February 26, 2014

The woman who mapped London’s streets into The A-Z


Pearsall on the road with her A-Z map

Pearsall on the road with her A-Z map

Early in the twentieth century, Phyllis Pearsall was on her way to a party in Belgravia and had become lost in the winding streets of London. It was raining and the 1919 Ordnance Survey Map she was using was no help at all. London needed a new map, she decided, and she would be the woman to create it.

Almost one hundred years later, and even with the advent of Google maps and sat nav, we can’t imagine life without The A-Z, that handy road atlas which maps out every road of every city, town and village in England and beyond. I still have and use my pocket edition London A-Z, which was the very first thing I bought when I moved to London.

But how the story of how Pearsall, originally an artist, first came to create the A-Z is full of unbelievable accounts, inconsistencies and competing narratives, which are mostly due to the fact that Pearsall was a highly eccentric woman.

Her eccentricities were never more in evidence than in how she chose to create her new map: Pearsall claimed that, the very next day after her brain-wave at the party, she began rising at 5am and walking up and down every street in London, keeping notes of every road name and detail she encountered. This means that she traversed the 3,000 miles of the 23,000 streets of London, covering an incredible distance on a daily basis – sometimes walking for up to 18 hours a day. To make things a tad easier, she then handed over this information to draughtsmen with instructions of how she wanted the map to look. As The Telegraph’s Charlotte Runcie describes:

“What we do know is that when Pearsall was around 29, she directed some draughtsmen to begin drawing up a new type of street map: not one that unfolded into an unmanageably large sheet of paper, but one that was easily portable and readable in book form, with an index of streets at the back.”

It seems so obvious now, but Pearsall was the first to make the connection between book and map. Instead of a map folding out into a giant sheet of paper, she understood that, by organizing street maps into a book with a detailed index, a user would be able to navigate a map book and the streets it served much more easily than a cumbersome fold-out sheet.

As with all of the best books, the A-Z was initially rejected by publishers. Instead, Pearsall founded the Geographers’ Map Company and published the map herself; it was an instant success, and over her lifetime the series grew to cover all the major cities of Britain.

Pearsall is getting attention again now that a new musical, The A-Z of Mrs P, is showing in London. The musical choses not to address the opinions of some that Pearsall, the daughter of a successful cartographer, actually used her father’s expertise, and made up all of her epic jaunts across London. And I think the story is all the better for not succumbing to these claims. Before the Google street view cars that drive silently and effortlessly through the city, photographing and mapping every street and avenue, I want to believe that Phyllis Pearsall did it all by foot, simply so that she would never be late for a party again.


Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.