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.
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.
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.