The First Casualty of War

It seems like you can’t move without falling over a World War I anniversary at the moment, and in the Guardian last week there was a full page reproduction of a page from the Manchester Guardian of one hundred years earlier.

Manchester Guardian 5th August 1914

Fans of Alexander Gross’ Geographia Ltd will know all about his decision to sell high quality maps to the Telegraph in the run up to the war, but it looks like the Guardian had to throw something together at the last minute. This map of the North Sea is particularly ropey – it looks like I drew the coastlines of Norway and Denmark with my eyes closed. They say the first casualty of war is the truth, and this map seems to be telling more lies than most. If its only task is to show the rough position of May Island, however, it is performed adequately. There is at least a north arrow and a scale, and everything is spelled correctly. Maybe spending a bit more time on the Scottish border would have been good though. Compared to other cartographical cock-ups from media outlets, perhaps it is forgivable.


The main map at the head of the page looks a little less rushed, but is still kept fairly simple. Some of the borders are obviously different to today’s maps, but contemporary maps show they are not far off.

The other insert map, of eastern Belgium and surrounding countries, is also a bit scrappy. Some of the defects here could be due to the reproduction of a hundred-year-old newspaper though. I find it hard to get a sense of the region we’re looking at, without any coastline in view, but this map gives a good idea of how the Kingdom of Belgium looked at the time.

Mrs P’s Journey

A few weeks ago, I was browsing my site stats (as you do), and I noticed that the most popular page on this blog, by a long way, is the page on Geographia Ltd. There is not a lot of information online about them, which is probably why so many searches have ended up here. However, I did recently find a book that gave a lot more detail about this intriguing company.

I read an article about a musical based on the life of Phyllis Pearsall, which mentioned a biography, Mrs P’s Journey, by Sarah Hartley, and I wasted no time in getting hold of it. It is a fascinating read and definitely worth looking at.

Even though her father was a successful businessman, Phyllis’ life wasn’t particularly easy. Like many self-made men, Sandor Gross was a highly strung, enormously driven monster, who would regularly scream and shout at his staff (and family) for the smallest mistake. Her mother, on the other hand, was less aggressive, but rarely showed Phyllis any affection. On one night in Paris, Bella dragged her fifteen year-old daughter from midnight mass to café after café, even though Phyllis had a raging fever and clearly needed to be taken home and put to bed.

Another time, after her parents had divorced, Sandor was declared bankrupt. Unable to pay Phyllis’ school fees, he sent her a telegram:


Even though she was only 13 at the time, she travelled back to London, alone with her huge trunk, and caught a taxi to her mother’s house. Instead of welcoming her home, Bella just packed her little girl off to an employment agency with all her belongings. Luckily, Phyllis was unphased by this; she calmly accepted a teaching job in France and headed there straight away. As she said on so many occasions, On we go.

Alexander (Sandor) Grosz left his native Budapest and made his way across Europe to London, arriving, penniless, in 1900. Within a few years he had married and built a successful business selling lamps. One day, on finding that his brother-in-law sold maps for a living, he decided to sell his business and produce his own map. Initially, he asked his draftsmen to produce a map of the British Isles in one week. It actually took the best part of a year, despite Sandor’s constant presence in the office, shouting, slamming doors, and generally getting frustrated at the lack of progress. Eventually, one hundred maps were produced, varnished and mounted on cloth and rollers, and quickly sold to offices across the capital.

His success brought him into more exclusive social gatherings; he met with Lord Burnham, the proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, and suggested a new series of maps to help pinpoint the current troublespots of the Balkans and the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Apparently, no newspaper had tried this before, but the maps that Geographia produced were a success. The Telegraph’s circulation increased and the two companies’ relationship lasted many years.

Though Geographia turned out to be a fairly significant company in the world of cartography, it was only really by chance that it came into existence at all. “What did I love about oil lamps? Nothing. Maps? I long to see my name printed over and over again at the bottom of each copy. Produced under the direction of Alexander Gross.” he said, years later.

Sandor’s wife, Bella, played an active role in the company, keeping an eye on the finances and making sure he didn’t over stretch them. However, he rarely acknowledged her contribution and regularly undermined her. When she wrote a play, he financed a West End run, but the critics savaged it. They simply weren’t ready for a story involving a financially astute woman in business. What Suffragette nonsense. Sandor probably knew the play would fail and he deliberately encouraged Bella in order to gloat over her and establish his superiority.

Watching the way her father treated her mother must have been a huge influence on Phyllis’ behaviour later in life and on her determination to do things for herself. When, in 1935, she got lost on the way to a dinner party, Phyllis tried to buy a street map of London to make sure she didn’t lose her way again. On finding that such a map didn’t exist, she decided to make her own, spending the next ten months walking the city for up to 18 hours a day, filling many notebooks with street names, house numbers, sketches, and so on. The work didn’t end there – having persuaded one of her father’s old draughtsmen to produce her map, she then had to spend a further three months transferring her notes onto index cards for him to work from.

