1937 was quite a year for the nascent British science fiction community. It was the year of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, and in January the first British convention took place in Leeds. Eric Frank Russell was one of the speakers, and he had to some extent got the measure of early (and indeed later) fans. From the official report:
“A science-fiction reader,” he said, “is one who buys his magazine for 1/- at a proper book shop, reads it, and passes it on to a friend or throws it away. A science-fiction fan,” he continued, “is one who waits two months, goes and buys a copy for 4d. at a ‘remainder’ stall, thereby benefitting the publisher not even a cent, scans through it in a hurry, then writes letters telling the publisher how to publish, the printer how to print, the artist how to draw, the editor how to edit, and the authors how to write.”
Continuing on this topic, Mr. Russell made an appeal to all British fans to buy their copies from leading bookstalls or agencies for 1/-, and not to buy “remainders.” Bookstall purchasing, he pointed out, would give publishers a true idea of the demand for science-fiction in this country, and would help to financially support the magazine, thus ensuring a better production, and a prompt payment to authors.
This seems to be overestimating the marketing impact of a concerted action by even the entire membership of the Leeds convention, all twenty of them, at a time when a British SF magazine would need sales of approximately 30,000; so I don’t think we can hold him wholly responsible for the appearance that summer of Tales of Wonder, the first adult British SF magazine (a predecessor, Scoops, was really more of a juvenile paper).
And 1937 was also the year in which the focus of the British science fiction community moved to London—or, I suppose, more accurately moved back to London, given that the first known British fan activity was a meeting of a group in the east London suburb of Ilford in October 1930. During the mid-1930s the fan scene centred on Leeds and, somewhat incongruously, Nuneaton, a West Midlands town that for some reason now chooses to emphasise its connections with the Victorian novelist George Eliot rather than its key role in the evolution of the science fiction fan microcosm. When Hugo Gernsback’s Science Fiction League deigned to charter British chapters, Leeds was the first and Nuneaton the third (Belfast was the second, but seems to have done little beyond demonstrating a pioneering spirit). Nuneaton fans, predominantly Maurice K. Hanson and Denis A. Jacques, created the first British fanzine, Novae Terrae, in 1936 while the Leeds group sponsored the first convention as already noted.
That all changed later in the year. There was a schism in Leeds, and Maurice Hanson moved to London in August 1937, taking his duplicator with him. And that seems to have been pretty much it for Nuneaton and science fiction, allowing George Eliot to reclaim unchallenged literary primacy in the region. Novae Terrae now became a London fanzine, co-edited by Hanson, Ted Carnell, and Arthur C. Clarke, and the London fans began to organise. A meeting in the south London suburb of Catford in October attracted almost as many people as the Leeds convention, and from Sunday 7 November a series of regular monthly meetings began at the splendidly named Ancient Order of Druids Memorial Hall in the similarly splendidly named Lamb’s Conduit Street in central London (the latter named in honour of William Lambe, although whoever chose to honour him seemingly didn’t care enough to spell his name correctly).
But monthly meetings were not enough for these newly energised London fans, and in addition to the formal monthly Sunday meetings they began meeting informally on Thursdays too, at the J Lyons teashop at 36—38 New Oxford Street. One attendee was Sid Birchby who later wrote:
As from Thursday 9th December 1937 I began having tea with some of the regulars. Such gatherings may have started before then but this was my first. After work I went up to Holborn and in a Lyons’ teashop joined six of the SFA [Science Fiction Association] gang in poached egg on toast and a jaw.
Also present that evening were Ted Carnell, later founding editor of New Worlds and of the anthology series New Writings in SF and a prominent literary agent, and the soon-to-be-authors Arthur C. Clarke and William Temple, a true gathering of British science fiction’s power elite. Thursdays were apparently chosen as the meeting day because that was when Carnell had a half-day off work.
The following year in August, these meetings moved to a flat on Gray’s Inn Road shared by Clarke, Hanson, and Temple and pragmatically known as The Flat, while those who were so inclined took advantage of the Red Bull pub on the corner. The Flat meetings were among the extremely minor consequential casualties of the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939, and the Red Bull gatherings ended in October 1940.
Now all of the people named here are dead, and most of the places have at least been repurposed—the Ancient Order of Druids Memorial Hall was bombed out in 1941 and 36—38 New Oxford Street seems to now be a nightclub—but the tradition of meetings in London on Thursdays does live on.
When full-on activity resumed in 1946, London fans met first at The Shamrock in Fetter Lane in March, crossing the road to The White Horse, famed in fiction as The White Hart, in April. They continued to meet there weekly on Thursdays until 1953 when they followed the popular landlord Lew Mordecai to The Globe in nearby Hatton Garden. Meetings continued there for over twenty years, although at some point they became monthly, and then moved slightly further north to The One Tun in July 1974 when The Globe was scheduled for demolition. “The Tun” gave a home to the meeting—if not always a happy one (it was insanely crowded)—until January 1987 when a principled stand against homophobia propelled the meeting south of the Thames to The Wellington Tavern.
Thereafter, there were several changes, some quite short-lived, before the meeting pitched up at its current home in January 2006. The Melton Mowbray is on High Holborn and is a return to our roots as it’s just around the corner from the site of The White Horse. Additional historical continuity comes from the pub’s name which gives a rationale for the tendency of long-time attendees to still call it “The Tun.” A friend once charted the cross-town and cross-time peregrinations of the group. Regrettably, joining the dots does not reveal some portentous symbol; it just looks like somebody’s scribbled on a map of central London.
And I mention all this because while the unbroken run of meetings extends back to March 1946, there is a case for arguing that this was merely a resumption of the pre-War meetings; and if that’s so, then we can argue that as the first known meeting was on Thursday 9 December 1937, then the meeting on Thursday 6 December 2012 constitutes a 75th birthday of sorts. Happy birthday to us. And if anybody wonders why we’re all there, it’s because somebody who died forty years ago had a half-day holiday thirty-five years before that.