80 years of Geographers’ A-Z Map Company Ltd.
Although the history of A-Z spans 80 years, the story of the company began in 1900 when a young Hungarian, Alexander Gross moved to London seeking his fortune (and avoiding conscription). Alexander founded Geographia in 1908, and produced a series of World Atlases, followed by war maps and aviation maps. These maps would provide him with the financial security and reward he came to London to find, as well as a family he loved comprised of his artistic wife Bella, and his children Anthony and Phyllis Gross. Phyllis was born in 1906, and travelled extensively as a child with her family until Alexander and Bella divorced in 1920, and possibly as a result, Alexander was removed from the board of Geographia soon after.
This left Phyllis with no place to call home on leaving boarding school, so she took a place in a college in France both as pupil and teacher before studying at the Sorbonne. After a brief and failed marriage, Phyllis returned to London in 1936, and Alexander set up Geographers’ Map Company on the 28th August, splitting the shares equally between Phyllis and Anthony. It was Phyllis however that took on the responsibility of creating the first A-Z, and spent hours walking the streets of London cataloguing the house numbers, junctions and streets. Alexander told her to call the first publication the OK atlas, but she changed the name at the last moment, and sold every last copy of her first London A-Z, with her main customer being a certain W.H. Smith and Sons.
By 1938, the Company were selling 12 titles, with the maps being entirely hand drawn by skilled cartographers. It would take a fully trained cartographer around 12 weeks to create a finished publication, and these early maps are true painstaking works of art. In 1940, with the outbreak of the Second World War, the government ordered the removal of street maps from sale, but following her father’s example, the business instead produced war maps for the newspapers.
In 1946, Phyllis was involved in a tragic accident when the plane she was on crashed into a Surrey hill, leaving Phyllis with a fractured skull and spinal injuries. Undeterred, Phyllis continued with her work, and also spent time running her father’s US mapping business as well. However, she was to have a falling out with her father in 1950 when he asked Anthony to take over Geographers’. This resulted in Phyllis suffering a stroke, and although her father never saw the threat through, Phyllis took a back seat to recuperate for around 2 years.
By 1952 Geographers’ had over 30 publications covering from London to Glasgow. Alexander passed away in 1958, leaving a 50 year legacy as a publisher and innovator in the mapping world.
The 1960s saw changes to road map production methods with the move away from traditional tracing paper sheets and Indian ink to scribing. Street map revision moved to Astrafoil but the process for both was still slow and fiddly.
In 1962, the business moved to Sevenoaks in Kent (we’ve been in the area ever since) and by the mid 60’s the company had over 50 publications. With this growth, and with Phyllis having no obvious family to pass the business on to, she took the extraordinary and unselfish step of selling her shares into Trust. Her brother agreed, and in 1965, ownership of Geographers’ Map Company moved to the Geographer’s Map Trust.
The 1970s saw both an introduction of the now iconic A-Z to the company name as well as the move to photo typesetting, with cartographers taking turns at the typesetter to print out the letters they needed to make up the names on the map. These letters would then be added one at a time to the sheets. Although a quicker method than previously, time could be lost as cartographers tried to find replacements from their colleagues for lost or damaged letters.
In the 1980s mapping production was further improved by the latest innovation in scribing tools which could be used for street mapping for the first time.
Phyllis was awarded the MBE in 1986, around the same time that computer typesetting replaced photo typesetting, with two dedicated operators now taking on the responsibility for the letter production.
The greatest production revolution was to occur in 1990 as the first CAD/CAM Unix computers were installed into the drawing office. Even in the early days, the advantages were obvious, and very quickly this evolved into Windows based PCs using drawing software. One of the new challenges was to use this technology to create the map whilst still retaining the style that made the A-Z so unique and easy to read from the very beginning.
In 1996 the company celebrated its 60th year with a trip to Euro Disney, with Phyllis surrounded by the people she always considered as her family. She passed away shortly after, on the 28th August, exactly 60 years to the very day since the company was founded.
The next decade opened with the company using the most advanced technology available to produce the publications. Computer-to-plate was the next step forward, again advancing production significantly. Using this method, in 2005 the drawing office managed to send out 164 jobs in a single year and the company had record sales over this time.
Computers were to see other significant developments in the industry with the arrival of satellite navigation and the availability of free internet mapping. The quality of both these technological advances was to steadily increase as the demand for paper production rapidly declined. This ultimately led to a restructure of the business in 2013, but with the words and ideals of Phyllis deeply entrenched into the new structure.
So where to now? Well, Phyllis had a saying she was rather fond of, and one that summed up her business approach, and that was ‘on we go’ so we are doing precisely that. The nature of the business is evolving with the market, and we are now producing digital data, and giving both the business user and high street customer exactly what they want and need. Our digital offering grows rapidly as we are a long way along the process of creating the digital A-Z of the UK, a product we simply call A-Z Street.
A-Z Street, already in use by London Air Ambulance, as well as Government organisations, provides flexible but familiar mapping, and we will be maintaining the most up to date, detailed and easy to read UK mapping source available at street level. Add to this the range of custom products available from Wallpaper to Large format atlases, not forgetting a range of licenced brand products from Ben Sherman clothing to Jigsaws, and we have so much to offer.
How everyone uses the map has changed, and we’ve changed with it. Every individual now expects to be the centre of their map, and digital and custom mapping allows for this. We are now also able to offer previously discontinued titles as print-on-demand products, which has meant the return of our London 9-sheet maps, now available from our website.
The future is there for us – we believe that mapping is more a part of life than ever before and there will always be a demand for the supply of maps in changing formats. The continuing development of mapping tools drives the industry forward into uncharted territory, and we look forward to seeing where the journey takes us for the next 80 years. On we go indeed.