Finally, a map was ready, and she tried selling door-to-door, with little success. Phyllis went to a wholesaler, but, as the only woman in the waiting room, she was ignored for days on end. Finally, she was seen and her persistence paid off – a massive order of 1250 A-Z atlases, which she produced and delivered herself to branches of WHSmith across the capital.

Eventually, she took on more staff, and the company went from strength to strength. Phyllis continued to work hard, refusing to delegate any part of the business, even when she was seriously injured in a plane crash. Her father was still exerting his influence, sending unhelpful telegrams, such as:


[It sometimes seems as if the family communicated entirely by telegram, as there are many more examples:


Or this one, sent from Bella to each of Sandor, Phyllis and Tony:


The pedant in me was slightly irritated by the added punctuation though. I know it makes them read better, but still...]

Despite the many hours Phyllis spent running her business, she still found time for her first love, painting. In an interview with the Daily Mail, she said that she always wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. As a successful map-maker, she didn’t need to use her art to pay the rent and could cherish it instead of exploiting it to make money.

All in all, Mrs P’s Journey is a fascinating story and a worthwhile read, which sheds more light on two important cartographic companies. I would have preferred the book to contain references, like other non-fiction works, for example Rachel Hewitt’s excellent Map of a Nation. There is one small section detailing the history of cartography, which also mentions how snooty some people are about the A-Z style.

These conventional colours are of course of enormous assistance in distinguishing between the crowded details of a London street guide: the difference can best be appreciated when one compares the copy of a cheap monotone guide such as the A-Z with Bartholomew’s or Philip’s expensive colour atlases. (Phillipa Glanville, ‘London in Maps’, The Connoisseur, 1972.)

Some have complained about the chronology and accuracy of the book (see these fairly amusing Amazon reviews), but the author herself acknowledges that Phyllis’ story is not straightforward. Even in her own autobiography, there are many contradictions. I agree that it’s more important to go with the most interesting interpretation of events. As Steve Coogan says in 24 Hour Party People – “When forced to pick between truth and legend, print the legend.”

A Rare Outing for Pierre Desceliers’s 1546 World Map


This just in: another gem from the John Rylands library collection has been on display. We’ll have to make do with the digital version, but it looks pretty nice.

Originally posted on John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog:

One of the Library’s great treasures is a remarkable manuscript map of the world, or Mappe Monde, produced in 1546 by the distinguished French cartographer Pierre Desceliers (French MS 1*).

Because of its size (260 x 130 cms), fragility, and the sheer logistical challenge of manoeuvring it around the building, the map is very rarely removed from it storage location, but last week it had a rare outing so that it could be examined by a researcher, Chet van Duzer, from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Chet is an expert on early world maps, and has been commissioned to write a book about a similar map by Desceliers now at the British Library (Add. MS 24065).

Chet van Duzer consults the Desceliers Mappe Monde (French MS 1*)

Chet van Duzer consults the Desceliers Mappe Monde (French MS 1*)

It took a team of five conservators to move the map in its 19th-century wooden case, and we had to limit access…

View original 318 more words

Geography is awesome

I love living in the Pennines, the landscape really is stunning. Here in Hebden Bridge, beautiful sandstone mills and houses cling to the steep valley sides, while narrow, twisty roads wind impossibly between them. The valley does present a slight obstacle if, like me, you’re into cycling or running though. Basically, you have a choice between going along the canal, which is a bit dull, taking your chances on the main road with all the lorries and buses, or a brutal ascent up the valley side. If you take the third option, however, you are rewarded with fresh air, amazing views, and an excellent reminder of how the forces of nature have carved out the landscape over thousands of years.

I went for a run to Stoodley Pike this afternoon and on the return leg, saw this beautiful view (the way out was much less pleasant, running uphill into a blinding sun, but maybe that makes it more worthwhile).

Kilnshaw Lane

I love how as you travel up the valley, you can see two kinds of erosion – here to the right, above the green barn, is the side of a classic U-shaped glacial valley. During the last ice age, millions of tons of ice flowed along here, slowly grinding away at the base rock. When the ice melted, a broad,  flat valley was left behind. A slightly better defined example is shown below.

Glacial valley

You want more detail? Of course, this page should tell you everything you need to know about glaciers.

Further over to the left, the valley is cut again by fluvial erosion, as the River Calder wears a V-shaped scar into the landscape. It’s not very clear in the image above, so here is a better view, taken from Hell Hole rocks, below Heptonstall.

Calder Valley

I’ll leave The British Geographer to explain the process in detail, but you can clearly see how the straight valley sides contrast with the curved side above.

I never tire of the views up here, and think that seeing the results of these two processes next to each other always reminds me how awesome Geography is.

The Apple Dog

Entering the US is never easy, especially with children in tow. I came through Dulles airport recently with my family and had the usual hour waiting in line to get through passport control. We picked up our bags, then just as we were heading through customs, with the exit in sight, I heard a voice behind me.

“Excuse me sir, do you have an apple in your bag?”

