All mapped out

You know how it is, you have been invited to a little soirée in Belgravia but, try as you might, you cannot find its location. This is what happened to Phyllis Pearsall one evening in 1935.

Even with the most recently published London street map she could find in her hand, a 1919 Ordnance Survey map, and as hard though she tried, Pearsall could not find the address of the party.

[P]hyllis Pearsall decided that night to devise a more efficient means of helping other people to navigate the labyrinthine London streets, much like you have to on The Knowledge. Working from her bedsit on Horseferry Road she set off early each morning to walk – and catalogue – the streets of the city.

The 30-year-old artist is said to work 18 hours a day walking around the 3,000 miles of London’s 23,000 streets. Not only did she map London’s streets she designed and produced the A-Z Street Atlas of London (pronounced A-Zed) and founded her own company to publish it.

Pearsall decided for economies of scale to divide it into different sections, each of which would be coded in an index. Pearsall proofread, designed and drew the map with the help of a single draftsman. Although the original map contained hundreds of combinations of type form: bold, italics, spacing of characters, colour, sans serif, reversed type, size, rotation, upper and lower case, the design and placement of the typography is meticulous.


Once they were drawn, the maps needed numerous checks for spelling mistakes, inaccuracies or omissions, as did the index. Towards the end of the process Pearsall realised that they had left out Trafalgar Square from its index as she had knocked a shoebox full of file cards marked ‘T’ out of her High Holborn office window and not all were recovered. She chose the name of the atlas – inspired by its all-important index – and used an Eric Gill typeface for the visual identity of the title.

Along with Harry Beck’s 1931 iconic map of the London tube, the A-Z remains one of the most ingenious examples of early 20th century information design.

When she failed to persuade any of the established book publishers to accept her atlas, Pearsall published it herself by founding the Geographers’ Map Company. The A-Z Atlas and Guide to London and Suburbs was published in 1936 and has remained the principal guide to the city ever since.

It is a very nice urban tale retold time and again. If you said to any Knowledge boy or girl trying to cram the location of all of London’s streets into their head that you could map London in a year they would be incredulous. The fact is that rather than trudging outdoors from five in the morning all she would have had to do was ask London’s local authorities for their street plans. In addition her father Alexander Gross was a map-maker who had himself drawn up a very similar A-Z.

I believe that ‘walking the streets’ has come to be a metaphor, as you go through the records you are walking the streets, much like when aspiring cabbies call over, they are recounting a journey they made possibly three years ago.

Whatever the truth, perhaps her creation’s greatest significance was its much-imitated visual language, with its wide streets, clean lines and san serif fonts. Though early A-Zs were black and white, the eventual, striking colour scheme – orange for A-roads, yellow for B-roads – helped shape the vocabulary of London taxi drivers, who as a result refer to them as ‘oranges’ and ‘lemons’. It’s a design classic because it’s taking what is a very complex area and rendering it very simply.


Mrs.P’s Journey: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Created the A-Z Map by Sarah Hartley


From Bedsitter to Household Name: The personal story of the first 50 years of the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company by Phyllis Pearsall

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