The History of early British SF Conventions, magazines, fandom

One of the first publishing pieces Kimota did was to collect together a number of articles about the early history of SF written by Bert Lewis. These writings give an insight into the pioneering days when it was out of the ordinary to read SF. The text is reproduced here.


The Early Days of Science Fiction Fandom

I have been asked to write about the early days of science fiction; well, I did have my arm twisted a little, so now that I've had the splints removed I'll have to rack my ageing brain to recall things so far back.

SF Magazines

Yes! Those really were the days... They were also a time when one had to mention SF very carefully, after glancing furtively around to make sure it was safe to do so. In those days, in the literary world at least, science fiction was a 'dirty' word, so you had to ensure that the person you were speaking to was like you.

SF films, for instance, were almost non-existent in the early 20's and years before the war, and SF books were limited to those which today are considered as 'classics', such a Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt and The Lost Worlds, and H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds, perhaps a little later, there was L. O'Neill's Land Under England. So as you can see the scope was very limited indeed.

But of course, for the really keen fans there was the trickle of SF from America. in the form of the early SF magazines, if you can really call them science fiction: I refer to ALL STORY and WEIRD TALES, the first of which concerned itself with publishing serialised novels and was responsible for bringing us one of the greatest of the early SF novels: Under the Moons of Mars by E.R. Burroughs, later published as the novel A Princess of Mars. WEIRD TALES, however, although its title suggested stories of the 'horror' type, was responsible for publishing many stories which are nowadays classed as SF. Short stories by such masters as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, and when one reads their stories today in anthologies one can really appreciate their worth, even if the 'science' does leave a little to be desired. Both of these magazines originated in the mid-twenties, so one must make allowances.

Then in 1926, there appeared on the news-stands an SF magazine with a title which left no doubt in one's mind: AMAZING STORIES, a large pulp-paper magazine measuring 11" by 7", with full colour front cover by one of the great early SF artists Frank Paul. Its editor was Hugo Gernsback, an emigrant from Luxembourg who was basically a keen exponent of Radio and Electronics, and who had previously published a magazine on these subjects. In 1911 he had written a novel of the ear 2660, entitled Ralph 124C 41+, which in terms of everyday language meant 'One to foresee for one', the 'plus' sign denoting Ralph's high mental rating. Today this book, in any edition, is a rare possession, even though many would tend to consider it rather naive. It did, however, forecast some of the many inventions and discoveries which today are commonplace; TV, organ transplants, pocket-sized two-way radios, to name but a few.

The first few issues of AMAZING contained mostly short stories by Verne and Wells, but the idea soon caught on, with the result that after only a few issues new stories by new authors began to appear in print.

Other publishers also caught on very quickly to the idea that this was what the new generation wanted, so we soon saw the arrival of new titles such as ASTOUNDING STORIES OF SUPER SCIENCE. The publishing hierarchy of AMAZING STORIES did not always see eye to eye with Gernsback, so he left it to start his own magazine; SCIENCE WONDER STORIES, later to change its name to WONDER STORIES. Then he expanded the genre by introducing another new title AIR WONDER STORIES. So great was the demand from the ever-growing number of fans that the field expanded still further issuing, in addition to the monthly, a quarterly magazine in which complete SF novels appeared.

The published price was 25 cents for the monthly and 50 cents for the quarterly. In English money at that time this was one shilling for the former, two bob for the latter. The snag for us in this beleaguered isle was that it was almost impossible to get these from our newsagents or book shops, so we were essentially living in a literary desert where the SF genre was concerned. However, after a few months dearth, lo and behold, these self-same gems of SF literature began to appear on market stalls, the monthlies for the extremely low price of 3d (when there were twelve pence to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound). There was one hitch however, one had to look carefully amongst the items to get good copies if one wanted to make a collection of them. This was because they were brought over to England in cargo-steamers as 'ballast' when the ship was light in cargo and as these 'remainder' magazines later became high value collectors' items. If you wanted to buy these today you could be asked to pay 50 each for them -- if you could get hold of them at any price. I found a good friend in the stall-holder who sold them; he used to put nice copies on one side for me, allowing me to collect them in nice clean sets.

One had to experience those conditions to really appreciate what it was that made the hobby of collecting SF so rewarding. I saved them very carefully and then saved up enough money to get them bound into volumes, with a year's issues making up two volumes.

This may not sound too important today but in those days, with periods of employment and unemployment, it often meant something to look forward to; I could almost say it helped to keep one sane in the stress of life at that time.

