The 1930s: When London Was Really Put On The Map

By M@
The 1930s: When London Was Really Put On The Map

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A trio of iconic London maps, the A-Z, Beck's tube map and the Monopoly board

Within the space of three years, a trio of legendary London layouts appeared.

How's this for a cartographic chronology?

1933: Harry Beck's pioneering tube map first appears.
1936: The first A-Z map of London is published.
1936: The London version of Monopoly is launched.

The three most iconic representations of London (I would argue) all debuted within three years of one another.

Beck's tube map famously ditched the need for geographical accuracy. All passengers needed to know was how best to get between stations, not their precise locations. His map was much more elegant than predecessors, with all lines running either horizontal, vertical, or at 45 degrees to these. Almost a century later, the tube map is not only still in use, but a much-cherished icon of London.

A glasses case and cleaning cloth both emblazoned with the tube map. Image Matt Brown
The tube map has become such an icon, you can even wipe your glasses with it

The age of paper street atlases is arguably coming to an end. But for nine decades, one brand has dominated the field: the London A-Z. The first edition was put together in 1936 by Phyllis Pearsall, who reputedly walked every street in London to compile her maps. In the early days, she had to personally fulfil orders by running round town with a wheelbarrow – kind of putting the cart back into cartography. For generations of Londoners, "Check your A-Z" would be a more natural phrase than "Check your map".

The London Monopoly set was also launched in 1936. It would be a stretch to call the game a "map", but its idiosyncratic arrangement of streets and stations is certainly one of the most famous representations of London. It raises so many questions. Why is Pentonville Road among the poor streets? Why, among all the streets, was The Angel (a pub) chosen for one square? Where the hell is Vine Street? And has anyone ever picked up the "second prize in a beauty contest" card without making a predictable joke? All the answers and more are in Tim Moore's classic account of the origins of Monopoly, Do Not Pass Go.

Obviously, there's much, much more to be said about all three of these London icons. But the striking point for me is that all three arrived around the same time. Was it just coincidence? Was there something in the water? Could it be tied into the concurrent prevalence of eye-catching architecture, when buildings like Battersea Power Station, 55 Broadway and Senate House were also making their mark?

Perhaps we can put it down to population growth. The capital's headcount was about to reach its 20th Century peak, having grown from 6.5 million at the turn of the century to 8.5 million by the mid-30s. With so many people in the capital, and ever more of them commuting to and from work, there was a pressing need for better cartography. Both the A-Z and Beck's tube map were timely solutions to meet the needs of an expanded population. The Monopoly board (pioneered two years earlier in America, during the Great Depression) is a bit different, but is another manifestation of rapid city growth.

Of course, many important and distinctive maps of London were made before these, and have emerged since. But I can't think of any other representations of London that are as well known (and loved) as these three. Whatever the reasons, if any, it remains an intriguing observation that the A-Z, Beck's tube map and the Monopoly board all appeared around the same time.

Last Updated 17 October 2023