THE ROOTS, BIRTH, & EARLY DAYS
OF THE BSFA

by Rob Hansen

I assume that most members of the BSFA know that it came into being in 1958, but how many know that it's not the first group in the history of British fandom to be called the British Science Fiction Association but the third? Or that it's not Britain's first national SF organisation but itsfifth? In order to fill you in on the BSFA'srootsit's necessary to go right back to the very beginning of British fandom, to 1930 and to a district on the eastern outskirts of London, called Ilford....

It's possible to date the birth of British fandom exactly, namely Monday 27th October 1930, the day on which Britain's first fan group - the Ilford Science Literary Circle - held its first meeting. The group was formed by Walter Gillings (an important figure in the early history of SF in this country, and editor of a number of early British prozines) and Len Kippin, and during the nine months or so it existed an article about it by Gillings was printed in the US prozine WONDER STORIES. This led directly to the formation of the country's second fan group, the Universal Science Circle, in Liverpool in 1931.

The Ilford Circle went into recess in the summer of 1931 and never reconvened, so Gillings launched the British Science Literary Association in its place. This was intended to be a national fan organisation but despite the interest shown by Liverpool USC's Les Johnson and by Blackpool's John Russell Fearn, the BSLA just never came together. It seemed that a national fan organisation for Britain was an idea whose time had not yet come.

Britain's third fan group was formed early in 1932 in Hayes, Middlesex (located a few miles north of Heathrow Airport and, like Ilford, essentially a suburb of London but not officially a part of the city). It was called Hayes Science Fiction Club. Early in 1933 the group changed its name to the British Science Fiction Association and affiliated with the International Scientific Association, a correspondence group sponsored by Hugo Gernsback in AMAZING STORIES. This first BSFA, too, was a correspondence club with 'members' in a number of countries, though the three core members in Hayes (Paul Enever, John R. Elliot, and Len Tookey) made a local group much like any other of the time. This BSFA faded away sometime in 1935, following Enever's move to Manchester.

In October 1933, Les Johnson and Colin Askham of Liverpool's USC (which had presumably faded away by this point) formed the British Interplanetary Society. Though not strictly speaking a fan group, the BIS, which was dedicated to serious ways by which the conquest of space might be achieved rather than to SF, nonetheless numbered many SF fans among the nationwide membership it attracted, and would be a very visible component of pre-war fandom. In 1934 a young and as yet unknown Arthur C.Clarke was among many who joined the organisation. Despite all this activity British fandom had still to get itself organised on the national level, but in 1934 a catalyst would be provided in the form of the SFL.

Patterned after the ISA, the Science Fiction League was started by Gernsback and Charles D.Hornig at WONDER STORIES in May 1934. Of the thirty- seven chapters of the SFL that were ultimately granted charters, five were in the UK. The first of these was in Leeds, which became Britain's fourth fan group when it formed in April 1935 as SFL chapter no.17. The other SFL chapters were in Belfast (no.20), Nuneaton (no.22), Glasgow (no.34), and Barnsley (no.37).

On 3rd January 1937, Leeds SFL (which by this point was by far the largest and most active fan group in the country) put on the first ever SF convention at the Theosophical Hall in Leeds. Some twenty or so SF fans assembled there including Arthur C.Clarke, Walter Gillings, Edward John Carnell (known in fandom as 'Ted'), Les Johnson, and Eric Frank Russell. The main business of the day was the formation of a non-commercial organisation to further the cause of science fiction in Britain, a proposal made by Leeds SFL. Thus was born the Science Fiction Association, Britain's first national fan organisation. The intention was to ask the British SFL chapters to become branches of the new organisation and to encourage the formation of other branches throughout the country. The visiting fans proposed that Leeds should be SFA HQ and that NOVAE TERRAE (put out by Nuneaton SFL, and Britain's first true fanzine) should become the organisation's official organ.

Dissent in the Leeds group over severing links with the SFL led to that group splitting in two and to SFA HQ being transferred to London but did not otherwise impair the organisation's effectiveness. Though the Barnsley, Belfast, and Glasgow chapters of the SFL faded away before they could be invited to affiliate to the SFA other chapters soon opened up in Manchester, Liverpool, London, and Los Angeles. Indeed, at its height the SFA had a membership that must have been close to two hundred and had largely succeeded in forging a national identity for British fandom.