There was also one big thing that came out of getting the early SF magazines, in so far as almost all of them contained a Readers Column, by which I made contact with many writers and fellow fans. A number of these fans became writers in their own right. Named amongst these were such writers as Arthur Clarke, Ted (John) Carnell, John Beynon Harris (later writing as John Wyndham), and many others including Forrest J. Ackerman and one of the best known dealers in SF books G. Ken Chapman.

Magazine Serialisations

For a long time after the war, SF fans, in this country, had to depend on US magazines. These were still mainly remaindered copies bought over as ships ballast. The genre took a turn for the better when we got our own English SF magazines.

One weekly magazine in particular stood out. This was called The Passing Show and was nicely produced with many good quality illustrations. It's best feature, though, was it's serialised SF stories which featured new artists for the illustrations.

One of the first serials was a story called When London Fell by W.J. Passingham. This featured a world under London which only came to light by subsidence in the city. This brought prehistoric creatures into 'present day' London. I enjoyed this story very much and hoped that it might appear as a novel before long, but it wasn't to be.

It was followed, however, by a serial by the new author John Beynon Harris. This was called The Secret People and was about an ancient civilisation being revealed under the Sahara desert. I was extremely pleased to find out that it had been published in book form by Newnes at 2/6 (12.5 new pence). The publishers had, however, changed the authors name to plain John Beynon.

Soon after The Passing Show serialised another of this author's work called Stowaway to Mars. this also came out as a novel but not only did the publishers change the author's name, they changed the title to the rather inadequate Planet Plane. Soon after this John Benyon changed his pen name to John Wyndham but whether this was his own idea or that of his publishers I have never found out.

I wrote to John Wyndham, but he was not a very good correspondent, sending only one short note in reply. I found out later that he was deeply involved in his writing, and making money was more important at the time. I suppose I can't really blame him.

I did manage to meet him at the 1957 World SF Convention and he turned out to be a quiet, almost withdrawn, man unless you got him talking about one of his pet interests. He did have a sense of humour, though, and when I asked if there was to be a sequel to Stowaway to Mars, as hinted at the end of the book, he replied:

"Well, Bert, it's like this the spirit is willing but the inertia is abominable!"

Fan Magazines

As the unpleasant memories of the war receded fandom began to become more widespread.

'Fan-mags' began to appear as if by magic. Some were good and some not so good but the wonderful thing about some of them was that the amateur editors were prepared to send them out free! A polite note to say that contributions were welcome was the only inducement to pay. One of these was called The Futurian which was edited and distributed by Michael Rosenblum, a Jewish boy in Leeds. We became very good friends and even paid visits to each other's homes. He was overwhelmed by my collection which, at that time, consisted of complete years of SF magazines professionally bound in volumes of two per year. Unfortunately, I found his collection sadly placed in orange boxes dressed up to look like real book-shelves.

Pre-war SF Conventions

Still on the subject of those early days of Science Fiction I would like to tell you about the 'conventions' I attended and how I obtained two of my most treasured possessions.

My first experience of conventions was just before the war. I was to attend a training course in connection with my work, at the Dollis Hill Research Station in London. Just before leaving , I had received an invitation from a London fan to a 'gathering' of fans. Happily the 'gathering' coincided with my course and I jumped at the chance.

I arrived at a small place called the 'Druids Hall' not knowing what to expect. My first impression of the venue was of biting cold. It was very early in the year and there was no such thing as central-heating. The only heating available was from a pair of portable paraffin heaters, and you had to touch them to feel any heat anyway. This , of course, meant that we had to wear our overcoats all the time. Maybe it was our enthusiasm which kept us warm! This, however, was put to the test when late in the day the 'piece de resistance' was produced. This was a film (silent of course) about a strange adventure in the mountains and the main scenery turned out to be snow - Brrr! Of course we all enjoyed the 'get together', being as it was something quite unique.

My next convention was during the war, in 1944, if memory serves. Most of the regular fans were either in the forces or on war work, but some young fans in Leicester had enough time to organise a convention. luckily, this one day event was held in summer, on a Saturday. I managed to get a spot of leave and travelled to Leicester by rail. It was an overnight journey with two changes of train - each of these changes involved a long wait. Due to the rationing, no food was available on the journey. I was met at the station at 8 a.m., by the young organiser who took me back to his home where his mother cooked me a very welcome breakfast. This gesture can only really be appreciated by someone who has been through war time rationing.

The 'con' was to be held in a small room in the local school, courtesy of a friend of the organiser. As was to be expected, only 15 to 20 fans managed to attend. We did a lot of talking and the organiser produced a fencing sword and imitated John Carter of Borrough's Martian Trilogy.

