2016 marked the 80th anniversary of the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company. Times may have drastically changed for the paper mapping industry over the past 15 years, but A-Z’s commitment to helping the UK population find their way around remains unshaken.

Our iconic Company has grown from its humble beginnings in 1936, into the largest independent map publisher in the UK.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, we embarked on a project which highlights and shares the amazing 8 decade history of our Company.  Starting on the 8th of July 2016 we published a historical Company related photograph every day for 80 days.

Master Atlas of Greater London – Anniversary Edition The Master Atlas of Greater London has been our flagship London publication since the very first edition, published in 1967 (priced at 57 Shillings and Sixpence). During this time the street mapping inside has been completely redrawn, the area of coverage extended and Super Scale mapping of central London added. Available next month, this new edition has been updated for 2017 and, to mark our 80th anniversary, there is a section dedicated to the company’s history inside.
Road map Town development
Over 20 years separates these two road maps of Carlisle, typically illustrating the type of changes found throughout the country. The upgrading of the A74 to motorway (the M6 towards Glasgow) and the Todhills Service Area. The A689 by-pass to the west built to ease traffic congestion in the town centre and the changes in road classifications as a result. There have been style changes and improvements made to the map too: better symbol masking; public telephones removed and petrol stations added; the town map box replaced with a page reference under the town name; increased visibility of town dots and a more suitable urban area colour to allow other features to stand out; brighter CMYK printed colours and, with the introduction of CTP (Computer To Plate) printing, improved colour registration.
Scribing sheet – stopping out
After scribing map detail, both road junctions and pecked lines (those broken at regular intervals) needed to be formed. Referred to as ‘stopping-out’, this involved the inking out of unwanted line work and the application of ‘pecks’ – a linear pattern of stripping-film blocks, cut out and stuck down along footpath and track lines. Because it was difficult to prevent ink running down the channel-like scribed lines, this work was carried out on the reverse side of the sheet.
Varityper typesetter
In the early 1980s A-Z installed their first computer phototypesetter complete with a monochrome, or ‘green screen’, VDU. Road names and other map text was typed on a keyboard and stored on punch tape which was then run back through a reader to expose letters to film.
A later AM Varityper phototypesetter used a different storage and retrieval system along with a number of type discs, each containing four fonts. The appropriate disk was mounted inside the machine and spun with a strobe light exposing letters to film in a cartridge. The film sheets seen to the right here were used to match the font and point size of map text when ordering additional type.
Paper map compilation
This image shows how map additions were recorded in the late 1940s prior to be being drawn. Very simply (but carefully) drawn with road casings showing road widths and junctions, many of the roads have been numbered and named in the sheet margin. This method of compilation later evolved with road centre lines being added instead and a separate card listing the numbered additions, deletions and other amendments.
Hand folding sheet maps
Today, all of our sheet maps are folded by machine, but there was a time when an unusual sheet or cover board size dictated a different fold pattern that needed to be done by hand. A sharp accurate fold was achieved by running a ‘bone folder’ quickly along the turned edge of the sheet. Skilled workers prepared up to 400 sheets per day ready for ‘tipping’ into their covers.
Straight line scribing tool
This drawing instrument is a straight line scribing tool. The inserted sapphire cutting tool has been correctly positioned in it using the small set up block seen to the left. In use, the plastic wheel is run along a ruler scribing a line away from its edge, therefore protecting the tip from damage (they could be easily chipped). A single scribbed line like this could be used in this way to set out a grid or, using double line road cutters, a road map reference panel. When not in use the tips were stored in a protective box open here.
Astrafoil colours
Any map colour, or percentage of the same colour, required its own overlay sheet so that different printing screens could be introduced later in the production workflow. This type of work, before the introduction of clean and simple peel coats, was messy. In this example, the original scribed drainage sheet has been reproduced onto Astrafoil specifically to paint in the 20% blue drainage infill. A Graphos pen was initially used along these boundary lines to form an edge which was then carefully expanded into the infill area with a fine brush. Finally, much larger brushes, up to an inch wide, were used to complete the job. This method can clearly be seen here where the light catches the surface. Hausleither ink (which we referred to as ‘plastic ink’) was used on the Astrafoil, etching into the surface – a quantity of ink like this could take several days to completely dry.
Chinagraph/Wax pencils
Similar to a crayon, this is a chinagraph. Also known as a wax or grease pencil it was manufactured specifically to write on shiny surfaces and easily wipe off without scratching. Here it has been used to highlight film detail requiring attention, although they were equally used in the darkroom to write page numbers on film extracts ready for patch-up. Available in a number of colours, red was not used in the darkroom as it was not visible under the red safelight.
