Phyllis Pearsall

Travellers of the world, raise your hat to Phyllis Pearsall, the lady who mapped London from A to Z in the mid-1930s by walking…

Travellers of the world, raise your hat to Phyllis Pearsall, the lady who mapped London from A to Z in the mid-1930s by walking every single one of its long and winding streets.

Thanks to the sturdy walking boots of this intrepid map-maker, finding your way around London is relatively effortless with that handy A-Z street atlas. Millions recognise and use her work every day of the week but Pearsall's own story is not as well-known, despite having been every jot as colourful and eventful.

Born Phyllis Isobella Gross in 1906, the daughter of a Hungarian-Jewish father and Irish-Italian mother, she had a fairly nomadic, bohemian career, going from teaching in Paris to painting in Spain and Italy before returning to work in London in the early 1930s as a portrait artist. Having got lost on her way to an appointment with a prospective client, her frustration with out-of-date maps led her not to fire off a letter to her MP but to do something about it herself.

No stranger to cartography - her father had previously run a map-making business in London in tandem with the Daily Telegraph - she enlisted the help of draughtsman James Duncan to produce what would be the first A-Z Atlas of London.


Every day for a year, she would leave her bedsitter, head to a different area of the city and map what she found on the streets, avenues, roads and lanes. As she explained in an interview in later years: "I had to get my information by walking. I would go down one street, find three more, and have no idea where I was". Twenty-three thousand roads, 3,000 miles and a lot of shoe leather later, the A-Z was ready for publication. Surprisingly, no publisher was keen to snap up the book so, undaunted, Pearsall set up the Geographer's A-Z Map Company and had 10,000 copies printed. Two hundred and fifty copies were delivered to one bookseller in a wheelbarrow and the atlas was on its way to becoming a bestseller.

Despite receiving some horrific injuries - she suffered a fractured spine and skull during the second World War flying a consignment of maps back from Holland - Pearsall remained at the head of the company for many years and proved to be an eccentric businesswoman. In the mid-1960s, she created a trust for her employees and presented it with her share of the company to prevent any possible takeovers or buy-outs. She had little commercial ambition, viewing the success of the A-Z as a means to allow her to paint and write.

She died aged 89 in August 1996 and, as the London Times' obituary noted, "was still breaking the speed limit in her Mercedes well into her 80s".

Jim Carroll

Mrs P's Journey, a biography of Phyllis Pearsall, by Sarah Hartley is published by Simon & Schuster