Leeds and the world's first science fiction convention

Worlds first Science Fiction convention attendees standing on Queen Square in Leeds
World's first science fiction convention attendees: Maurice K. Hanson, Arthur C. Clarke, Walter Gillings, Les Johnson, Ted Carnell, Eric Frank Russell, Herbert Warnes (chairman), George Airey, A.Miller, D.W.F. Mayer, J. Michael Rosenblum.

Today the beautiful city of Leeds is celebrated for many things, a vibrant air of multiculturalism, an ambitious art scene and a business centre that has long been heralded as "the capital of the north".

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But there is one thing that Leeds has given to the world that many people, even within the city itself, are largely unaware of.

Tucked just to the north of the city centre, surrounded by picturesque Georgian terraced houses, is Queen Square. Although the square itself is flanked by skyscrapers and entrenched by two busy carriageways, it is left largely undisturbed, and is visited only by squirrels, birds and businessmen looking for a peaceful lunch in its green park.

But in this very square, where people come to eat their sandwiches and take some air, is where the world's very first science fiction convention took place, way back in 1937 – and it contained some very special guests.

Modern day Queen Square in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England.
A summers day in Queen Square, Leeds, England.
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The Beginnings of Science Fiction

Captain Kirk from Star Trek, played by William Shatner, with an attractive women.
Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner, finds himself in a familar situation.

To the laymen, science-fiction might be a genre that began in the late 1960s, when they watched Star Trek for the very first time. For someone with a little more knowledge, they might assume the first science fiction publication to be H.G Wells' War of the Worlds, which was published in 1897.

But the truth of the matter is that science fiction has been alive and well for as long as man has been able to record stories, with some even arguing for the Epic of Gilgamesh (2150-2000BCE), to be the very first example of science fiction.

A more popular view however, is that anything we consider to be science fiction today, in a modern sense, can only have been created between the 17th and 19th centuries – during times of great enlightenment, where there were vast advancements in science, mathematics, astronomy, technology, and of course, literature.

So to some, it may actually be more of a surprise to learn that the first ever science fiction convention didn't actually take place until 1937, and they may be less surprised to find that it was based in Leeds, and not the likes of London or some city in the US.

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The state of Science Fiction in the 1930s

Cover of the first edition of Amazing Stories, art by Frank R. Paul.
An early cover of Amazing Stories, art by Frank R. Paul.

During the 1930s, Science fiction was enjoying a period of renaissance, largely thanks to the founding of adult-oriented pulp magazines in the 1920s, which were coasting the edges of mainstream literature, and freely devoured by American audiences.

In fact, "juvenile" Science fiction magazines had been popular for some time, the most prominent being the serialised story of Under the Moons of Mars, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Combining European elements of fantasy and horror with the naive expansionist style of early American westerns, Burroughs had his hero John Carter outwit various inferior green, yellow, and black Martians.

He also marries a red Martian and has a child by her, despite the fact that she reproduces by laying eggs. Burroughs's hero remained an SF archetype, especially for "space operas," through the 1950s.

Indeed, the genre flourished under the banner of pulp magazines, which were printed by American presses, and were read by on large by Americans.

One of the most prominent adult magazines, Amazing Stories, written by Hugo Gernsback, became so successful that many people assumed (and still do to some extent today), that the entire genre had been invented by America.

Volume 01 Number 01 of Amazing Stories from archive.org.

With this fact in mind, very few people, whether they printed or consumed the publications, would have likely ever have heard of Leeds – begging the obvious question of ‘Why hold a science fiction convention in Leeds?'

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Leeds and the world's first science fiction convention

Leeds from the Meadows by Joseph Rhodes, painted 1825.
Leeds from the Meadows by Joseph Rhodes, 1825.
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Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke

Born in Minehead in 1917, Arthur C. Clarke was the oldest of four children and spent much of his childhood stargazing and reading American magazines at the family farm.

After studying at Huish Grammar School in Tauntan, Clarke moved to London in 1936 and joined the Board of Education to work as a pensions auditor.

Clarke describes a future of ubiquitous, internet-enabled, personal computers in an ABC interview from 1974.

During the war, Clarke enlisted in the RAF, where he served as a radar specialist and spent much of his work serving in the Ground Controlled Approach, despite it not being of much practical use.

Like many in his generation, he did not study at university until the conflict was over, and attended King's College London where he achieved a first-class degree in mathematics and physics.

Before long, Clarke served as the Chairman of the British Interplanetary Society and held the position from 1946 to 1947 - around the same time that he got his first professional publication.

