The Real Story of A-Z Maps by Phyllis Pearsall Part I

The legend of Phyliss Pearsall, founder of Geographers’ A-Z Map Company, has become controversial  in recent years.

The debate about Phllyis Pearsall’s legacy has become polarised and largely limited to one of two positions. Accept the legend, fictional or otherwise, and Phyliss Pearsall  is a hero, or reject the legend as the claims of a complete charlatan.  In this debate what Phyllis Pearsall actually claimed for herself seems to have been completely forgotten, she remains a hero to me but not on account of the legend.

In this, part one, of a two part post, I’ll look at what I believe to be her real story and in part two I’ll look at her real achievements.

London A-Z

London A-Z

The legend attached to Phyliss Pearsall

The composite  legend goes something like this: Living as an impoverished divorcee in a Horseferry Road bedsit in 1934 Phyliss Pearsall got invited to a party in Belgravia. She got lost on the way to the party and got soaked in a rain-storm. Very frustrated, she realised that the most recent street map of London dated from 1919 so she decided the following morning to produce her own up-to-date map of London. Tirelessly she walked all the 23,000 streets of London for up to eighteen hours a day, over 3000 miles, and produced the first London A–Z Street Atlas in 1936. Nobody in the trade wanted it but eventually W. H. Smith did order 250 copies, which she personally delivered to their head office in a wheelbarrow and the rest is history!

You’ll find versions of this story, embellished to a greater or lesser extent, in such trusted places as:

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • The London Encyclopedia
  • Her obituaries in the Times, Independent etc.
  • On the BBC’s website
  • And the Design Museum’s too.
  • Even Peter Ackroyd  has repeated versions of it in print more than once.
  • All the usual cut and paste merchants have of course followed suit so this story is all over the net
  • “The legend” has even spawned a biography, Mrs P.’s Journey a book whose author admits is “semi-fictionalised” .

The story has become increasingly popular since around the late 1980s and it is on this that Phyllis’s current fame is largely based. There was a musical play based on the legend earlier this year and the story turns up regularly on TV and radio.

It is a very good story but it has attracted some very sharp criticism in recent years. 

Peter Barber, former head of maps at the British Library, in an interview with the marvellous Great Wen 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.” He says that Phyllis’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. Pearsall was building on a body of information that had been around for years. 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.”

Other people have been even more scathing.

Those who revel in the legend and those who attack it have something in common, both groups appear to have completely overlooked Phyllis Pearsall’s own version of the story. 

Phyllis Pearsall wrote two autobiographies. The first was an “autobiographical novel”, privately published with a print run of just 150 copies, it was designed for family and friends. Not easy to come by,  a copy of Fleet Street, Tite Street, Queer Street (1983) will set you back around £1400 for a decent reading copy.  The other more recent  autobiography is this one, published in 1990, it is still in print and readily available for less than a tenner.

From Bedsitter to Household Name: The Personal Story of A-Z Maps by Phyllis Pearsall

From Bedsitter to Household Name: The Personal Story of A-Z Maps by Phyllis Pearsall

 

In this auto-biography at no point does Phyllis Pearsall mention getting lost on the way to a party, in Belgravia or anywhere else.

She also never claims that she decided to make her own map of London, least of all singlehandedly. She lists numerous people, cartographers, printers, paper merchants and salesmen (all largely recruited from her father’s contacts) who helped to make the map a reality.

She doesn’t ever claim to have created first street atlas of London.

She acknowledges her father’s previous map making business and experience fully and how she initially worked as his researcher at his instigation. The new map of London was undoubtedly his idea and she says so.

On every copy of the London  A-Z Geographers’ sold right up until her father’s death in 1958 the phrase “Produced under the direction of Alexander Gross” was on the front cover – very clearly Phyllis Pearsall wasn’t claiming all the credit.

At no point in her autobiography does she claim to have walked every street in London. She says she did just as Peter Barber suggested she could have done, she says she visited every borough’s planning department to inspect and compare all the local maps of London, no mean feat in itself. She did, I think very plausibly, claim to do a lot of walking too but more on that in part two.

She does claim one small element of the legend. She says she delivered the first wholesale copies of the A-Z to W H Smiths HQ on a hand-barrow. Even this small claim has been dismissed as totally implausible by one of her most vociferous detractors, I think unfairly.

By the time the first A-Zs were printed Geographers’ were operating from a small office on High Holborn, right next door to Henekey’s Wine Bar. (Henekeys has since become The Cittie of Yorke pub.) At this stage the company had no transport of its own so Phyllis Pearsall says she borrowed a hand-barrow from Heneckeys Wine Bar. This seems plausible as this was the company’s “local” and their informal meeting room. WHS’s head office lay only around 1/3rd of a mile away across Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Wheeling a hand-barrow such a short distance seems an obvious choice, eminently possible and sensible, certainly a lot less embarrassing than hailing a taxi to take you such a short distance.

