Henry Beck's diagrammatic underground map has long been one of the icons of London, as famous as red buses, black cabs and er... fog. Equally ubiquitous but much undervalued is the Geographer's A-Z Street Atlas, the book we reach for when we want to know exactly where to find Abberton Walk (in Rainham) or Zoffany St. (in N19) and thousands of streets in between. You will find it on the bookshelf of most London homes, in car gloveboxes and in just about every newsagent in the city. It has a comprehensive index which lists every street in London and its carefully drawn maps render sense to the sprawl of roads, mews, parks, gardens, gasworks, cul-de-sacs, railway lines, canals and just about anything else that can be plotted onto a piece of paper. To appreciate its brilliance take a look at any of the central London pages and you will see a charming labyrinthine mess of unplanned streets neatly drawn and labeled. It seems such a simple idea that we have taken it for granted. So where did it come from?
Phyllis Pearsall was a remarkable woman. Born in 1906 she had already lived a rather bohemian life as a writer, painter and traveler when in 1935 she got lost in London while using a 20 year old street map which was at the time the most recent available. Working from a bedsit in Horseferry Road (in SW1!) and with the aid of James Duncan - a draughtsman borrowed from her father, a Hungarian mapmaker, she began to catalogue the 23,000 streets that featured in the first edition. Working eighteen hour days she walked a total of 3,000 miles in compiling it.
Completed in 1936 she met almost universal apathy from the book buying establishment and so formed the Geographer's A-Z Map Company and arranged to have 10,000 copies printed - completing all the proof-reading and design work herself. She delivered 250 copies to WH Smith (in a wheelbarrow!) on a sale or return basis and it proved a great success - later the formula was extended to other British cities. She rarely thought of the Atlas as anything other than a means to allow her to pursue a life of painting and writing - she had some notable success in both and was something of a philanthropist, having passed her shares in the lucrative business to a trust in favour of her employees in the 1960's.
The Geographers' A-Z Map Co, have a website at http://www.atozmaps.co.uk
Anyone further interested in her work should seek out the following book:
Author: Pearsall, Phyllis.
and a new biography:
Author: Sarah Hartley