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28 October 2014

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Phyllis Pearsall - blue plaque

Blue plaque award for founder of the A-Z

A woman who literally put London on the map by designing the world-famous A-Z is being honoured with a blue plaque.

Southwark Council has awarded Dulwich-born Phyllis Pearsall with the award in recognition of her founding London's premier streetmap.

It was unveiled at her home in Court Lane Garden, Dulwich, by BBC London 94.9 presenter Robert Elms on Wednesday (12).

Phyllis first came up with the idea of a street map for London one evening in 1935.

She realised she did not know the location of the party she had been invited to in Belgravia.

She armed herself with the most recently published London street map she could find. It was the 1919 Ordnance Survey map and, hard though she tried, Pearsall could not find the address of the party.

Phyllis Pearsall
Phyllis Pearsall, born in 1906

It was then that Phyllis decided to make a map of her own.

Working from her bedsit on Horseferry Road near Victoria Station, she woke up at 5am everyday to walk the 23,000 streets of London, often working 18 hour days.

In all, she walked an incredible 3,000 miles. 

"I had to get my information by walking," she later recalled. "I would go down one street, find three more and have no idea where I was."

Having indexed all 23,000 of the capital's streets helped only by a single draughtsman,  she then failed to persuade any of the established book publishers to accept her atlas.

Undeterred, Phyllis published it herself a year later by founding the Geographers’ Map Company.

Yet, as soon as she overcame one hurdle, another one presented itself - selling her new map. Unable to persuade all the established book publishers, she set up her own business, the Geographers' Map Company.

"She woke up at 5am everyday to walk the 23,000 streets of London, often working 18 hour days. In all, she walked a total of 3,000 miles. "

She arranged for 10,000 copies to be printed, completing the design and proof-reading herself.

The printer used the wrong presses and there were numerous inaccuracies in the index.

Nonetheless Phyllis managed to persuade W.H. Smith to stock 250 copies in its London shops. She even delivered them there herself in a wheelbarrow. W.H. Smith sold out and other retailers soon started to place orders.

During World War II, the company's activities were curtailed by official restrictions on map production, even though sales of the original A-Z were bolstered by the influx of US and Commonwealth troops flooding into London.

In 1965, she transferred the ownership of the company to a charity, the Geographers' Map Trust.

Robert Elms at the plaque unveiling
Robert Elms at the plaque unveiling

Her intention was to ensure that her employees should "benefit from their contribution towards the company's success" and "to create the most favourable circumstances for the long term survival of the founding ethics and ideals, instead of the A-Z team becoming subjugated by the inevitable threats of mergers and 'the offer was too good to refuse' takeovers."

Today, the company publishes more than 250 titles ranging from street maps and atlases to large scale plans of towns and cities.

She died of cancer on 28th August 1996, a month before her 90th birthday.

The charity lives on and employees meet annually to celebrate the birthday of their much-loved founder.

Praising her initiative and zeal, Southwark councillor Lorraine Zuleta said Phyllis's legacy to London was very significant:

"The A-Z seems like a simple idea that we take for granted but Phyllis's achievement took initiative and extreme determination to come to fruition," she said. "That's why so many people from London and beyond voted for her to have a plaque."

last updated: 13/07/06
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