The start of World War II in September 1939 led to a decision to suspend both the SFA and BIS for the duration. Despite this, fannish activity continued largely uninterrupted during the 'Phoney War' period that followed the outbreak of war. However, with the start of the Blitz and the increasing numbers of fans who were being called-up for service in the armed forces, this activity had slowed to a trickle by mid-1940 and it was only through the efforts of former Leeds SFL member J.Michael Rosenblum that British fandom survived at all during the war years. In October 1940, Rosenblum launched the first issue of FUTURIAN WAR DIGEST, a fanzine designed to keep the scattered members of British fandom in touch with each other. FWD lasted for thirty-nine issues, its demise coming in March 1945. This would be an impressive publishing record for a fanzine in any era but in the conditions existing during the war it was nothing short of phenomenal and its example inspired other British fans to continue with some semblance of fanzine production, many of the often single-sheet zines they produced going out bound with FWD.

By August 1941, Rosenblum was having serious doubts about his ability to continue FWD. A Conscientious Objector, he was not only toiling in the fields every day but also putting in two nights a week fire-watching (ie. for incendiary bombs) and a third learning first-aid. He was constantly tired, had increasing difficulty acquiring the materials necessary for publication, and was also under police observation - the authorities being convinced he was publishing seditious material. Fearing that FWD, by now the only remaining cohesive force in British fandom, might be forced to close down, he concluded that a new national fan organisation was needed, and began making plans for one.

The British Fantasy Society (no relation to the current organisation of the same name), Britain's second national fan organisation, came into being in June 1942. It's official organ, BFS BULLETIN, usually went out bound with FWD. By mid-1943 the society's library owned several hundred prozines and had established a branch to handle the sale of magazines. By the autumn the BFS had acquired 87 members, formed a sub-group devoted to weird fiction, and was thriving. The organisation lasted until November 1946, the month the final BFS BULLETIN was published, but from its ashes a new organisation arose....

The British Fantasy Library came into being when Ron Holmes and Nigel Lindsay, by this point about half the remaining active membership of the BFS, decided to combine it's library and chain letter to form a new national organisation, one which lasted until 1950. Though this was Britain's third it was extremely limited in scope and not really designed to get fandom back on its feet in the aftermath of the war. Nonetheless, the BFL's official organ, BOOKLIST, was to play its part in that recovery when, in September 1947, Ken Slater took advantage of an offer from Holmes and Lindsay to circulate with it free of charge any fanzines sent to them. He sent out the first issue of his OPERATION FANTAST with the September BOOKLIST, which became the newsletter of his organisation of the same name, a combination club and book-selling business that was to be the main route into fandom for fans over the next eight years.

Britain's first post-war convention, WHITCON (the convention from which modern Eastercons are numbered), was held in London on 15th May 1948 and was successful enough for Slater to decide that the time was now right for a new national fan organisation, since it was clear that the pre-war SFA's 'suspension' was permanent. This was the Science Fantasy Society, Britain's fourth national fan organisation, and at its height it would attract some 150 members. However, though it undoubtedly played an important part, along with Operation Fantast, in sustaining British fandom through a difficult period, the SFS didn't have staying power and it died, largely unmourned, in September 1951. SCIENCE FANTASY NEWS, the official organ of the SFS, survived the demise of the organisation, and it was in the pages of the March 1952 SFN that its editor, Vince Clarke, reported on a mysterious new organisation called the British Science Fiction Association....

The first most British fans knew of this new BSFA was when the magazine PICTURE POST carried a letter from the organisation signed by its assistant secretary. Intrigued, Clarke got in touch with the assistant secretary and received a letter in reply giving details of the association's aims and dues but very little else. Further enquiries by Clarke to this BSFA got nowhere, but other fans came forward with their own experiences in contacting them. Early in December 1951 a new fan, John Gutteridge, had contacted this BSFA and been told that it had been formed five years earlier, had 130 members in the UK, 57 in the US, and that his own membership number was 254. He was assured that his name would be placed on the January mailing list, but he never heard from them again. A few weeks later Ken Slater contacted the association and was told that BSFA membership stood at 92 in the UK and 22 in the US. Numbers had dropped substantially, it would appear. The letter to Slater contained a semi-literate diatribe against other fan groups and was, in fact, the last that anyone ever heard from this BSFA. Since it seems hardly credible that such a large international organisation could have existed so long unnoticed by the rest of fandom, it's almost certain that this second BSFA never existed as more than a grand delusion in the minds of its chairman and assistant secretary.

