The London A-Z

Greater London is made up of nearly 95,000 ‘streets’, ‘roads’, ‘gardens’ and a whole host of other names for places where people live and work. Many of these, such as Oxford Street and Kings Road are well known, most however are not so. For visitors to the UK’s capital, finding their way around can be a tricky affair. Of course, the advent of smartphones and Google Maps makes things easier, but it hasn’t always been this way.

The London A-Z (pronounced ‘A to zed’) was the map book of choice prior to the handheld information age. An instantly recognisable book with a very British red, white and blue cover sporting a large ‘A-Z’ was the pathfinder for those wishing to navigate the intricate the metropolis.

Legend has it that Phyllis Pearsal – the now deceased creator of the A-Z – got lost in the wind and rain of 1930s London. Inspired, Pearsal bought the last remaining Ordnance Survey map of London from Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road. It was sixteen years old. With her map as her guide she set out remapping the capital by working 18-hour days, and walking the 23,000 streets of London, thereby clocking up 3,000 miles. It’s a good story – but not entirely true.

Pearsal was actually the daughter of Alexander Grosz, a Hungarian refugee, who, after selling oil lamps and pornographic postcards, made his money by producing maps. It was Grosz’s idea to use maps in newspaper to illustrate the news – an idea that was warmly welcomed by the then Daily Telegraph owner Baron Burnham.

The First World War was boom time for Grosz, with other newspapers requiring his services for their news-hungry readers. Peace time however, saw a fall in demand with only his London Street Guide still selling well. Then, quite unexpectedly, he announced plans for a new world atlas, a market that already had serious players. Grosz’s project led him to bankruptcy and he fled to the USA.

And so it was that his daughter tried to re-establish the family name in the world of map-making. Using existing maps, a list of 2,000 street name changes, and working in tandem with borough surveyors to compare the capital’s topography with that of older publications, Pearsal produced the first A-Z, named after her detailed filing system for street names. Only when there was an irresolvable discrepancy did Phyllis walk some of the central London’s then 23,000 streets.