsall’s former home in Court Gardens Lane, London
To read further on the subject, we suggest Mrs.P’s Journey: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Created the A-Z Map by Sarah Hartley.
Victoria here, chiming in to remind readers of the historical A to Z series, of special value to researchers and writers. You can acquire them from several sources – just Google it. I bought my copy of The A to Z of Regency London at the Guildhall in the City of London. Good research library there too! The six versions of the A to Z’s of historic London are: Elizabethan, Restoration, Georgian, Regency, Victorian and Edwardian. Make your choice(s) according to the focus of your interests.
Here is the London Topgraphical Society description: “Our A to Z series consists of six books, which provide fully-indexed maps of London at roughly 100 year intervals. Each reproduces a key map of the period. The indexes allow users to identify the position of streets and buildings, in some cases right down to small courts and alleys. They appeal to anyone interested in the development of London and are invaluable for those researching family history. The A to Z volumes are published in association with Harry Margary and the Guildhall Library.”
|Section of the Map from
The A to Z of Regency London