By this point British fandom was sufficiently active and lively that no-one felt the need for a national fan organisation. Indeed, the years immediately following the demise of the SFS produced some of the best fanzines ever to come out of this country and established many of the traditions British fandom follows to this day. Unfortunately, nothing lasts for ever, and as the 1950s drew to a close the glory days began to fade and there were those who began to feel that a new national fan organisation was vital to the continued survival of British fandom....

The 1958 Eastercon, CYTRICON IV, was held over Easter (April 4th-7th) at the George Hotel in Kettering, the fourth consecutive year the hotel had hosted the national convention. As was usual by this point the con was unprogrammed, but this time it was hardly without purpose. In the sixth issue of his fanzine ZYMIC, which went out with the December '57 mailing of OMPA, Britain's first APA, Vince Clarke railed against the prevailing apathy of British fandom and the falling numbers of both fanzines and fans. The response to that issue surprised even him:

"I appear to have struck a spark and started a conflagration. The case for Doing Something about the apathetic state of British fandom has certainly been put before, and I'm surprised that the response to DON'T JUST SIT THERE...has been so great; I feel like a man who has casually pushed a button and seen the ICBM take off with awhoosh."

The Liverpool group, and in particular Dave Newman and Norman Shorrock, had been so taken with the idea that they sent Clarke a tape of their discussions of the possibility of setting up a new national organisation and urged him to start up a round-robin tape correspondence with everyone interested in the idea. This Clarke did, and though he wasn't able to attend the Eastercon his ideas and those of the others who had participated in the correspondence had received enough circulation to enable Newman to put a strong case for the new organisation during the discussion that took place at CYTRICON on the Sunday...

Newman brought the meeting to order, gave a brief resume of the ZYMIC article and the tape discussion that had followed, and threw the meeting open to the floor. In the debate that ensued it was decided that most of the fanzines being published no longer had any real connection to SF and were hardly likely to attract new people, and also that conventions themselves had moved so far from SF that they were not likely to attract new people either. There was evidence to support this in the attendance figures of the previous few Eastercons. Those attending in 1954 had numbered 150, but there were only 115 in 1955 and 80 in 1956. This drop coincided exactly with the shift in emphasis of Eastercons from strongly SF events to largely social affairs, and the fifty or so fans who turned up at CYTRICON IV realised that drastic action was called for. The almost complete absence of channels of recruitment to British fandom, particularly since the demise of Operation Fantast in March 1955, was a cause of much concern and a number of ways by which the situation could be improved were explored. Eventually, after hours of debate, it had been decided that a new national organisation was the only answer to the problem, one that was ostensibly devoted to the serious study of SF but whose publications would also carry material about fandom, the hope being that those hooked and nurtured by the organisation would eventually provide fandom with vital new blood. Having taken this decision they then proceeded to elect officers.

Over some reluctance Manchester fans Terry Jeeves and Eric Bentcliffe (who at this point co-edited the fanzine TRIODE) were persuaded to take the job of Secretary as a joint position, Ted Tubb was elected 'by acclaim' as Editor of the Official Organ (which Jeeves suggested should be called VECTOR), Archie Mercer was persuaded to take the job of Treasurer, and Dave Newman became Chairman. There was some debate over whether the organisation should have 'science fiction' in its name with Tubb opposed and Newman for. Their arguments, as revealed by a transcript of the debate, were:

Tubb: "Consider what the BBC did at the World Science Fiction Convention. They did not go there with the idea of worshipping at the feet of idols but of making mugs out of people who'd come a long way to do something they thought highly of. We don't want that to happen everytime we meet the Press, andeverytime we meet the Press that is what happens."

Newman: "Well, merely calling ourselves 'The Imaginative Fiction Society' or 'The Fantasy Society' is not going to make any difference; the Press immediately say 'This so-and-so Society, they call themselves----; well what are they? Oh, they're science fiction readers.' The damage is done. My personal feeling about this is that avoiding the use of the name 'science fiction' in the title is cowardice in the face of the enemy, and I strongly disapprove of it."