Oranges and Lemons
Oranges and lemons? – if you are a London black cab driver, or studying to be one, then you will know what we are referring to. A-Z maps are extensively referred to during the two to four years it takes for applicants to successfully complete and pass ‘The Knowledge’. That’s a working knowledge of the 25,000 streets, 320 routes (runs) and 20,000 points of interest within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. The oranges and lemons? – well that’s the A and B road colours of course.
Phyllis Pearsall forms Geographers’ Map Trust in 1966
This is one of our favourite photographs of our founder Phyllis Pearsall; a remarkable woman who, having witnessed the impact of unexpected business closure on loyal staff when the owner died, took the unselfish step of giving up her company shares in order to set up the Geographers’ Map Trust. This partnership trust safeguarded the company and employees from hostile takeover and ensured long term security for both. We are still to this day owned by a variation of the original Trust.
London 2012 maps
A-Z was proud to be the official paper map supplier to London 2012 (the Games of the XXX Olympiad). You can see a number of our ‘Official Products’ from our range here – from compact self-covered sheet maps to glossy souvenir book titles. Data was processed to produce venue and regional maps combining A-Z accuracy and quality with the London 2012 brand design and colours.
Peel coat boundary cutter
This tool cuts two parallel lines into the surface of a peel coat sheet. The distance between the two blades is set with the thumb wheel in the centre. It was perfect for cutting a wide band like the administrative boundary verge seen here. Tricky to use, positioning was everything, draughtsmen had to have a light hand, to avoid cutting into the base sheet, and maintain a consistent level of pressure to ensure that the ruby ‘strip’ was cleanly cut. Requiring subtle adjustments in alignment, to keep the boundary line central, progress was surprisingly slow.
Double ruling pencil
This drawing instrument is a double ruling pencil being used here on Astrafoil, a plastic sheet with a matt drawing surface. Each Graphite ‘lead’ is held in place with a thumb wheel screw and shaped into a fine edge using the sandpaper block, seen left. It was important to first close the legs, using the large thumb wheel, in order to check that the leads accurately came together before setting to the required road width. When set up correctly this evenness avoided a ‘twisting’ action when used against parallel rules and, therefore, maintained the correct width. The pencil lines were then inked in with a Graphos pen.
Indexing
Consider the task of indexing a street map from scratch before computers were readily available. A dye line copy of the map was made to cross out each name as it was written on an index card with its postcode and alpha-numeric grid reference. These cards (3 examples can be seen here) would then need to be sorted alphabetically and typed into a photo typesetter. But, decisions about font, point size, column width and leading (the gaps between the lines) all need to be made to produce the final gazetteer. Guides were used to calculate and measure these variables with scales for points and picas, inches and millimetres. The two most commonly used units of measurement in typesetting, a point is equal to 1/72 inch and the pica 1/6 inch or 12 points.
The Great British Design Quest
In 2006, BBC TWO’s The Culture Show and the Design Museum conducted a poll to find the nation’s favourite example of British design since 1900 – The Great British Design Quest. The London A-Z Street Atlas was selected for the public vote and finished in very good company in the top 25. The Design Museum is currently moving to a new location on Kensington High Street and will reopen in late November 2016 – just one of the many changes we’ve made to our London mapping.
‘The A-Z of Mrs P’ – Theatre show
The ‘A-Z of Mrs. P’ was a 2014 musical theatre production at the Southwark Playhouse, London. Starring Isy Suttie, of Peep Show fame, in the lead role it tells the story of Phyllis Pearsall and the early days of the Geographers’ Map Co. Ltd., interwoven with her parents’ turbulent marriage. This exquisite book-cut paper sculpture is a 3D artwork by Su Blackwell and was used to advertise the show – it was made using original Geographers’ London Atlases.
Geographers’ first Road Atlas
Prior to this book the company published road maps only as folded sheets. However, the 1950’s and 1960’s saw a significant increase in car ownership and with it the demand for a single publication covering the UK. Map features, and how they are represented, in this 1961 Geographers’ Great Britain and Northern Ireland Road Atlas is quite revealing. For example, the simple depiction of roads (without road casings) meant that they could be quickly scribed and also benefited from a less critical registration when printed. Also, the green roads are not Primary Routes (this classification was not introduced until 1964 as part of the Worboys Report on signage), but are in fact both B class and minor roads. Interestingly, roads are numbered without their designated class letters.
Company catalogues
Here are some examples of paper catalogues over the years, until electronic methods superseded them, with the red booklet, bottom left, the earliest from the 1950s. The two sheets behind from the 1960s offered a versatile format – folded they could be kept on a desk or in a drawer or, alternatively, pinned to a notice board or wall as a small poster once opened. The transition between the G(eographers’) logo and the A to Z logo is evident, with both appearing on the dark blue booklet. Much cleaner designs, in keeping with the present day logo, came into use in the 1980s. Finally, a steady increase in demand for digital mapping saw a dedicated catalogue introduced in the 2000s.
