Phyllis Pearsall

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Phyllis Pearsall
Born Phyllis Isobella Gross
(1906-09-25)25 September 1906
East Dulwich, London, England
Died 28 August 1996(1996-08-28) (aged 89)
Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex
Occupation Artist, writer and publisher
Known for Geographers' A-Z Map Company
Cover of the London A to Z street atlas, produced by Phyllis Pearsall

Phyllis Isobella Pearsall MBE (25 September 1906 – 28 August 1996) was a British painter and writer who founded the Geographers' A-Z Map Company. She created London's first popular indexed map.


Early years[edit]

She was was born Phyllis Isobella Gross in East Dulwich, London on 25 September 1906. Her father, Alexander Gross (originally Grosz), was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant and her mother, Isabella Crowley, an Irish-Italian Roman Catholic suffragette, whose parents disapproved of the match.[1] Phyllis Gross was baptized a Roman Catholic.

She grew up with her older brother, the artist Anthony Gross, in London and travelled all over Europe from an early age. Her father founded the cartographic company Geographia Ltd,[2] which produced, among others, street maps of most British towns and although successful, eventually went bankrupt; Gross re-launched the company in the United States as the Geographia Map Company a few years later.

Her parents had a very tense marriage which soon dissolved. Her mother re-married but died some years later in an asylum.

Phyllis Gross was educated at Roedean School, a private boarding school near Brighton, which she had to leave when her father went bankrupt. She then became an English tutor in a small school in Fécamp, Brittany. Later, she studied at the Sorbonne, spending her first few months in Paris, sleeping rough before moving to a bedsit (small studio) where she met the writer Vladimir Nabokov.[3] She started working as a shop assistant in a big department store, selling gloves.

She married Richard Pearsall, an artist friend of her brother. They were together for eight years, travelling in Spain and living in Paris, when she left him in Venice while he was asleep, without telling him anything. She did not remarry.

The start of mapping[edit]

By 1935, she had become a portrait painter. According to her autobiography, while on her way to a party, she tried to follow the best available map of the time (a 1919 Ordnance Survey map). She discovered that this map was not up to the task, and ended up getting lost. Following a conversation during this party, she conceived the idea of mapping London.[4]

She claims that she started mapping the next day. This involved walking 3,000 miles to check names and house numbers of 23,000 streets of London, waking up at 5am every day, and not going to bed until after an 18-hour working day.[5] It is often claimed to be the first indexed London street map, but this claim is easily refuted by reference to Bartholomew's Reference Atlas of London and Suburbs, which was published and widely available from 1891 onwards. But this and many similar maps were not particularly popular. The first A-Z simply claimed on its front cover to include '9,000 more [streets] than any similar atlas index".

The map was drawn using the 72 6" Ordnance Survey maps for London dating from 1919 by her father's cartographer, Mr Fountain, updated by visits to the LCC planning offices.[6] In 1936, when her map was complete, she printed 10,000 copies and began contacting bookstores who might sell it. She tried Hatchards in Piccadilly, Selfridges, where they would not see her without an appointment, and Foyles. None of them would take it. Next she went to W H Smith, where they ordered 1,250 copies. They sold well and within weeks she was taking regular orders to every main railway station in London. F. W. Woolworth took a few thousand copies too. By 1938 the London A-Z was well-established. Until her father's death in 1958, all copies included the words "Produced under the direction of Alexander Gross, F.R.G.S.".

During the Second World War, while selling maps to the public was forbidden, she worked for the Ministry of Information, drawing women in factories. There was also limited production of maps of the war fronts, but this was a hard time for her fledgling company.

In 1945, she was involved in a plane crash which left her with permanent scars.

Later years[edit]

In 1966, she turned her company, the Geographers' A–Z Map Co, into a trust to ensure that it was never bought out. This secured the future of her company and its employees. Through her donation of her shares to the trust, she was able to enshrine her desired standards and behaviours for the company into its statutes.

A respected typographer, although not credited with the design of any typefaces, her arrangement of type is considered one of the most interesting of her age. The 'A to Z' type-style for street names was for decades a conspicuously hand-drawn sans-serif. She designed the type for a few children's encyclopedias and some other titles, though her slant was always toward publishing.

She wrote about her early days in From Bedsitter to Household Name, published by her own company. She was awarded an MBE, and in 2005 Southwark Council placed a blue plaque on the house where she was born in Court Lane Gardens, Dulwich.[7] She was involved with the company she founded, as well as painting prolifically, up until her death.

In her later years, she lived in Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, and died of cancer on 28 August 1996, a month before her 90th birthday.


  1. ^ Sarah Hartley: Mrs P's Journey: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Created the A–Z Map, page 17. Pocket Books, 2002. ISBN 0-7434-0876-4.
  2. ^ Geographia Ltd. 20th Century London.
  3. ^ Sarah Hartley: Mrs P's Journey: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Created the A–Z Map, page 156. Pocket Books, 2002.
  4. ^ Hartley, Sarah (2001). Mrs P's Journey. Simon and Schuster. p. 203-4. 
  5. ^ "Pearsall [née Gross], Phyllis Isobel". Oxford National Dictionary of Biography. (subscription required (help)). 
  6. ^ Hartley 2001, p. 241-2
  7. ^ Angie Macdonald, Phyllis and I, Dulwich OnView, 21 October 2008.


  • A to Z Maps: The Personal Story — From Bedsitter to Household Name, Phyllis Pearsall, Geographers' A–Z Map Co Ltd, 1990, ISBN 0-85039-243-8.

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