In 1948 Clarke wrote The Sentinel for a BBC competition, and although it did not win, the piece changed the course of his career and is also known to be the basis of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The orginal 1968 trailer for '2001: Space Odyssey'.
Throughout the next few years Clarke wrote many novels and a series of short stories, which today can be found in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke.

2001 Space Odyssey promotional poster
2001 Space Odyssey promotional poster

Clarke's most well-known and critically acclaimed work is the Odyssey series, the first of which was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick. It would later be regarded as one of Kubrick's best; cementing both his and Clarke's legacy. The sequel, 2010: Odyssey 2 was released in 1984 to positive reviews, although it does not hold the same significance as its predecessor.

During the 1980s Clarke became a well-known face in television, hosting Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, amongst other shows focussed around the universe and science fiction.

In 1989 Clarke was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for "services to British Culture in Sri Lanka", where he had lived since 1956, having come close with another man there.

Clarke was also made Knight Bachelor in Sri Lanka for "services to literature" in 2000. After focussing on a series of humanitarian causes throughout the later years of his life, Clarke died in 2008, after suffering from respiratory failure stemming from post-polio syndrome.

He was buried in the traditional Sri Lankan fashion at a ceremony in which thousands attended.

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Although the US does hold significant sway over the genre today, the truth of its origins, whether in 19th century gothic novels or even in 20th century pulp fiction, lay almost entirely in Europe. Even Hugo Gernsback (author of 'Amazing Stories') himself was from Luxemburg. What's more, many of the contributing writers and authors for the pulp magazines and fanzines were British.

L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology and famous science fiction author, features in this edition of Astounding Science Fiction from August 1947.

One of the biggest names to find income from them, and also the biggest name on the convention's roster, was none other than acclaimed writer and inventor, Arthur C. Clarke.

Like many other struggling writers at the time, Clarke found a cash source by writing in some of the fanzines and pulp fiction magazines, although his first professional sale did not occur until 1946, in Astounding Science Fiction.

It therefore made sense for such a convention to be held in the UK, and in a location suitable so that every man who wished to, could attend. Located in the centre of mainland Britain, Leeds was ideally placed.

Leeds was also home to the first chapter of the Science Fiction League outside of the USA, with it's members making numerous contributions to the fanzines and magazines of the age.

The furthest attendees, Ted Carnell and Arthur C. Clarke, travelled for hundreds of miles from London, at a time when long distance travel was both difficult and tiresome.

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The Big Day

As the official souvenir booklet of the "convention" reports, all in all there were roughly 20 attendees on the day, which was made up of both fans and authors of the genre. Although this figure may seem somewhat small compared to the likes of today's conventions, it does take special mention to note that many others were to attend, but had fallen ill during the earlier week due to an influenza epidemic that engulfed the country.

Some of the guests who travelled to 14 Queen Square included:

During the morning session, speeches were given by prominent names and in the afternoon, discussion was had by all in the way of improving the quality and popularity of the genre.

You can find a full breakdown of what was said throughout the day in the official souvenir booklet, which has been kindly scanned by the Science Fiction Foundation.

Possibly the most fascinating detail that one can gather from the booklet is that it only makes mention of Arthur C. Clarke twice, and both times almost in passing. The largest piece reads:

After giving many interesting, and sometimes, amusing, anecdotes, Mr.Carnell concluded, and made way for Mr. A.C.Clarke, who described how a branch of the British Interplanetary Society had been formed in London, mentioning some of its activities to date, and giving an indication of what it hopes to accomplish.

This is of course entirely forgivable however, as Clarke had yet to make a name for himself, having found a steady job as a pension auditor at the Board of Education. He had yet to write any of the great and marvellous things for which he is now known for, though it is nice to think that the convention did provide some influence or inspiration to the young man.

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So what was achieved?

Happily, despite what we in the 21st century might consider a fairly low turnout, the event achieved a great deal.

The convention, thanks to the people who attended, and what was said by those who spoke, was able to properly assess the popularity of science fiction in 1930s Britain, and from the back of that, four exceptional science fiction clubs were established.

When reported in Ted Carnell's Sands of Time (published in 1942), the clubs were described as "four hells", and were found in Leeds, Liverpool, Leicester and London. The pamphlet described the original meeting fondly:

Everyone made speeches, plenty of ideas and suggestions floated around, an Association was formed. The last we remember of the meeting was sneaking off into a private sanctum, lighting a gas fire, and dropping off to sleep utterly worn out. "But, as we remember, they did form the Science Fiction Association, and the noose was drawn a little tighter round our lily- white throats.

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But was it really the first science fiction convention? - The Philadelphia claim

Like many great things to happen in the world, there is always contention, there is always conspiracy and like many average things, there is always disagreement born from jealousy and pride.