So where did the legend/urban myth come from?

I had a hunch that the story must have begun in the earlier “autobiographical novel”.  I tried in vain to track down an affordable copy,  £1400 being a little out of my price range. In the end I went to the British Library to read their copy and found this at the very beginning:

“In 1936 to help her father re-establish himself as map publisher in England she [Phyllis Pearsall] founded Geographers’ A-Z Map Company Ltd.”

Elsewhere in the book there’s no mention of a Belgravian party or trudging every street in London or any other aspects of the legend, so my hunch was wrong.

In short I can’t find out where the legend began. I’ve met and spoken with with the Geographers A-Z Map Company and they don’t know. I’ve read and listened to every interview I can find with Phyliss Pearsall and I can’t find the source of “the legend” in anything she ever said.

If anyone thinks they know where the legend began then do please leave a comment below.

Why does any of this matter?

Well for me the debate about the veracity of the legend is an unhelpful  red herring that has all but obscured Phyllis Pearsall’s undoubted, genuine and substantial legacy.

In my next post I will concentrate on Phyllis Pearsall’s real legacy and explain why she remains a hero of mine.

 

America in London – Top Six Sights in the 1950s

In the early 1950s Charles Skilton issued a set of six postcards entitled “America in London” promising them to be “Of interest to all your friends”. Most of these “Top American sights” can still be seen in London but some of the stories surrounding them have been embellished and other stories forgotten.

America in London A1 - George Washington Statue

America in London A1 – George Washington Statue

Washington has been standing outside the National Gallery since 1921 and can still be seen today.

It is often claimed that the plinth of the statue sits on a ton of soil donated by the Commonwealth of Virginia so that Washington’s vow “Never to set foot on British soil” could be honoured. I think this is almost certainly an urban myth. There are no mentions of a protective layer of Virginian soil in any contemporary newspaper reports and the National Archives, who hold detailed files relating to the statue’s donation and installation, makes no mention of the special soil sheath either.  I suppose it does make a good story though.

America in London A2 - The United States Embassy

America in London A2 – The United States Embassy

The building is still there but the Embassy isn’t.

No 1 Grosvenor Square was the home of the US Embassy from 1938 to 1960. In 1960 the US Embassy moved across the Square to a purpose built block it still currently occupies and No 1 was taken over by the Canadian High Commission . In November 2013 The Canadians sold this building to an Indian Developer for  £306m and will be moving their whole operation to Trafalgar Square.  The US Embassy will also be leaving Grosvenor Square, for Nine Elms in 2017.

America in London A3 - Abraham Lincoln Statue

America in London A3 – Abraham Lincoln Statue

Lincoln has been looking across Parliament Square since 1920.

I’ve heard more than one disreputable tour guide tell an attentive group that this statue arrived in very mysterious circumstances. Dodgy guides often claim that it was anonymously donated and simply turned up one day, completely unannounced, at a dock in London. Baffled by this generous but unexpected gift, MPs eventually decided, after very lengthy debates, that a home should be found for it and Lincoln ended up in his current position facing Parliament.

This story is complete nonsense. Every aspect of this statue’s donation, delivery and installation is very well documented and proof is no more than a 30 second Google away. It was originally intended to have been erected in 1914 to mark “100 years of peace among English Speaking Peoples” but the First World War intervened.

Over the course of six years the statue was thoroughly discussed by a British Committee, an American Committee, the Office of Works, Middlesex County Council, the Foreign Office, the US Secretary of State, the British Embassy in Washington, the US Embassy in London, the Treasury and even Lincoln’s own son. It was also debated in both the House of Commons and Lords before it was eventually unveiled in July 1920.

So yes, there was a lot of debate, some of it even heated, but it was well-informed and there is no mystery attached to this statue whatsoever.

America in London A4 - Benjamin Franklin House

America in London A4 – Benjamin Franklin House

Benjamin Franklin’s house was privately owned back in the 1950s. Since 2006 it has been a museum open to the public.  On Mondays they offer architectural tours of the Grade I listed building, on Tuesdays it is closed except for school groups, from Wednesday to Sunday they offer an “historical experience” exploring Franklin’s life and times.

America in London A5 - Franklin D. Roosevelt Statue

America in London A5 – Franklin D. Roosevelt Statue

Roosevelt still dominates the centre of Grosvenor Square.