I turned round to see a uniformed woman with a very excited dog by her side. After a brief moment of panic, I remembered – there were two apples in there earlier in the day, but luckily the kids had eaten them during the flight. I explained and let her check my bag and we were free to go. Hopefully the dog wasn’t too disappointed, but I told him he’d done well anyway. The handler told me he could identify 60 types of fruit and vegetables, but didn’t elaborate on how he could tell her which one he’d found – one can only imagine. It all happened behind me, so I’m not sure what he did on this occasion.

I knew that detection dogs could be used for drugs, explosives, and people, but I didn’t know they could do fruit and veg too. It’s all very impressive, and I’m glad that man’s best friend can help us out in so many ways – for more examples, see here (can require login, cached version here) and here.

America’s Birth Certificate

Today I took a tour of the Library of Congress, in Washington DC. It is a huge institution, consisting of over 150 million items housed within three huge buildings. (Our guide told us it was the largest library in the world, but Wikipedia claims the British Library is bigger. The Library of Congress certainly covers a larger area anyway.)

The library contains nearly 400,000 maps, over 12,000 of which have been digitised and are available online. These high resolution images allow you to pick out the smallest details, but I think you can’t beat seeing the bigger picture and viewing the maps in person. Currently, there are two mapping exhibitions in the library, Exploring the Early Americas and Mapping a New Nation: Abel Buell’s Map of the United States, 1784.

Abel Buell’s map is the first map of America, published in America, by an American. It doesn’t contain any new cartography, but was the first time a map had been produced of this new nation. The other maps in the exhibition are thought to be used by Buell as source material.

Abel Buell USA 1784

What is interesting about this map is that, at the time, the western boundaries of the new states had not been legally defined. The Constitution was not ratified until 1787, so the federal government did not have the power to establish borders or force the sale of land. As a result, cartographers decided to end each state at the Mississippi River – leaving them much larger than their current extent. In particular, I like how Connecticut continues on the other side of Pennsylvania, making it many times the state it is today.

The Early Americas exhibition, meanwhile, features documents, artifacts, paintings, and prints, as well as maps. The highlight is undoubtedly Martin Waldseemüller‘s 1507 world map, widely regarded as the first usage of the word ‘America’ to describe the new land recently discovered in the west. Waldseemüller used a feminine, Latin version of Amerigo Vespucci‘s name on this map, but later distanced himself from this coinage, preferring instead Terra Incognita. He felt that perhaps Vespucci should not get all the credit for the discovery. The map had already been turned into a popular globe, however, and the name stuck. Our guide informed us that, as a result, this map is known as America’s birth certificate.

Universalis Cosmographia

What amazed me about this map was the level of detail, particularly in Africa. I always thought that very little was known about sub-Saharan Africa until Livingstone‘s explorations of the 19th century, but the Mountains of the Moon are shown here, along with many lakes and rivers.

Our guide also told us in great detail about the map’s discovery and purchase by the library, but I won’t go into it here. As usual, Wikipedia provides all the information you’ll ever need.

When is a map not a map?

I took a trip to Sheffield today, mostly to see an old friend, but also to visit Inside the Circle of Fire: A Sheffield Sound Map at the Millennium Gallery. This exhibition was put together by Chris Watson, a founder member of the legendary Cabaret Voltaire, but with a subsequent career as a sound recordist, specialising in natural history. I was intrigued by the idea of a sound map, and was interested to see how sounds could be placed in a geographical context. As the exhibition blurb says,

In this ambitious new exhibition, Chris will transform the Millennium Gallery into an immersive ‘sound map’ of Sheffield, charting its boundaries on the edge of the Peak and travelling its waterways to the bustling heart of the city.

Unfortunately, I must have misunderstood, as the exhibition is not a map in any sense that I’m aware of. It was interesting, and I would have stayed to listen to the whole work if I didn’t have a bored child with me who wasn’t having any of it (though he did raise a smile when the terraces of Bramall Lane started to reverberate to the sound of Seven Nation Army). The gallery was dimly lit, with projections showing black and white images of the city (though with no explanation or location). In the centre of the room were four couches set facing each other; other benches were placed along the walls, and cushions were on the floor, to give different perspectives of the work.

While we were there, we heard church bells, birdsong, a woodpecker tapping at a tree, various industrial sounds, football chants, etc., but they were just sounds, coming from nowhere (or from everywhere, depending on whereabouts in the gallery you sat). There was no sense of where these sounds were located, where they belonged. I know I’m probably being a square who’s trying to find meaning and force an explanation onto something, but that’s not the point. I’m quite happy to enjoy this piece as a sound installation, or a sound collage, or a soundscape (as the guy lying on the couch with his eyes closed clearly was. Unless he was asleep), but it’s not a map. To me a map shows the relationship between items, rather than randomly serving them up without explanation.

That said, I would love to see it again, or maybe get a podcast and while away those long train journeys listening to “an affectionate portrait of a city that the 19th century writer John Ruskin called ‘a dirty picture in a golden frame.’“.


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