On a show of hands Newman carried the day. It was further agreed that the organisation would henceforth be responsible for the annual convention, the 1959 con to be held 'at the seaside', place unspecified, at Whitsun. Ignoring the fact that the name had surfaced twice before in fandom's past, it was agreed by a show of hands that the new organisation should be called the British Science Fiction Association. Oldtime fan Sid Birchby was in that audience, and later wrote:

"For a moment we see that fandom is slipping away, and with a unity of action and lack of heroics that is rare in fan politics, we do something about it. The feeling of the meeting is extraordinary. This is the third national fan society I've seen, and the most likely to succeed where the SFA and BFS have failed."

Perhaps so, but in the months and years to come this BSFA was not always to be the docile and obedient beast those who created it might have wished for.

The first issue of the BSFA's official organ, VECTOR, didn't appear until the summer of 1958 and was edited by Ted Tubb. In a circular issued shortly before titled THE CHAIRMAN SPEAKS that called for memberships at an annual fee of one pound (considered high at the time), Dave Newman had apologised for the silence from the BSFA since CYTRICON IV and explained that they had needed the time to properly formulate the organisational structure and responsibilities before seeking members. Ironically, not long after VECTOR appeared Tubb announced that he didn't have the time to continue editing it and Newman resigned as Chairman following a move from Liverpool to Bournemouth. This left Bentcliffe as de fact Chairman and Jeeves took over VECTOR. Hardly a complaint was heard about this quiet coup d'etat.

The 1959 national convention, BRUMCON, was held over Easter at the Imperial Hotel in Birmingham, a city that was hosting its first SF convention some sixteen years after the 'near-miss' of MIDVENTION. This was the first con to be put on under the auspices of the BSFA and was more formal than had been the case in recent years, seeking as it did to appeal to newcomers as well as to the old guard of fanzine fans. Only fifty or so fans attended, but along with the old familiar faces were those who had been introduced to fandom by the BSFA. It was a small beginning, but there were signs that the patient might now recover.

The BSFA held its first AGM at the con and new officers for the year were elected. Bobbie Wild took over as VECTOR editor with Sandra Hall her assistant, while Doc Weir became Secretary, and Archie Mercer remained treasurer. Arthur Rose 'Doc' Weir was a member of the Cheltenham Circle, and somewhat unusual in that he discovered fandom, in 1958, when already in his sixties. Age, however, did not stop him from fully involving himself in all that fandom had to offer.

The BSFA was getting some useful publicity at this point from NEW WORLDS, long the British prozine most resistant to printing fannish news. In an issue of Ron Bennett's fanzine, PLOY, that appeared not long after the convention, Ted Carnell explained that NW had never carried a fan column because he considered it would be of too little interest to the majority of readers. However, he was plugging the BSFA because:

"It seems to me that here is the basis for new members of fandom and that in the Association's quarterly journal all the fan magazines which are reviewed will be brought to the attention of such new members of the Association who join from the general readership."

The last Jeeves edited VECTOR, issue 4, had appeared in the spring and it would be quite a while before the next appeared. In October, Michael Moorcock put out the single-sheet VECTOR EXPLANATION, explaining the delay, and soon after VECTOR 5 finally appeared, with Moorcock and George Locke listed as editors along with Bobbie Wild and Sandra Hall. VECTOR 6 appeared in January 1960 with John Phillifent (a.k.a. John Rackham) replacing Locke on the list of editors. VECTOR 7 was dated Spring 1960 and edited by Moorcock and Wild.

By all accounts the (unnamed) 1960 Eastercon was a fairly sedate affair. The con proper didn't start until Saturday but people turned up on the Friday evening anyway. Sunday started off with the BSFA AGM in which officers for the year were elected. Ella Parker became the Association's new Secretary, Jim Groves editor of VECTOR, Ina Shorrock its Chairman, Brian Aldiss its President, and Archie Mercer its Treasurer for the third (and final, he said) year.

The BSFA had gotten off to a slow start, but it was soon pulling in new people and was to be a major force in British fandom during the 1960s. But that, as they say, is a story for another time.

.......Rob Hansen 16 April 89.