It was good fun but the highlight of the event was still to come. As in present day conventions, the auction of S.F. items aroused a great deal of interest. It consisted mainly of books and American Science Fiction Magazines. In spite of the low attendance these were quickly snapped up. The final item, though provoked the greatest interest. It was a shining metal model of a spaceship made by the organiser's father who was an engineer at the local works. The bidding was keen even though wages and pocket-money were low at the time. When the bidding reached two pounds I began to despair. Then it went up to two guineas; an absolute fortune in those days. I raised it to two pounds five shillings and prayed. Luckily it was just enough and I clinched it. As it was all metal it was very heavy but its beauty outweighed any fault.

Oh yes... I still have it and recently I tried to refurbish the tarnishing metal at the local Plating Plant. Unfortunately I was told that due to it being made of various metals it couldn't be plated. The foreman, however, told me that if I left it with him he was sure he could do something for me. A few days later he rang to say that the model was ready for collection. The result was very gratifying. The aluminium body and fins as well as the copper rocket tubes had been cleansed in some solution and the mild steel nose cone had been plated. Now the 'con' item I bought for two pounds five shillings takes pride of place in my library.

Attending cons such as these may seem rather mediocre, but the enthusiasm of the participants makes them memorable events which I look back on with great pride and pleasure.

The 1957 World SF Convention

In 1957 England managed to host the World Science Fiction Convention. It was held over Easter in a large hotel in London. A lot of events were crowded into the three days between Good Friday and Easter Monday but, unfortunately, I was only able to attend on the Saturday. Even this meant travelling overnight both there and back. So I was determined to cram as much in as I could.

One of the highlights of the convention was the auction and this was the reason I chose Saturday as my day of attendance. There were many U.S. first editions being bid for and I spent most of my money. There was one book I was particularly waiting for; The Time Stream by John Taine. I felt very tense as the bids rose up to and beyond the amount of money I had left to spend. Eventually a fellow from London got it, I think. I was disappointed but, as if to make up for it, someone I knew quite well phoned me up after the convention and asked if I wanted a copy of this book at the price I bid. Of course I jumped at it and became the proud owner of the prized title.

Apart from the auction there was the opportunity to meet the fans and authors who had only been names on books and magazines up until then. I was very pleased to meet John (Ted) Carnell who became editor of New Worlds, England's first regular SF magazine. I also met Eric Frank Russell and John Wyndham there.

Another character I found very different to how I had imagined was Forrest J. Ackerman from Los Angeles. He was very attached to his wife and never seemed to leave her side. He also seemed wrapped up in himself and his collection which even in those days was of almost legendary proportions. When I renewed his acquaintance recently I found that his collection contains 36,000 volumes of first editions as well as copies of all the SF magazines ever published. Not very long ago I remember a TV programme on 'Forry' and the camera followed him around his home. He had three large rooms fully furnished with book-shelves, but this wasn't enough, the interconnecting corridors contained more shelves containing sets of SF magazines.

Returning to the London convention I also met William F. Temple, Walter Gillings and Ken Chapman; one of the best known dealers of first editions.

Arthur C. Clarke was a friend I had met years earlier (see later) who was also at the convention but he had just published one of his best novels, The Sands of Mars, and was very busy. He had also got himself a new movie camera and was busy filming the event. I did manage to chat to him for a few minutes to reminisce.

All to soon I had to rush out and run across London to catch my train home from Euston. I got there with only minutes to spare, but I enjoyed a great day in spite of trying to cram three days of convention into one.

The 1971 Star Trek Convention

Although some may say that 'Trekking' is separate from what is generally accepted to being SF, we must concede that the Star Trek series and films had its basis in the world of SF. So I cannot stop until I have described my attendance at the first STAR TREK annual convention.

The convention was held over the Easter period of 1971 at the Motor Hotel in Leicester by the society called the Star Trek Action Group. This group was run by a young lady who was a staff nurse at the Leicester Royal Infirmary.

When I applied to join the secretary found out that I was a member of the Science Fiction Association and the British Interplanetary Society (an associate fellow at that time). This prompted her to ask me if I could contribute to the convention by giving a talk on some subject which would be of interest to the attendees.

I offered them a choice of three talks including one on the subject of Time Travel, but the one she chose in the end was entitled "From Science Fiction to Science Fact".

I was scheduled to give this at 11:00 AM on the opening day, but as the Bard would say "the best laid schemes... gang aft aglee". I travelled down to the convention in my car and found myself in all sorts of traffic problems including two lengthy diversions on two different motorways. The result of this was that I arrived half-an-hour late. This meant that I was late on for my talk.

When I did arrive, and chatted to some of the other folk there, I got the uncomfortable feeling that SF, as such, was not in great favour. In fact they hardly seemed to think they had anything to do with SF at all.

