Phyllis Pearsall, MBE (25 September 1906, London – 28 August 1996, West Sussex) was a painter and writer who ran the Geographers' A-Z Map Company. She is often mis-credited with 'creating London's first A to Z', a claim repeated in her autobiography but easily refuted by reference to Bartholomew's Reference Atlas of London and Suburbs, which was published and widely available in the early 1920s.
Pearsall was born Phyllis Isobella Gross in East Dulwich, London on 25 September 1906. Her father, Alexander Gross, was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant and her mother was an Irish Italian Roman Catholic suffragette, whose parents disapproved of the match. Phyllis Gross was baptized a Roman Catholic.
She grew up with her older brother, Anthony Gross, CBE, RA, in London but found herself travelling all over Europe from an early age. Her father founded the cartographic company Geographia Ltd, which, although successful, eventually went bankrupt for lack of careful management; this company - again under the leadership of Gross - was re-launched 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 writer Vladimir Nabokov. 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
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 on her way there. Following a conversation during this party, she conceived the idea of mapping London.
She claims that the next day, she started mapping London. This involved walking the 3,000 miles of the 23,000 streets of London, waking up at 5 am every day, and not going to bed until after an 18-hour working day (more reliable sources cast total doubt on this story).
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 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." (On the Map by Simon Garfield)
However, Peter Barber, former head of maps at the British Library, says: "The Phyllis Pearsall story is complete rubbish. There is no evidence she did it and if she did do it, she didn’t need to." Barber maintains first of all that the first street-indexed map of London was made in 1623 by John Norden, but his reservations are not just academic. Pearsall’s father, Alexander Gross, had been a map-maker and produced map books of London that were almost identical to the A-Z in everything but name. They looked the same and used the same cartographical tricks. It’s Barber’s belief that Pearsall simply updated these maps to include the newly built areas of outer London and called the result the ‘A-Z’.
"She was a great myth-maker", says Barber. "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 [Pearsall does have a plaque, but it was awarded by Southwark]. It was marketing and it’s a very pervasive myth, she was a lovable character and people want to believe it." So did she really walk those streets or not? Here, Barber is hard to pin down. In writing he is equivocal, as the final comment here shows, but in conversation he makes his position pretty clear.
"Pearsall was building on a body of information that had been around for years", he says. "What she may have done is be more thorough in mapping the new areas that cropped up between the wars, and there were two ways of doing this. You could either tramp the streets of outer suburbia for hours on end, or you could visit the local council office and ask for their plans."
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 orders from every railway station in the south of England. F W Woolworth took a few thousand copies too. By 1938 the London A-Z was well-established.
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 lifelong scars.
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 in the house where she was born in Court Lane Gardens, Dulwich. She was involved with the company she founded, as well as painting prolifically, up until her death.
- 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.
- Geographia Ltd. 20th Century London.
- Sarah Hartley: Mrs P's Journey: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Created the A–Z Map, page 156. Pocket Books, 2002.
- 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.