Isabella Gross
The sitter in this oil painting is Phyllis Pearsall’s mother, Isabella Gross. After divorcing Alexander Gross, she was introduced to the American artist Alfred Everett Orr whom she married. The portrait, entitled ‘Portrait of the artist’s wife – Vernon’ (Vernon Bell was her writers name), was painted by Orr in 1924. Tragically, Bella died in an asylum after contracting pneumonia.
Coming and Going Road Atlas
The majority of A-Z maps are orientated with north at the top of the sheet or page. However, this publication attempted to address an issue where some people had trouble flipping the map in their minds when travelling south down the page, often resorting to turning the book upside down. This 1993 A-Z Coming and Going Road Atlas has a standard set of north-top pages and a set of south-top pages (as the Liverpool and the Llyn Peninsula example here). Before computers it would have been necessary to lay out a second type sheet by hand for the different orientation, a time consuming exercise. However, computer software made the task much simpler and of course quicker to do.
Dobson Dots (Copyright marks)
A-Z ‘phantoms’ had already been added to maps in order to identify unauthorised copying. However, the increasing availability of drum scanners in the early 1990’s raised concerns that a map could be quickly reproduced in this way and printed without the copyright owner’s permission. Stephen Dobson, a copyright solicitor, suggested placing an arrangement of dots (‘Dobson dots’) on the map as a solution. This idea was adopted for the Greater London area and was set out across the 9 Sheet Master Map series. The diagram here shows that by putting the 9 sheets together and joining up the dots the AZ logo is revealed. The lines drawn on the north 9 sheet behind show the relevant section of logo.
Castilian Ochre
In the early 1930’s Phyllis Pearsall and her husband Richard travelled around Spain, sketching and painting as they went. Their experiences of the easy-going life of a pre-Civil War Spain are recorded in ‘Castilian Ochre’, a travelogue published in 1935, with many amusing pen and ink illustrations. Born in Dublin, Richard Montague Stack Pearsall studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and his finely detailed drypoint etchings from this period remain highly collectable. The 1933 water colour painting behind, ‘Archaeological Dig, Nieble’, was painted by Phyllis.
Drawing using MicroStation CAD software
The 1990’s was a decade of change for the Drawing Office with the introduction of computers and sophisticated drawing software. This MicroStation drawing screenshot of the centre of Manchester bears little resemblance to the final map which has yet to be processed. These ‘vector’ elements (lines, arcs, shapes and text) are separated by level, colour, weight and style – a ‘symbology’ which is set using the bespoke A-Z menu on the left. For example, road centre lines create the different road infills while the lines on either side generate road casings – red (A road thick lines) and yellow (B road and minor road fine lines). The impact this method of drawing had on production cannot be overstated with increased accuracy and speed and a significant rise in the number of publications going to print.
Plotting the M25
We are proud to say that our maps are based upon Ordnance Survey maps and always have been. However, while OS is our main source of revision we also gather additional information from other official bodies and our own site visits to keep our maps as up to-date as possible. This 1970’s compilation overlay shows the alignment of the proposed M25 to the west of London and junction 12, the M3 Thorpe Interchange, plotted by an A-Z draughtsman from large scale side road order plans. The blue pencil indicates detail that should be deleted in connection with this road scheme. Changes to the lakes in the top right quarter of the image are part of the planned Thorpe Park which opened in 1979.
Scribing sheet
This scribe sheet from the 1990s is of a part of London, but something may seem not quite right about it. In truth it has been drawn in reverse, a mirror image, with Regents Park on the right and Euston, St Pancras International and King’s Cross stations to the left. It is effectively a negative which, when exposed in contact with film, produces a positive image the correct way round.
Ruling Pen
Before computers A-Z draughtsmen used a variety of drawing instruments to ink in line work. The ruling pen being used here is perfectly suited with its adjustable blades, which can be precisely set to a required thickness, and ability to maintain a constant line. It was common practice to check the line weight on a scrap of material before committing to the drawing sheet itself.
Mrs P’s ‘Painting Hat’
Here is one of Phyllis Pearsall’s ‘painting hats’; seemingly an essential part of her outdoor kit she, of course, had a number of these over the years. The water colour behind, entitled ‘Cross, Niebla’, was painted by her in 1933 while travelling in Spain with her husband Richard Pearsall. Together, they produced a book “Castilian Ochre” subtitled ‘Travels with Brush and Pen’. The cover includes an ink drawing of the pair sketching with, you guessed it, distinctive hats.
Trap Streets/Phantom Names – Bartlett Place
A great deal of time and effort goes into compiling, drawing and printing a map. In order to protect that investment cartographers have for a long time added what have been variously called phantoms, trap streets or copyright signatures to identify unauthorised copying. Here you can see one of the most well known, Bartlett Place, as revealed in Nicholas Crane’s 2005 television series, Map Man. Not surprisingly, it was removed from the map shortly after being exposed on the programme.