Unfortunately, the title to the first science fiction convention in the world is marred somewhat by a claim laid by an event held in Philadelphia in 1936 – just one year before Leeds' own.

Philadelphia in 1936
Philadelphia in 1936
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The Leeds Theosophical society

The location of the conference itself was held at the Leeds Theosophical Society at house number 14 (although today it is located just two doors down at number 12), which was perfect, as it provided a large hall that could seat up to 300 people.

Leeds Theosophical society logo

Founded in 1900, the Leeds Theosophical Society has always been found in Queen Square and originally owned doors 12 to 14. According to the official website:

Alfred R. Orage
Alfred R. Orage

Alfred R. Orage (1873 - 1934) with others, founded the Lodge on 19 September 1900, and was its first President. Orage produced his own journal - The New Age - for many years. George Bernard Shaw said that Orage was the most brilliant editor that England had produced for a hundred years. While T. S. Eliot wrote of him as the "finest critical intelligence of our day".

Today the Leeds Theosophical Society holds regular meetings throughout the year which are free of charge. The objectives of the society are to form a universal bond throughout all men and women, encourage study of religion, science and philosophy, and to investigate the unexplained laws of nature.

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The dispute came about when in competing worldcon bids (Philadelphia '86 and Leeds '87) made rival claims to hold the golden 50th anniversary of the world's first science fiction convention.

This dispute can be summarised in no better way than when Dave Longford was quoted (somewhat enthusiastically) by Thyme, as reported by Rob Hansen's Fan Stuff:

It was all Sam Moskowitz's fault. Unable, for apparently chauvinistic reasons, to accept that the first ever con was held in Britain in January 1937, he insists on the honours going to a 1936 event.

This consisted of a social outing of New York fans who visited Philadelphia, gathered in the home of a local fan, and as an afterthought declared the gathering to be a convention.

A bit of officiality that gave them the uncontested title of first convention in fan history,' babbles Moskowitz. Nonsense, say I. A convention implies pre-organisation and, I rather think, the use of public facilities. Out upon this heresy!"

Longford's point is all well and good, and holds steady logic, but it is not enough to settle the matter, as on page 9 of British Fanzine Novae Terrae (December to January 1936-37 edition), it states that:

America (New York) beats Leeds in holding the first science fiction convention, when members from the ISA in New York visited fans in Philadelphia on October 18th.

This is of some importance for two reasons, the first being that it concedes the title to the US, and the second being that Novae Terrae was written and owned by Mr. MK Hanson, himself a guest and speaker at the Leeds convention in 1937.

Furthermore Lew Wolkoff of the Late Philadelphia in the '86 bid said at the time of the dispute that he had,

reached a tentative treaty on the business of the first convention with the two reps from Britain in '87 whose names I forget at present). They conceded the first con to Philly, and I conceded the first modern con (fan advertising, preset agenda etc.) to Leeds. A fair concession, I'd say.

But is that a fair concession?

A concession of two men, both of which Wolkoff cannot name?

Prominent science fiction historian and author, Fred Patten, says otherwise, stating that throughout the early 20th century, especially the 1930s, authors and fans between the US and the UK would regularly trade work, ideas and news.

He points out specifically that one notable writer, the aforementioned Ted Carnell, who wrote in American fanzines, often discussed the science fiction convention which was to be held in Leeds in American columns. He also notes that Carnell wished for the company of H.G. Wells on the day, who sadly, did not end up attending.

In contrast, Patten states that the 1936 convention in Philadelphia was merely something that occurred on the spur-of-the-moment, a near spontaneous idea belonging to Donald Wollheim. Although he does concede that the "gathering" itself was made in advance, it should be considered merely as a "day's outing.

He also states, that according to accounts from the attendees themselves, that it was not until they were at the event that they decided to name it a convention. Patten says:

I got the impression that it wasn't until they were a already gathered in Milton Rothman's home Philadelphia that Wollheim got the idea of calling their gathering a convention, and appointing Fred Pohl to be the Secretary and send out press releases to all the fanzines about what a great convention they'd just had.

Indeed, it is now "casually accepted over fact" that Leeds held the world's first science fiction convention, and this has been the case for many years, with the SF Digest supporting Leeds as far back as 1952.

And with that, Leeds' claim to the first ever Science Fiction convention holds strong, though whether this dispute shall arise once more in 2036 and 2037, is anyone's guess. I suppose that we shall have to wait and find out.

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Your thoughts

What do you think? Does Leeds rightly deserve the title of the host of the worlds first science fiction convention, or should it be Philadelphia? We'd love to hear your thoughts about this, or anything else to do with this article, via the comments form below.

William Shatner with comments mike
William Shatner waiting to hear what you've got to say.
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