This statue was famously paid for by public subscription. Such was the British public’s affection for the recently deceased President that when an appeal was launched to raise the £40, 000 required it took only 6 days to reach that total, with 160,000 individuals purchasing a modest commemorative booklet at 5 shillings each.

America in London A6 - President Harry S. Truman in London

America in London A6 – President Harry S. Truman in London

You have to visit the Madame Tussauds in Washington DC to see a waxy Truman today. But in the 50s, back when Tussaud’s still had an apostrophe, the original London museum was their only site  and it was the most respected collection of waxworks on earth.

When Truman became President on the death of Roosevelt on the 12th April 1945 he inherited one hell of an inbox but still made time for Tussaud’s.

On April 25th 1945  alone, he was fully briefed for the first time on the existence of the atomic bomb, he spoke to Churchill by “secret-telephone” phone and he addressed the United Nations Conference by wire and on that very same day a letter arrived from Madame Tussaud’s requesting the President’s exact measurements in order that a model of him could be made as soon as possible †.

As a matter of obvious priority the President’s office duly obliged: “Height 5′ 9″, chest measurement 42″, waist measurement 35″, size of shoes 9B, size of collar 15″, size of gloves 8, size of hat 7 3/8ths.”

By November 1945 the waxwork was complete, but clothing was still rationed and Tussaud’s did not receive any additional coupons for new models so clothing the President’s effigy  was going to be a problem. When Tussaud’s explained the situation to Truman, he responded by personally donating one of his suits and a matching shirt and tie††.  Presumably this is the very outfit we can see him wearing in the image above.

Today there are of course many other sights that deserve to be included in any list of American cultural and historical connections with London. The US Embassy in London has a pretty comprehensive collection and English Heritage also have an excellent series of pages on Anglo-American Heritage.

This is an original envelope that Skilton’s choice of the best “America in London” sights came packaged in. Another notable set that he issued around the same time was “London Life” (12 cards) and I have previously blogged about them here.

Skilton America 7

† Mc Cullogh, (1993) Truman, Simon & Schuster 0671869205 p465

†† Reported in the Evening Telegraph - Monday 12 November 1945 p4

Postcards of London Life in 1950 by Charles Skilton

A celebrated series of postcards depicting London Life by renowned publisher Charles Skilton crop up regularly on EBay and the like. The evocative images are often described as being from the 1940s, 1930s or even earlier. But aside from dress there is at least one piece of dating evidence that points in favour of the early 1950s. Whenever they were produced I think they are a beautiful set. Here are all 12 cards together with the original envelope they came packaged in.

1. London Life: Costermonger "Pearly Kings and Queens"  in Southwark

1. London Life: Costermonger “Pearly Kings and Queens” in Southwark

2. London Life: Orators' Corner, Hyde Park. A well known spot for open-air speaking.

2. London Life: Orators’ Corner, Hyde Park. A well known spot for open-air speaking.

3. London Life: The Busy Docks in the Port of London

3. London Life: The Busy Docks in the Port of London

4. London Life: Judges leaving a service at Westminster Abbey.

4. London Life: Judges leaving a service at Westminster Abbey.

5. London Life: Posing for a photograph with the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

5. London Life: Posing for a photograph with the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

6. London Life: A Flower Seller in Piccadilly Circus

6. London Life: A Flower Seller in Piccadilly Circus

7. London Life: An entertainer escapes from a bound sack in Charing Cross Road.

7. London Life: An entertainer escapes from a bound sack in Charing Cross Road.

8. London Life: A Pavement Artist outside the National Portrait Gallery.

8. London Life: A Pavement Artist outside the National Portrait Gallery.

9. London Life: A Street Market in Soho, the Latin Quarter.

9. London Life: A Street Market in Soho, the Latin Quarter.

This image is the one that helps to date the set. On the wall of the Globe Theatre, to the right (it is now the Gielgud) is a poster advertising “Ring Round the Moon” starring Margaret Rutherford and Paul Scofield. This play opened on the 26th Jan 1950.

10. London Life: Artists show their pictures in the open-air at Hampstead.

10. London Life: Artists show their pictures in the open-air at Hampstead.

11. London Life: An East End Rag-and-Bone Man. Crockery is offered as an alternative to cash.

11. London Life: An East End Rag-and-Bone Man. Crockery is offered as an alternative to cash.
12. London Life: The Guards in Whitehall are a familiar spectacle.

12. London Life: The Guards in Whitehall are a familiar spectacle.

London Life: An original presentation envelope.

London Life: An original presentation envelope.

“12 Postcards of Unique Interest” indeed.

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Peter Berthoud


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