Glass Negative – 1962/3 Bolton suburb
Look closely and you can see that this early 1960s negative is made of glass. Coated with a light sensitive emulsion it was contact printed with the original drawing to make an intermediate copy which was then used to produce positive Bromide paper pages on which page numbers and index references could be added. Unusually small it may have been made simply as a test or as an inset map.
Ebony & Brass Parallel rules (1940s)
These parallel-rules from the 1940s were made to last out of ebony and brass. An essential piece of equipment for draughtsmen they were very effective in drawing two, or more, parallel lines. One such use was to place guide lines when hand lettering horizontal text where base and top lines were needed to maintain a consistent character size. They are seen partly open in this image.
A-Z becomes part of the Company title in 1973
Geographers’ Map Company was named by Alexander Gross, Phyllis Pearsall’s father now living in America, with the intention of selling his Standard Map of the World in the UK. Similar in name to Geographia Ltd., the map company he founded in 1908 and subsequently lost, an effort was obviously made to avoid any confusion between the two by underlining HERS’. However, A-Z was Mrs. P’s idea, becoming synonymous with street atlases. The ‘A-Z’, rather surprisingly, only became officially part of the company name on May 15th 1973.
Hand Lettering pen/nib
Draughtsman were skilled in hand lettering maps in many styles, including serif, bold and italic, from the earliest days of the company to the mid-70s and, occasionally if necessary, even in the early 80s. The fine nib of a calligraphy pen was used dipped and carefully loaded with just enough Indian ink, or in later years ‘plastic’ ink, to complete a letter.
Gray’s Inn Road Shop
This refurbished Edwardian office building, number 24 Gray’s Inn Road, was the company’s London premises from 1953. There was a shop on the ground floor and a basement which acted as a modest stock warehouse. The first two floors were allocated to management and the General Office with the top floor occupied by the Drawing Office which benefited from the better natural light there. This was a significant move which was not without risk as it amounted to a tenfold jump in rent to £2,125 per year and a 42 year lease. Although the company moved it’s operations to new premises in Sevenoaks in 1962 the shop remained in use here until 1982 when it moved to number 44.
Book of Impositions 1956
This 1956 book of impositions was vitally important as a source of information. Books are not printed as individual pages but imposed in a sequence for standard paper sizes which, when folded and trimmed, form a section of the book. Clearly it is important that the reverse side of a sheet has the correct page printed on the back. This page layout can vary depending on the number of pages per sheet (8, 16, 32, 64) or a particular fold.
Early editions of the A-Z London Street Atlas
These two London A-Zs are amongst the earliest copies in the company’s possession and both have seen better days. The one on the left, from 1938 is one shilling, equivalent to 5 pence today, while the 1953 2/6 edition would have been 12.5 pence. Increasingly rare to find, the pages of a vintage 1938 book were carefully removed and scanned to create our Historical London A-Z; a facsimile copy that can be enjoyed by all.
London map wallpaper
Quintessentially English, the simple colours of A-Z street mapping has an appeal beyond conventional map use with canvas prints, vinyl flooring and large scale wallpaper (seen here) satisfying the need for artistic decoration both in businesses and the home.
Imposed pages (negative, showing opaque)
From the 1970s, until production moved over to computers in the early 1990s, map line work and type were kept on separate sheets. As both required printing in black ink they were combined at the page stage and an ortho film negative produced. Susceptible to dust spots, a fine sable brush was used to retouch the negative with a water soluble liquid opaque – the brown ‘dabs’ seen in this image.
London Pictorial map (post war)
Maps can be a great source of historical reference conveying information in a very quick and easy to understand way. Take this A-Z Pictorial Map of London published immediately after the Second World War in 1946, it graphically displays the devastation and resulting demolition of the area to the north and west of The Guildhall.
Peel coats to produce map colours
This is a peel coat or strip mask layer for a London drawing sheet from the mid-80s used in the production of a coloured map. The material consists of a ruby red layer bonded to a clear sheet of plastic. Placed in registration over map detail the layer is cut and peeled away for a particular colour – in this case the blue infill of the River Thames. A drawing sheet could have up to 6 of these peel coats to colour map features, from motorways to built-up areas. Subsequent revision changes to the sheet can be seen where darker red tape has been laid down and the infill recut.
A-Z Logo
Our iconic A-Z logo was designed in 1971 by Roy Dewar and was first published on the 1972 edition of the London A-Z Street Atlas which also had a new, white cover design.
Roy Dewar was born in Battersea, London. He left school at the age of 15 and in 1962 worked on the “J.J.” strip with Bill Wellings for the Sunday Express. He was the regular weekly political cartoonist on the Spectator between 1963 and 1967. He also drew joke cartoons for the Daily Sketch and other publications. Many of the adverts and catalogues of Geographers’ Map Company also featured his illustrations or cartoons.

