Phyllis Pearsall – ‘Whose secretary are you?’

For getting around London in the days before pre-Sat Nav and Google Map – if  you can imagine such a quaint, techno-lite concept –  Phyllis Pearsall’s A-Z was indispensable.

But most contemporary references to Phyllis are derogatory.  Take for example, the mentions she gets in the much-lauded London Review of Books. The tunnel-boring machine used to dig Crossrail is named after our pioneering cartographer – it’s described in LRB as ‘a toothed slug.’ Elsewhere, her achievements are subtly undermined. She is ‘the artist who claimed to have tramped three thousand miles in mapping streets for the A-Z’ (my italics).

In 2017, I went to an exhibition at the British Library, Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. There was, admittedly, equal billing given to Phyllis’s original A to Z of London and Harry Beck’s London Underground map. But outside, I’m not sure that’s the case. The Underground map is found everywhere: on tea towels and fridge magnets in every other Oxford Street shop. Its style, based on electrical wiring, has become as an almost sacred design icon.

The A-Z, though, seems to be the preserve of commercial and home based crafters, used as a cute backdrop for personalised art to celebrate and reflect on family and memories.

Beck’s map, while useful, easy to use and effective, reflects its 1933 era: one-size-fits-all, machine-like and uniform, and in keeping with the sharp, streamlined, efficient fascism which was on the rise. The A-Z, by contrast, is a labour of love, executed with attention and patience, its practical strengths translated from detailed drawings of the minutiae of city life.


Admittedly, I was pondering on the similarities or otherwise of Phyllis and Harry the day after the Women’s March. I was ready to leap on any innocent comment from unsuspecting men that might have roots in – well, words – as further evidence of the ongoing oppression by the patriarchy.

Unfortunately, there is no question that Phyllis, maverick and tenacious, was victim to the ongoing oppression by the patriarchy. The reaction to her first approaches to publish and distribute her A-Z? ‘Beats me what a woman is doing here anyway… Whose secretary are you?’

Her entrepreneurial spirit offended traditional cartographers who dismissed her as the ‘fast-food maker of mapping.’

Phyllis’s treatment is common in some way to all the women whose travels changed not themselves but the attitudes of those they encountered. Travel can be physical or mental. It carries, as Judith Johnston defines it, a plurality of meaning – it is rich in nuances, metaphorical implications, imaginative possibilities, romance, knowledge acquisition, and rendolent with anticipation.’

The London Review of Books – treasure trove though it undoubtedly is – was recently pulled up for having only around 30% of content about or by women. So they haven’t quite moved on from the wariness with which Phyllis’s work was first received…

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