Phyllis Pearsall: Plot saver…

As an historian, I usually don’t have a lot of time for geography. It’s professional pride. We’re at opposite ends of the humanities – and like daleks and cybermen, historians and geographers are fundamentally different. One is a noble exponent of detection, the other a mere scientist.

but for Phyllis Pearsall, I am prepared to make an exception. Because like our Kate Shrewsday and a post of hers earlier in the year on Kaspar, Phyllis Pearsall was also instrumental in solving my plot problems.

Born in 1906, Phyllis  had one brother – the painter – Anthony Goss, CBE, RA. Her mother was an Irish Catholic Suffragette and her father – in addition to being a Hungarian Jewish Immigrant – was the owner of cartography company Geographia Ltd which went bankrupt and was re-founded by  Alexander Goss, as the American Geographia Map Company.

I wish I could have included her in my book; her life was very unusual. Her parents marriage was a disaster. Her own (which I shall come to in a moment) was not much better.

On leaving school, because of her father’s bankruptcy, Phyllis became a tutor. Eventually  she went to study art at the Sorbonne – sleeping rough on the streets of Paris –  which apparently is  when she met Vladimir Nabokov writer of  Lolita.

She  eventually married Richard Pearsall a friend of her brother’s – who was also an artist. But after 8 years, without a word of warning, Phyllis left Richard in the middle of the night. They were living in Venice at the time.

Returning to London, and having got lost on the way to a party in Maida Vale 1935 – or so the story goes – she conceived the idea of creating a street map of  London. The following day, if  legend is to be believed, Phyllis  began to walk the streets of London, mapping them as she went.

Except that Phyllis lived in a fantasy world.

There is no evidence to say she tramped the23,000 streets of London, collating the information, on walks that lasted 18 hours a day. Such maps existed since the 1600s. She could have used these.

Possibly  her father had already done something similar, and she merely jumped on the band wagon.

Possibly she went to the town halls and looked at the plans.

Possibly she did tramp the streets that had sprung up after the 1919 ordinance survey maps, to fill in the gaps.

But however it was done is irrelevant. Because it worked. In 1936, the first  map went on sale. And the idea of her getting lost and deciding to do something about it became not only a myth of epic proportions but the secret to her success.  You see, those indispensable little  A-Z’s sold, and sold and sold. Not bad when you consider Foyles and Selfridges and Hatchards refused to stock them.

But Smith’s and Woolies did… and the rest – as they say – is history.

Of course, during WW2, her maps were pulled from sale. But the A-Z survived such necessary censorship.

A clever old stick, Phyllis ensured the company could never be bought out by turning it into a trust.

She died in 1996, of cancer – she was 89 years 11 months.