 

 

 

Paper page patch-up
This A-Z Manchester page, from the early 1960s, was constructed using paper copies of drawing originals which were glued and patched together on a carrier sheet. With the page number, index references and continuation arrows stuck on, pages were then photographically reduced to the printing scale. What is very visible here is that the revision work for subsequent editions (up to 1972) was carried out on the actual page, rather than returning to the original drawing. Existing detail has been covered with white paint which formed the base for new ink work. The title page has been assembled with the contents section bromide paper text cut out and positioned within the overall artwork.
A packet of Greater London Atlases from the 1950s Wrapped in brown paper with a gummed label, rather than packed in a box with a self-adhesive sticker, this packet of atlases is over 60 years old! It predates the introduction of the SBN (Standard Book Number) and, of course, the present day ISBN (International Standard Book Number) as well as the barcode. Quite why this packet was never opened is unclear, but one thing is for certain – it will remain preserved as it is, untouched.
Beam compass A beam compass has the ability to draw circles with a radius far greater than those drawn using a regular compass. A precision made instrument, the length of the beam could be increased by joining sections of rod together. This particular model allows an independent pen, like a Rotring isograph or Staedtler Lumocolor, to be used. The size of circle is set by moving the needle point along the beam. It was used to draw a series of mileage circles on road maps for delivery companies and the like.
Erasing machine
This is an electric eraser from the 1960s and was used to carefully remove detail from tracing paper and mylar drawing sheets. Plug erasers were available in a variety of types suited to removing a particular medium from different materials. Our most common use would have been to remove inked map detail as part of our revision process.
Railway curves
Railway lines often require long sweeping arcs and these metal draughtsman railway curves were used to draw these features on maps. A full set of curves, using both inner and outer edges, provided a significant number of options. While the later, often plastic, French curve was convenient as a single tool it did not offer the range and sweep angle of arc that these mid-1900s tools provided.
Automatic pens
Automatic Pens are still used in calligraphy and are available in a variety of line widths. The guide on the side of the 3E pen (E for Edge) is being used here against the edge of a table to lay down a perfectly straight border line along the edge of the drawing material. This method was replaced with border lines being scribed or cut out of a peel coat sheet. Later still, precision cut graphic tapes, some extremely fine, were laid down, their deep red colour ideal for photographic reproduction work.
Drawing using Lorienne Cartographer
A-Z’s iconic street map design is instantly recognizable in this image. However, for many years, draughtsmen had to rely on their experience and expensive proofs to identify and avoid errors associated with colour. The problem persisted with initial computer drawing, bearing little resemblance to the finished product it still needing to be processed to output the final colour image – a significant amount of computer time for large sheet maps. Today, A-Z uses the Lorienne suite of cartographic software which facilitates the drawing of features using a template of map styles, a WYSIWYG approach that greatly reduces the chances for human error with significant improvements in production time.
Mrs P’s ‘From Bedsitter…’ Book
This is Phyllis Pearsall’s book ‘From Bedsitter to Household Name’. Written in 1990 it is her personal story about the company’s formative years – from the start facing and surmounting a seemingly endless run of unforeseen problems and complexities, to the eventual formation of the Geographers’ Map Trust in which she enshrined her personal approach to business and people.
Micro-Modifier
We’ve always been keen to look at new technology with a view to increasing productivity, but not at the cost of accuracy or quality. In the 1980s the Micro Modifier was being used both in the litho and graphics industries and A-Z looked to see if it’s innovative reproduction methods could be used to create road casings and text halos. New films could be made from an original by applying a pre-set amount of orbital motion during exposure from an overhead light. Our workflow involved creating two intermediate films from a scribe sheet of road centre lines – an expanded positive and a slightly more expanded negative which, when used together in register, produced a final positive image of road casings. However, despite being reasonably successful it created other issues which needed manual intervention and was therefore never fully integrated into mainstream map production.
Mrs P’s paintings
Throughout her adult life Phyllis Pearsall painted using a variety of paint mediums which included Indian ink, watercolour and oils. Her work covered a broad range of subjects from perceptive sketches of people to accomplished portraits, and from indoor still lifes to elemental landscapes. The three examples here are a 1965 oil painting of ‘Brighton from Dyke Golf Course’ (centre) and two watercolours from the 1930s ‘Archaeological Dig, Niebla’ (top) and ‘Garden Azaleas’ (bottom). She exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic, at the Royal Academy and at many other London and town galleries.
Mrs P Crossrail boring machine
This is one of a number of Crossrail’s Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs). According to tunnelling tradition, a TBM cannot start work until it is given a name and, back in February 2012, one of the first was named Phyllis after our founder. Around 150 meters long and 1000 tonnes in weight the Phyllis TBM was launched on the 4th of May 2012 from the Royal Oak Portal and completed the 6.8km tunnel drive to Farringdon on the 8th October 2013. The Crossrail route will run over 100km from Reading and Heathrow in the west, through new tunnels under central London to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east. The first section of the Elizabeth line opens for service in May 2017 and will be fully open in December 2019.
