The A-Z

‘From Aaron Hill to Zoffany St’ — An article by Claire Heald of BBC News:

[Picture of The First Edition of The London A-Z]No one thinks twice today about reaching for a map to navigate their way around a town or city — but do they stop to consider how the street atlas came to be?

When Ms.Phyllis Pearsall set out for a party in Belgravia, London, on a rainy night in 1935, she took along the most recent Ordnance Survey map to help her.

But the 16-year-old map failed to stop her getting lost. And by the time she arrived at the gathering, hours late, bedraggled and wet, she resolved to do something about it.

The result one year later was the first edition of ‘The A-Z Atlas and Guide to London and Suburbs.’

Intrepid task

‘Pearsall fans’ and former colleagues celebrate her 100th anniversary today.

[Picture of Old Ms. Pearsall]

She died in 1996 — just short of her 90th birthday, and still working at the company that makes the definitive guide to London, other UK cities, counties and areas in 359 titles.

Creating the first ‘A-Z’ was a tough job. Before satellite imaging or extensive aerial photography, Ms.Pearsall worked 18-hour days and walked 3 000 miles to map the 23 000 streets of 1930s London. She had just one colleague, draughtsman Mr.James Duncan.

Of course, there were no decent maps to follow.

‘I had to get my information by walking. I would go down one street, find three more and have no idea where I was,’ she later recalled.

Ms.Pearsall was an artist first and the map-making was intended to fund her primary passion. At the start, however, it was the other way around and her commissions funded wages.

The struggle to have the atlas published showed the mettle of a woman who was turfed out of home by her mother’s lover, and was divorced by the age of 30.

Her completed map was rejected by publishers, so she ran off 10 000 copies and sold them to ‘WH Smith’. Ms.Pearsall chose the name ‘A-Z’ from the index. It was a hit publication and, bar a spell in ‘World War 2’ when map production was government-restricted, the company grew and grew.

Mistakes a minefield

Today, ‘A-Z’ is one of several competing street atlas brands on bookshop shelves. But for anyone with a love of maps, their aesthetic and their complex detail, an obsessional desire to know how places fit together and a deep-seated aversion to being lost, Ms.Pearsall’s life’s work is remarkable.

PHYLLIS PEARSALL MBE
1906: Born Phyllis Gross
1920: Leaves school and spends teens in France
1928: Marries artist Richard Pearsall, they later part
1935: Returns to London and starts the A-Z map
1939: With maps restricted by war, works for Government
1945: Injured in plane crash
1986: Exhibition of her paintings in London
1996: Dies of cancer aged 89

‘She was both determined and inspirational, knew exactly what she wanted to do and carried everyone with her,’ says Mr.Ian Griffin, the designer at ‘The Geographer’s A-Z Map Company’, who worked for Ms.Pearsall for 27 years.

The ‘A-Z’ is ‘more than direction; it’s a history’ says Mr.Griffin.

‘Some people are interested in flowers, some people have empathy for maps; there’s so much there, it tells you how the city’s grown, it’s a picture of the world.’

The pre-war ‘A-Z’ of London is a perfect record of the pre-Blitz layout with areas like the warren of booksellers’ shops in Paternoster Square — now an open expanse behind St.Paul’s.

Compare London’s Docklands in the 1960 edition to one of today’s editions, and witness the immense changes in transport, housing, growing park land and shrinking waterways.

Seeing by road

Design consultant Mr.Stephen Bayley says the reason for ‘A-Z’s’ success is simple:

‘It addresses the real needs of people who live in cities and they just let the roads dominate.

‘The North Circular is given far more significance than Buckingham Palace.

‘We’re made to see cities in the terms of “The A-Z” — in those terms it’s a great work of art.”

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