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:

I’VE BEEN ROBBED OF MY FORTUNE. YOU WILL HAVE TO LEAVE ROEDEAN FOR GOOD. TELL NO ONE. GET YOUR SHOES MENDED AND GET A WINTER COAT ON TICK.

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:

HURRY UP OUT OF HOSPITAL. YOU CANNOT RUN A BUSINESS FROM BED. WHY MUST MY DAUGHTER ALWAYS BE SICK?

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

MOTHER SENT YOU & TONY HORSE EACH. WHITE.

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

FILING FOR DIVORCE. NEW LIFE.

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.”