Tag Archives: london maps

The first A-Z

The often related story of Phyllis Pearsall getting up at 5.00 a.m. and walking the 3,000 miles in a couple of years along 23,000 streets of London drawing up a map of the capital after she couldn’t find her way to a party in Belgravia is the stuff of urban legend.

The story is almost certain in the main untrue, the first street-indexed map of London was drawn up in 1623 by John Norden and Phyllis Pearsall probably just filled in the blanks.

[T]hat hasn’t stopped collectors wanting to get their hands on a first edition A-Z published just before the advent of World War II. Seeing these first editions passing hands for thousands the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company has reproduced its original 1936 edition for those with less deep pockets.

2017-03-02 19.59.31

It makes for fascinating reading. What has happened to the Little Theatre on the Strand; the Gaiety Theatre which stood where the curiously named ME London hotel now stands; and who knew the Shaftesbury Theatre was once the Princess?

Most of the clubs still exist but had I been around then I’d like to have belonged to the Eccentric club located in Pickering Place, just down the road from Boodle’s Club.

A quick look at the ‘Underground Railways of London and Suburbs’ map reveals that the Northern Line ended at Archway, even with that truncated line it still probably had the worst service on the network.

On the street maps the detail is so poorly defined it’s surprising that anyone could find their way around the capital’s back streets, and to make matters worse, on the inside back cover is a pull-out three-dimensional map attempting to show a representation of the building as they appeared from the air, printed so small they remain as splodges.

So I decided to put Mrs P’s endeavours to the test. Using one of he most infamous of London’s addresses namely 10 Rillington Place.

We know from numerous contemporary accounts this part of Ladbroke Grove was old, in fact, the buildings were in a state of dereliction by the 1950s. and it was situated west of St. Mark’s Road, just north of Wesley Square.

On the 1936 edition – nothing, nor are many of the surrounding roads at that time are to be found.

A more poignant page is 51 19L to be exact [illustrated below], here is the ancient district of Cripplegate obliterated by German bombing less than four years after this first edition was published. Barbican (a street); Red Cross Street; Playhouse Yard; Jewin Street and Crescent; Paul’s Alley, and more are illustrated, many of which are illegible in this reprint as the streets were so closely packed together.


Cripplegate before the Blitz

‘Places of Interest’ gave Kew Gardens entrance fee as 1d (12 would equal 5p in today’s money), and my favourite the engrossing Parkes Museum which is described thus: 90, Buckingham Palace Road, S.W.1 Station: Victoria D). Contains exhibits relating to modern hygiene in architectural and food values ; disinfection, etc., for presentation of disease. OPEN : WEEKDAYS, 9.30 A.M. to 6.30 P.M. 9.30 A.M. to 7 P.M.). ADMISSION FREE.

Presumably, the late opening is to cope with the extra demand at the beginning of the week.

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

Bomb Sights

In my house in suburban North London we had a joke about my Father’s war wound. Thankfully his war service concluded without injury, his garden fence on the other hand did not survive unscathed.

Returning from a day working in what is now
the MI5’s headquarters, my Mother was
confronted with the back door hanging
off its hinges, a bomb had fallen some way away.

[I]t was, apparently the result of a stray German bomber’s attempt at hitting the nearby railway siding, missing its intended target, the resulting shrapnel decapitated Dad’s fence. Thankfully, I believe no injuries were sustained; others where bombs fell were, of course, not so lucky.

I was reminded of this when reading of a huge project which aims at mapping the location of every bomb dropped during World War II. The reasoning, apart from the obvious danger of unexploded ordinance, is that bombs contaminate the surrounding land with copper, zinc, lead and mercury as they corrode.

It is estimated that one in ten bombs dropped by the German Luftwaffe failed to explode; this was in part due to sabotage. Unlike bombs assembled by the allies much of the German ordinance was produced by slave labour who took every opportunity to thwart Germany’s ambitions. Some failed to explode on impact, others with delayed timers have jammed, and their clockwork mechanisms could still explode if disturbed.

In all 21,000 locations where bombs have fallen are logged on the website Bomb Sight. The culprit for my garden fence I found was a high explosive bomb, falling between 7th October 1940 and 6th June 1941. Present-day address: Norfolk Close, Cockfosters, London Borough of Enfield, EN4 0BX, London. Source: Aggregate Night Time Bomb Census.

Because of these unlocated bombs construction in London tends to be higher as provision for locating buried bombs has to be written into any costings. During the construction of the Olympic Park work had to be halted when a 1,000kg device was found. Estimates at the time put at 200 the number of unidentified bombs within the Olympic site.