Computerised drawing using digitizer
This is the typical 1990s drawing office CAD computer set-up with twin monitors, one showing an overview and the second for close detailed work. The device on the table is a digitising tablet with a cross hair puck, rather than a mouse, which was ideal for capturing data from paper plans (although it is not being used in this way in this instance). The unix based computer is not visible as it was floor standing, but the additional 1GB external hard disk bottom left, can clearly be seen.

 

Light Table
This is a light table, once common place in the Drawing Office (every draughtsman worked on one) this is the only example we have today. The light from three fluorescent tubes is diffused through a coating on the underside of a thick glass top illuminating drawing materials from below. This was especially helpful when working with ruby coloured scribe sheets and peel coats or ‘duffing-out’ negatives with liquid opaque. Towards the end of a day the surface could become rather warm – quite nice in the winter months, but less so in the height of summer!
Alexander Gross’ World Atlas
This publication was not published by A-Z, but the name bottom right reveals a common DNA. ‘Prepared under the direction of Alexander Gross FRGS’ this is ‘The Daily Telegraph Victory Atlas of the World’ published by his map company Geographia Ltd. A successful joint venture with the newspaper, began in the early 1900s publishing war maps of European areas of political unrest, culminated in this ambitious book which measured 340mm x 508mm and included 450 maps and diagrams. The first issue sold over a million copies and the second around half that, but the bubble burst when the third issue hardly sold at all. The consequences of this were severe, having borrowed heavily to purchase a printing firm and given up seats on the board and shares to fund the Atlas he was unable to buy his estranged wife’s shares to secure the business. Ousted, he left for America. The map here is the ‘North Polar Regions’ and, although not as detailed as other large scale maps in the book, it is nevertheless beautifully executed.
Geographers’ registered with Companies House
On this day back in 1936 Alexander Gross registered Geographers’ Map Company Ltd. under the 1929 Companies Act splitting the shares equally between his daughter Phyllis and son Tony. Prior to the loss of his UK Geographia business he was highly respected as a celebrated British map publisher and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society as well as a Freeman of the City of London. Undeterred by this setback, he went to America and founded Geographia Map Co. Inc. which continues to this day.
Mrs P’s MBE
Phyllis Pearsall was awarded a civilian MBE in HM The Queen’s birthday honours of 1986 with the investiture on the 14th of June. This framed certificate details the appointment granting ‘the Dignity of an Ordinary Member of the Civil Division of the Order of the British Empire’. The enlarged background image is the embossed seal taken from the top left corner of the document.
Drop Compass
This drawing instrument is a Kern ‘drop’ compass which was used to draw a range of features including roundabouts, circuses and gas holders. The parallel pen attachment, seen here, was used for ink work, the line weight being set with the adjustable blades. Unlike a conventional compass, the drawing arm could be lifted off, or lowered onto, the drawing material while the point remained in position. This made it the ideal tool for drawing the small sections of arc necessary to form a roundabout between the joining roads. It also came with a separate graphite lead attachment.
Early cover designs
Here is a selection of publications with cover designs that may not be immediately recognisable as coming from the A-Z stable – especially those with the unfamiliar pink, blue, green, yellow and purple colour schemes. From landmarks, elaborate frames and sign posts to bold blocks of colour and the emergence of the familiar red white and blue, these publications span a 25 year period from 1959 to 1984.
Women At War Book
Early in the Second World War Phyllis Pearsall sought authorisation to draw and write about the many women in vital war work. Although not an official war artist she was granted the necessary permits to carry out her drawings. Well observed and at times surprisingly amusing, around a third of the pen and ink sketches were published in 1985 in her ‘Women 1939-1940’ book.
Graphos pen & nibs
The Pelikan (Rotring from 1978) Graphos pen gave a continuity of line weight across draughtsman that became the A-Z drawing instrument of choice in the 1970s. The detachable nibs were manufactured with a set line weight and opened scissor-like to load with ink. Secured in a specialist penholder the ‘A’ range of nibs were for very fine strokes and were used against a raised straight edge. The 0,2 mm nib was used for minor road casings and the 0,6 mm for the thicker A road casings and railway lines.
Placing stripping film type
Photo typesetting was extensively used in the 1970’s and 1980’s, a manual process that required individual characters being exposed to light sensitive stripping film which was then developed in a darkroom and then glued. Once ‘dry’ (the glue became clear, but remained tacky), the wafer thin film layer was stripped off its carrier sheet onto silicon paper ready for use. Names, or often each letter when naming a curved road, were cut out with a scalpel blade and placed onto a separate type sheet overlay. It was not possible to place text on the same sheet as the line work as any overlap of stripping film and line work resulted in the ink bleeding into the glue which then discoloured over time.
