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London icons – The A to Z

Updated: Oct 25, 2018


In these days of satnav and Google Earth, people take maps for granted but back in the day few people would go anywhere in London without an A to Z about their person. A design masterpiece, almost 200 pages but small and light enough to fit into a large pocket or medium size bag, the A to Z covers every inch of London in immaculate detail and accuracy.

Extraordinarily, the A to Z was the brainchild of one woman with no background in cartography or publishing – the legendary Phyllis Pearsall, painter and writer. Legend has it that having got lost on the way to a party one night, she was horrified to learn that there was no easily portable, comprehensive street plan of her city available on the market.

She must have missed one hell of a party because her determination to rectify this situation was remarkable. Setting out from her Holloway bedsit at five o’clock every morning, she literally walked every street in London with a pencil and notebook until midnight very night.

Mapping every single highway, park, major building and landmark she covered a staggering 3000 miles on foot, her pile of pages growing steadily larger every night.

Unable to find a publisher for her masterwork, she decided to have it printed herself and manage her own distribution, hand-delivering 1250 copies of her first edition to WH Smiths by hand in a wheelbarrow.

Like any map, the A to Z has its fair share of ‘trap streets’, allegedly over 100 in fact. A trap street is a deliberate fake placed into the map so that copyright fraud can be detected easily. These days the trap streets are named after employees of the A to Z company but of course they’re not going to reveal where they are. If you put away your phone for a little while and invest in your own copy of the A to Z, you may be lucky enough to come across one of these non-existent places.

Sadly, the last paragraph aside, the bulk of this story is probably not true. It’s now alleged that Phyllis was actually a canny marketer and self-publicist who simply edited and added to a previous street guide already being produced by her publisher father, but who cares? Like the trap streets or Harry Beck’s underground map, sometimes the elegant version of the truth is more beautiful than the real thing.

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