Now experts have studied aerial photographs taken by the RAF after the war and maps created by insurance companies to assess the extent of the bombing damage which hopefully will minimise injury and reduce construction costs.

City Limits

Ask any cabbie where the centre of London would be and you’ll get an unequivocal answer – The King Charles I Island in Trafalgar Square – there is even a plaque to prove this assumption.

The official street at this location is Charing Cross, one of the roads whose importance has been lost while the name has been retained, even if in this case it is just a few yards long.

[T]oday we assume Charing Cross is either a railway terminus or a cone-shaped oddity, erected in 1865 in the station’s forecourt as a publicity stunt to attract attention to the new station behind, now it just gets in the way of cabs as they weave their way around it moving up the rank.

When order broke down in London due to triffids and blindness in John Wyndham’s classic Sci-Fi thriller he put Piccadilly Circus as the natural centre where survivors might gravitate.

Before the Millennium Wheel was constructed, now the focus of the annual pyrotechnics display, New Year’s Eve revellers would try to get into Trafalgar Square fountains regarded as the epicentre of the Capital’s celebrations.

The Romans thought London Stone, that battered piece of rock languishing behind railings opposite Cannon Street Station was at the city’s heart.

Later when Westminster became the seat of government in the 11th century the City Fathers didn’t want to trudge across wasteland from the old walled city so a half-way point was agreed to meet, the plaque at King Charles I statue marks this spot equidistant from the two Londons.

It is this point that we measure the centre of the 6-mile circumference that cabbies have to learn every point within that boundary on The Knowledge.

Five years ago using a spent packet of Marks & Spencer cheese cracker selection the Londonist tried to ascertain: Where Is The Centre of London? Finding The Real Midtown. Complete with illustrations aka Blue Peter with the aid of a pin they confidentially calculated the Capital’s geographical centre to be Lambeth North tube station.

Open-map Recently Tom Hoban has calculated the City’s centre using more reliable methodology, his result is likely to strike fear into London’s cabbies. Tracing an electronic map in AutoCAD software Hoban was able to calculate the City’s centre digitally to an accuracy of +/- 40cm. For those of you who want to know it is at E 531331.025, N179645.831 Lat 51Deg,30′ 1.806956″ Lon –0Deg, 6′ 33.458418″.

Street-ViewOr Greet House, off Frazer Street SE1 roughly where the silver car is on the right in the Google Street View picture above.

Now cabbies will have no excuse for telling punters “Sorry, Guv I’m not going South of The River.

Map data © ODbL OpenStreetMap contributors. Map tiles © CC BY-SA 2.0 OpenStreetMap

Trap Streets

There is an apocryphal story which every generation of Knowledge students hears. It relates an appearance (test) when a Knowledge boy tells the examiner that you could turn right into Farringdon Street from Holborn Viaduct.

The salutary lesson to be learned is that if he had just gone to that location he would have discovered there was a 60ft drop onto the road below.

[T]he hapless Knowledge boy had relied on his A-Z map and had learned the hard way that maps should not be slavishly followed. In fact deliberate errors called trap streets are included, and according to the BBC programme Map Man, broadcast in October 2005, its presenter Nicholas Crane, was told by John Frankel the managing director of Geographers’ who produce The Knowledge bible – the A-Z – that London alone has about 100 trap streets.

Apparently they are inserted to protect copyright. If a map is plagiarised the author can identify it as a copy of his own work. According to Peter Watts’ post in The Great Wen he has managed to clarify this reasoning.

The map itself cannot have a copyright as it is a representation of fact . . . the trap streets and deliberate mistakes change the work from being purely factual into a creative expression and thus able to be protected by copyright.

The example Watts gives is the ‘ski slope’ in the featured image above. There is no evidence of there ever having been a ski slope located in Haggerston Park.

Cartographers are naturally reluctant to disclose other ’deliberate’ errors. Some are known: Gnat’s Hill for Gants Hill; Bartlett Place (incidentally the name of Kieran Bartlett, an employee at Geographers’) for Broadway Walk E14; Moat Lane off Clandon Gardens N3 which doesn’t exist; Wagon Road EN4 which changes its name to Waggon Road after crossing a railway line, but left on the map with the single g spelling.

Another device map makers use to protect their copyright is that they will misrepresent the nature of a street in a fashion that can still be used to detect copyright violators but is less likely to interfere with navigation. For instance, a map might add nonexistent bends to a street, or depict a major street as a narrow lane, without changing its location or its connections to other streets.

Map makers have long had a cavalier attitude when it comes to the truth. Jonathan Swift wrote a poem in 1733 – and I paraphrase:

“If you’re a mapmaker and you don’t know what’s really out there you either make it up or you put in an elephant”.