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?