UK: Women Property Shapers

Last Updated: 29 June 2018
Article by Rebecca Taylor

As 2018 commemorates the 100th anniversary of (some) women first being given the right to vote, we celebrate the lives of some women who have made a significant contribution to the world of property.

The first in this series is Phyllis Pearsall. Hers is perhaps not a household name but anyone who, when navigating London's labyrinth of streets and has turned to their trusty A to Z owes her a debt of gratitude.

Phyllis Isobella Gross was born in East Dulwich on 25 September 1906 to a Hungarian Jewish immigrant father and an Irish-Italian Roman Catholic suffragette mother.

She grew up in London and was well travelled from a young age. Her father founded the cartographic company Geographia Ltd and later moved to the United States where he relaunched his company as the Geographia Map Company.

Phyllis' parents marriage was not a happy one and they separated early on. Phyllis went to Roedean School but had to leave when her father became bankrupt. Aged just 14 she move to Fécamp in Brittany where she became an English tutor and later studied at the Sorbonne, at times sleeping rough in Paris and then moving to a bedsit where she reputedly met Vladimir Nabokov, T.S Eliot and Ezra Pound.

She later married Richard Pearsall, an artist friend of her brother. They were together for eight years, travelling around Spain and living in Paris. She is said to have left him while he lay sleeping one day in Venice, without saying a word to him. She never did remarry.

Legends abound as to how the idea of an 'A to Z' first germinated in Phyllis' creative mind. One school of thought is that Phyllis, who was working as a portrait painter around 1935, became lost in London using her 17 year old map when trying to find the houses of her customers. Another is that her father, Alexander Gross, wrote to her to ask her to publish a map of the world produced by his map company in the United States, and that she became lost on one of her selling expeditions. A further explanation was that she became lost on her way to a party in Belgravia. A less romantic explanation is that she was already working with her father, and that her father and brother were more involved with the A to Z than Phyllis would care to admit.  

What is clear is that Phyllis felt that there was a need for such a map in a rapidly expanding London and this encouraged her to create a new type of map of London, including in it the names of museums, other places of interest and bus routes.  She claimed that she walked for 18 hours a day, raising at 5 a.m. and covering 3,000 miles to check the names of 23,000 London streets. 

Phyllis' map may not have been the first, the Bartholomew's Reference Atlas of London and the Suburbs had been available since 1908, but it was most unique. It was drawn using the 72 6" Ordnance Survey maps for London dating from 1919 by her father's then cartographer, updated by visits to the LCC planning offices. Unlike previous maps, it was easily portable and readable in book form. 

When her map was complete in 1936, she printed 10,000 copies and tried to sell them to bookstores. Hatchards in Piccadilly, Selfridges and Foyles all turned her down. W H Smith eventually agreed to take 250 copies, which she apparently delivered in a wheel barrow borrowed from a pub (possibly Henekey's Wine Bar, predecessor to The Cittie of Yorke pub on High Holborn). The A to Z sold well and she was soon taking orders to every main railway station in London. By 1938, the A to Z was well established and the company continued to grow until there was an A-Z for every major British city.

During the Second World War, selling maps to the public was forbidden and Phyllis worked drawing women in factories for the Ministry of Information.

In 1966, Phyllis turned her company the Geographers' A-Z Map Co. into a trust to ensure it was never bought out to secure the future of the company and its employees. She was awarded an MBE in 1986 and remained involved in the company until her death in Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex in 1996, aged 89.   

The A-Z Map Company Ltd is now the largest independent map publishing company in the UK, producing over 300 paper publications, including the much loved London A-Z, Great Britain Road Atlases, and a new range called The Adventure Atlas covering 30 of the country's most popular walking destinations. 

The London A-Z has been invaluable for anyone wanting to navigate London on foot, car or bus, and it doesn't lose signal, unlike its modern rival! In fact, when I was a trainee solicitor, one of the first things my old firm gave its trainees was their own copy of the London A-Z so that they didn't get lost when running errands and attending meetings!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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