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Women in History Month: Phyllis Pearsall – Creator of the iconic A-Z Mapping

Women in History Month: Phyllis Pearsall – Creator of the iconic A-Z Mapping

In the second of our series celebrating the vital contribution of women to our industry, we are shining the brightest of lights on the life and dedication of a woman who had a single, undeterred vision to create a new style of cartography that has since become synonymous with urban street mapping. 

Phyllis Pearsall was born in East Dulwich London on 25th September 1906, the child of Alexander Gross and Isabella Crowly and attended Roedean School in Brighton. Originally a painter and artist at heart, this skill would carry her to create a truly iconic piece of British design. 

Mapping ran in the family with her father Alexander being the founder of two mapping companies in the early 20th century. Geographia Ltd focused on producing maps of British towns, which while experiencing some success, would eventually fold. Not to be deterred he re-launched in the USA as the Geographia Map Company which still exists today, after being acquired by Rand McNally in the 1980s. 

In 1935, Phyllis started work on the first edition of the London A-Z, after realising how out of date the current pool of maps available had become. It is said she came to this realisation after getting lost on the way to a party, though sadly this may be more apocryphal myth than truth. 

This prompted her to begin work on a new map, which would cover London’s ever expanding network of roads, transport links, and most importantly the suburbs! This is something that none of the other major mapping companies had included up to then in their London maps. Another big innovation was in updating the road names. She acquired a list of 2,000 road name changes from London County Council . 

Once Pearsall had decided to commence the undertaking, she began the mammoth task of collecting, mapping, and indexing all of London’s 23,000 roads. Helped only by the draughtsman James Duncan, who would draw up the maps, Phyllis is said to have walked the 3,000 miles of London’s roads single handedly, rising at 5am to walk 18 hours a day, remarking in a later interview: 

“I had to get my information by walking. I would go down one street, find three more and have no idea where I was.”

Though even with this gargantuan effort the first copy of map featured many errors, and almost forgot to include Trafalgar Square. How was one of the most famous landmarks in London almost left behind? The stack of cards featuring locations starting with the letter T fell out of a window, and while most were recovered, some managed to escape into the streets of London.  

Once the map was produced the task of publishing began. Rejected by the major publishers, but encouraged by her father, she founded her own mapping company the ‘Geographers Map Company’. It printed 10,000 copies of London’s new street map in 1936.  She rejected her fathers ideas for naming the map, and felt the only appropriate name, given the exhaustive indexing, was A-Z. 

Initially struggling to find anyone willing to purchase any of the new maps. Mr Foyle of the eponymous Foyles bookshop told her:

The map trade has been undisturbed for years, we’re not going to let someone new upset it.”

Undeterred, she achieved her first sale of 250 maps to WH Smiths which had to be hand delivered by Pearson in a borrowed handbarrow, as there was no one else to help her. She also had to handle all the sales, delivery, printing, indexing, and book-keeping personally. 

The work was all worth it as they very quickly sold out. Soon, the maps were finding themselves across every railway station in the south of England. By 1938, the A-Z was firmly established. Thanks to the exhaustive research and comprehensive and iconic alphabetical indexing of every street, the A-Z “did what it said in the tin” and made her map the go to map of London. 

The Second World War disrupted map publishing like most industries, with serious restrictions on the maps that could be published. Anything with a scale larger than 1 inch to the mile was prohibited. Phyllis had to put the A-Z on hold and helped the war effort as a civil servant in the Ministry of Information and by publishing war maps of battle fronts in Europe through the Geographers Map Company, to help keep her draughtsman employed. 

Following the war, the restrictions were lifted and after surviving a plane crash in 1945, she and the A-Z made a quick recovery selling more than 250,000 maps a month. This allowed updates, improvements and new locations, including Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh, until eventually covering the entire UK. As the company expanded, Pearsall exerted her distinctive brand of leadership – board meetings were banned, bureaucracy kept to a minimum, with decisions often spontaneous. 

On running her business, she remarked that her style was underpinned by:

“a commitment to natural and sustainable growth… in the hope of bringing together a work team that would appreciate and thrive (both in work and in their private lives) in an atmosphere of stability, mutual trust, honesty and high endeavour”

The company was turned into a charitable trust to ensure the A-Z kept to its founding ideals and ethics. In 1980, the map gained its now instantly recognisable colour scheme. Pearsall remained Chair and Joint Managing Director as the business continued to flourish and introduced new technologies to help develop products, including computer-aided design (CAD) in 1990, now a staple of all facets of mapping. 

Phyllis continued to be an active part of the company well into the 1990s until she passed away in 1996 in Shoreham on Sea. 

Phyllis Pearsall combined her skill and passion for art and design, to solve a real world problem, and ensured that the company producing the A-Z would continue to follow her dedicated principals. It’s a testament to the quality of the product she created that even with all the barriers before her, the A-Z rose to become the map for travelling and exploring the towns and cities of the nation. 


Mar 14, 2023

Matthew Foster