Walking heroine



When I came to live and work in London, mum gave me a book. Not a romping read, with no plot and far too many characters. It was old and dog eared and a godsend.

The A to Z.

These days we are used to google maps or similar and, while some of us still enjoy a paper map produced by the ordnance survey, books of street maps would seem to be losing ground to the electronic. But for many years, no one did without their own A to Z. Taxi drivers did the ‘Knowledge’ learning their way around town and were tested to destruction but for the mass of humanity that lived here, that little blue red and white book was an essential.

My first job, as an articled clerk had me out and about every day for at least two hours. Delivering documents, issuing writs, getting documents stamped or lodging wills for a grant of probate or divorce papers for a nisi. Without an A to Z I would have failed miserably in my tasks though soon enough I learnt my way around, a knowledge I still use today and for which I have to thank that lovely little book.

And why this paean of praise?

Well the originator was a Dulwich resident, born a stone’s throw from the centre.

But more to the point the originator was a woman: Phyllis Gross. She was pretty nearly abandoned by her parents at 14 and had to make her own way though eventually working for her father’s map business after WW1 before it was sold. Getting lost in London gave her the idea for the book and she alone undertook the initial research, walking and recording the 23,000 streets that filled the first edition that was launched in 1936. She spent 18 hours a day walking the streets to record the street names, the positions of stations and tubes and busses.

She suffered ill health but kept the business going until the 1960s when she set up an innovative partnership allowing her staff to benefit from the business’ successes.

I wonder how many people who have lived here or visited London over the years (and indeed the other cities for which AtoZs have been produced) realise they owed their enjoyment of the streets to a petite woman from South London?

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published two anthologies of short stories, Life, in a Grain of Sand and Life in a Flash. More will appear soon, including a memoir of my mother's last years. I will try and continue to blog regularly at geofflepard.com about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
This entry was posted in walking and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Walking heroine

  1. Sue Vincent says:

    The A to Zs of major cities have been my friends for years. I don’t like electronic maps…or where they try and send you. I’m glad to know how they started.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ritu says:

    How brilliant! My Pops relies heavily on A to Z maps. In fact I think he has certain ones imprinted on his mind!! And I have my own little collection too!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, how I love this. I am an avid map-reader. GPS has its place, but give me the paper every time, I will find my way around. ☺

    Liked by 1 person

  4. gordon759 says:

    I love the story she told of how, whilst carrying out the original work, she was sorting through her record cards on top of a bus. Another passenger opened the window and a gust of air sent her cards flying. All were picked up apart from one. Which is why the first edition doesn’t mention Trafalgar Square in the index!
    All in all an amazing lady.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Mary Smith says:

    What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it.


  6. jan says:

    I thought we held the record for getting lost walking around London! Wish I’d known about this book but you know it probably wouldn’t have helped me. I think the streets of London have a thing against us Yanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I had my copy of the A-Z and I believe one of my daughters (the one that has certain characteristics of your ma) still has hers! I never knew it was the brainchild and donkey work of a woman. But now I think about it, I’m pretty sure if a bloke had produced it his name wold have been used in the title – “Hang on, I’ll get my Joe Blogs, it will know which Tube stops closest….”

    Liked by 1 person

  8. That’s a great story about the origins of the A-Z and your own use of it as an articled clerk. I don’t think we had A-Z here, or if we did I didn’t know about it. But I always had a road atlas for travel adventures – something else that has gone by the wayside with GPS on smartphones.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. willowdot21 says:

    Brilliant piece Geoff, fancy that! I am not surprised, most blokes, you excluded don’t need maps do they!!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Alas, not I. πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ Interesting how much good one idea means. Kudos to Phyllis Gross.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Bun Karyudo says:

    I hadn’t heard of Phyllis Gross before, but she was clearly the sort of (literally) small businessperson who not only talked the talk but walked the walk.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Good to have a reminder of Phyllis. I still use the A-Z to check my bearings on my Streets of London series

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Have you read Walk The Lines by Mark Mason? Fantastic tales of walking London in a different way! Saira x

    Liked by 1 person

If you would like to reply please do so here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.