Linen Tester
Linen testers are free standing magnifiers used in map publishing to check fine detail and the registration of colour separations. The name originates from the textile industry where they are used to count the number of threads in fabric – the measuring scale used for this purpose can be seen on the base. They are still widely used in the printing industry to examine lithographic plates, seen here, and printed material. Linen testers can be folded and stored in a protective pouch when not being used.
Early editions of A-Z Birmingham Street Atlases
These three A-Z Birmingham Street Atlases span a decade. The first edition, on the left, was printed in 1953 when the company was based at 24 Grays Inn Road and is ‘produced under the direction of Alexander Gross FRGS’, Phyllis Pearsall’s father. The middle book from 1958/9 keeps the yellow cover board and single colour printing, but the design has become more striking with a ‘skyline’ graphic of Birmingham landmarks. The company is now based at 28 Grays Inn Road and the book is also now ‘produced under the direction of Ph. Pearsall FRGS’. The final book here is from 1963 and introduces a very clean design with colours which were to become such a part of the A-Z brand.
The first A-Z map on CD-ROM
In January 1996, A-Z released its first mapping for the desktop PC. A-Z Maps On CD-ROM started as a black and white map of London with an interactive street index. It required an IBM compatible PC with a 286 (or later) processor, 640k RAM, and 7MB of free disk space. The maps were not copied to the hard disk, so the CD-ROM had to remain in the drive to use the product. The underlying software, MapEngine, was developed from a project to archive microfiche records to CD. Over the following years we released a Windows application with colour mapping for many British towns and cities. A professional version allowed users to customise the map display, link to GPS and to add their own data. Vehicle recovery companies and taxi operators developed solutions to display the locations of their vehicles and customers in real-time.
A-Z London souvenir edition 1977: The Queen’s Silver Jubilee
The intended purpose of a map will understandably shape its design and what is shown and how. This A-Z London Souvenir Map is a good example of how these driving factors can produce a radically different product to the standard A-Z street map: The low birds eye view, rather than an overhead plan view, supports the landmark 3D buildings, but results in a north/south distortion; only the main connecting routes are shown to navigate by, so many roads are missing; and the fonts are ‘fancy’, but not easy to read quickly. However, none of this matters as it is first and foremost a pictorial map of London landmarks and therefore succeeds in this objective. The map was published in 1977 with a special collectable cover to mark The Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
Blue Plaque for Mrs P.
This house in Court Lane Gardens, Dulwich, south-east London, is where Phyllis Pearsall was born in 1906. In 2005 a Southwark Council Blue Plaque was unveiled in her honour commemorating the ‘Inventor of the London A-Z’. She would have been delighted to know that this tribute was voted for ‘by the people’.
The 1950s edition of the A-Z London
From the very first edition the A to Z brand has been strong and prominently displayed. This 2/6 edition of the London A to Z from the 1950s is interesting in that, while it retains the earlier design element of Tower Bridge, the A to Z symbol is already evolving having lost the connecting ‘arrow’ across the letter t.
Pushing-through
The draughtsman seen here is ‘pushing-through’ road casing tramlines with a pair of spring dividers which keep a set width better when being handled. The process involved placing a sheet of carbon paper between the drawing sheet and an Ordnance Survey map and running the dividers along the course of a road. This would place two very fine blue lines on the drawing sheet underneath which could then be inked to create road casings. This practice was in use up until the early 1970s.
Company Headed Notepaper
Here we see some examples of the Company’s headed paper over the years from the earliest, top left, dating from the 1930’s to the present day, bottom right. From the simplest use of fonts and layout, we can see a progression of identity with the detailed globe and diagonal 3D font simplified and then giving way to a much cleaner blocked design from the early 1960’s. Interestingly, this sheet includes the statement: ‘Publishers of A to Z street atlases’, revealing the increased significance of the A-Z name which was eventually added to the company name in 1973. Thereafter the A-Z symbol becomes the dominant feature on the headed paper.
Mixing Indian ink
Indian ink, also known as Chinese ink, was the drawing medium used up until the 1970s. Originally sticks or cakes of solid pigment, draughtsmen had to mix up their own quantity of ink with water every morning. This messy job was replaced in later years when a ready-made liquid form became available. Known for its dense black, capacity to retain sharp edges and durability these characteristics are clearly apparent today when viewing archived 70 year old drawings.
Queen’s Coronation Map
Maps for big occasions, like this artwork for The Queen’s coronation in 1953, not only guide and inform on the day but are also appealing as souvenirs. The high cost of printing in colour at this time meant that this map was designed to work in black and white using various line and arrow combinations to show the different routes taken to and from Westminster Abbey. Look carefully and you can see the separate elements that have been brought together to make this publication: the hand drawn map; the title panel, full of tricky letter flourishes and embellishments (safely executed on a separate sheet to ensure success before being transferred to the map); and the company details, typeset on photographic paper, cut out and pasted in place. It was possible, and almost certainly necessary, to clean up composite artwork like this at the next stage when a negative was made.
Maps showing current “War Fronts” published in 1940
As tension mounted approaching the Second World War, Phyllis Pearsall, as her father had done himself before the Great War, instructed that a Map of Europe should be drawn. In a move that uncannily anticipated the progress of hostilities other ‘war maps’ followed of Scandinavia, The Low Countries, Northern France and The Mediterranean. However, by far the most in demand was the ‘Large Scale Map of the Western Front’, open here, detailing France’s Maginot Line and Germany’s Siegfried Line. These maps were an essential source of income as, under an Emergency Powers (Defence) Statutory Order, the sale or supply of any map of the United Kingdom exceeding one mile to one inch was prohibited from July 4th 1940.
60th Anniversary – Euro Disney 1996
Back in 1996 the company celebrated a trio of anniversaries – 60 years as a map publisher, 30 years of the Geographers’ Map Trust and our founder Phyllis Pearsall’s 90th Birthday. Employees and their families travelled to the recently renamed Disneyland Paris to enjoy a celebration dinner attended by Mrs. P despite being unwell. As you can see we have fond memories, mementos and gifts to remind us of this great occasion, including A-Z logo watches. Then, after a good night’s sleep, a full day in the Park with dinner at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, cowboy scarfs provided! There was also time to take in the sights of Paris the next morning before heading back home.
Mrs. P’s pot of brushes logo
This pen and ink drawing was made by our founder Phyllis Pearsall, affectionately referred to as Mrs. P by members of staff. It served as a kind of ‘graphic signature’ which she used in her books and art exhibition catalogues. This simple small motif encapsulates two of the key passions in her life: the brushes and pens of the artist and the ‘G’ for Geographers’ on the side of the pot.
Scribing tool (1980s – 1990s)
The 1980’s saw the introduction of scribing tools for street mapping. This method of drawing had previously been limited to road maps where road casings were narrow or single lines needed to be drawn, for rivers for example. The tool, in this case a four line motorway, removes the ruby red coated surface allowing light to pass through; as a negative it is used to expose film in contact to produce a positive image with solid black road casing lines.
Vintage Letter Stamps
These three items are vintage letter stamps used by the company over the course of 40 years and therefore chart key moments in our history. Each machine has a custom made metal die fitted to emboss the inserted paper. The nearest, most ornate, example is made of cast iron with a wooden handle and imprints “Geographers’ Map Co. Limited”. The other two stamp “Geographers’ Map Trustees Limited”, formed in 1966, and “Geographers’ A-Z Map Co. Limited”, which incorporated A-Z into the registered name in 1973, respectively.
Birmingham Spaghetti Junction plans from 1966
This 1966 Ministry of Transport plan shows the proposed Gravelly Hill Interchange in Birmingham. Better known by its nickname “Spaghetti Junction”, a reference made by a journalist from the Birmingham Evening Mail, it forms junction 6 of the M6. In addition to the new roads, these side road orders show changes to existing roads, the River Tame diversion and the reduction in size of a lake. Roads have been coloured to further understand this complex junction as part of AZ’s own map revision.
Glasgow hand lettered map from the early 1950s
A drawing sheet of Glasgow from the early 1950s, the rather strange yellow colour comes from the tracing paper qualities of the material. Wafer thin and easily torn, the skill of the draughtsman can be appreciated even more when you consider that every line and letter has been drawn by hand with little opportunity for correcting errors.
The Company van from 1965
This Bedford CA panel van was the office vehicle in the mid-1960s. The ‘G logo’, prominent on the side of the van, is being used as ‘A-Z’ had not yet been incorporated into the company name. It’s main use was to deliver stock between the Vestry Road head office in Sevenoaks and 24 Grays Inn Road, the London shop. Apparently, it was also used to ferry members of staff to the railway station every evening!
Master Atlas imprinted covers using metal dies
Engraved metal ‘dies’, like the ‘Master Atlas of Greater London’ one here in the foreground, were used to imprint hardback covers. Placed in a foil blocking machine the die is heated and then ‘stamped’ with enough pressure to transfer, in this case gold, foil onto the surface of the book.
Type layer using stripping film lettering
The hand lettering of maps declined in the 1970s with the introduction of photo typesetters. Draughtsmen, having compiled the names, would painstakingly expose individual characters to film which, once developed, would be glued and stripped from the carrier sheet onto silicone paper ready to be cut and placed in position on a separate type sheet. Curved roads in particular required type to be cut and placed as individual characters.

A-Z is an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd,
registered in Scotland, Company No.27389.
Registered address: Westerhill Road,
Bishopbriggs, Glasgow, G64 2QT.