Strangely enough, my talk went down very well indeed, and to my surprise I received a lot of congratulations from members of the audience. In fact it even provoked questions afterwards, and so it was a great relief to me.

As usual in these events, we had quite a long session of films on or about Star Trek, supplied on 16mm film. The highlight, however, was one obtained from America somehow called "Star Trek Bleepers". This was a series of short excerpts which for one reason or another could not be included in the finished film.

This film was really funny, and showed things like Kirk walking straight into one of the 'automatic' doors which should have opened on his approach. Another 'bleeper' showed Spock approaching a female member of the crew when he fell over something on the floor and ended up on her lap.

Another moment was during a scene where a rock formation is brought to life and communicates with some of the Star Trek crew, but somehow, the sound engineers had managed to get 'pop' songs coming from the alien rather than the alien voice. These are only a few examples, but there must have been dozens of other clips of similar quality. The film had the audience literally 'rolling in the aisles'. In fact they ended up showing it four times before the audience were satisfied.

Even with the difference between SF and the Star Trek media, the convention was a wonderful chance for people with 'like interests' to get together and really enjoy themselves.

The one thing that really stands out in my memory was meeting the 'Guests of Honour'. Both George Takai (Mr. Sulu) and Jim Doonan (Scotty) were there. Surprisingly they both acted as if they were just two other people at the Con. and as I met them it was so relaxed it seemed as if I had known them for years. I would have expected them to be a bit on the reticent side but that was not the case.

As 'Guests of Honour' their photographs were included in the convention brochure, and I managed to get very nice endorsements from both of them.

The Con. was a roaring success and the hotel was excellent. It all combined to make a really memorable occasion.

I did attend one other Star Trek convention. This was a one-day affair at Manchester, and I suppose one can't expect too much in one day. I did meet some very keen enthusiasts and they were very interested in my signed brochure. I had many requests for me to sell it, but somehow I didn't like the idea. One young lady in particular wanted to buy it very much. I remember that the space in my library was shrinking, but as I did not like the idea of selling it, I made her a present of it.

H.P. Lovecraft Works

Apart from conventions another link with fans was writing to them all over the world. I was writing to a fellow fan in Chicago who was able to get new American books for me. One of these was a gem of macabre literature called Shadow Over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft. It was illustrated by a fairly unknown artist called Lee Brown Coy. This started a love of the work of Lovecraft which spanned his whole career. His death in 1937 came as a great shock to his many fans. Two of these fans - August Derleth and Sam Moskowitz were determined that his name should not pass into oblivion. They formed a private publishing company called 'Arkham House', and produced a Memorial Volume of his work under the title of The Outsiders and Others. This was a large tome measuring 10" by 6" and weighed about three pounds. This book was published just before the war started and I was buying books through a shop in Chicago. I immediately wrote to see if I could get a copy. To my delight I got a quick response to say that they had a copy reserved for me. The price was $5 plus $1.60c postage and insurance. My international money order was in the post immediately. Unfortunately, due to the outbreak of war there was a ban on money being sent out of the country. I desperately explained that I was a keen collector of Science Fiction and wanted this collector's item for my collection. To my relief and delight I got clearance for the order to be sent. A few weeks later the book arrived, beautifully packed and lovingly opened. It was a large exquisitely produced volume with a wonderful blue and white dust-wrapper designed by another great artist - Virgil Finley. Maybe present day fans can't see the delight in obtaining such a prize, but I can assure all of you just to hold such a book in ones hands is a unique experience. Bought as the time for one pound thirty pence (in today's money), it is worth at least three hundred pounds, and even then you couldn't get one in the same condition.

A second Memorial Volume was produced called Beyond the Wall of Sleep, in an identical format, but the dust-wrapper was rather different. This was painted by the great author Clark Ashton Smith, who was also an artist and sculptor in his own right. His forte being the 'outré' and the macabre.

This volume, like the first, was not just a collection of short stories but contained some of his novels. As it was produced during the war years it was impossible to buy a copy. After the war, however, I got in touch with Forrest J. Ackerman for whom I had obtained some early English SF novels. I asked him hopefully if he could get me Beyond the Wall of Sleep, and I was very surprised when he wrote back to say he had a copy. He wasn't too enthusiastic about selling it, but he did say that he was looking for a copy of the Lovecraft novel Shadow Over Innsmouth WITH a dust-cover. It just so happened that I had a mint copy of this book and I wrote back to him offering to swap for his memorial volume. I also offered to pay any reasonable difference and sent the book off. Imagine my surprise when he wrote back to say that he has sent his book to me and there was nothing extra to pay. He considered the copy of Shadow Over Innsmouth to be worth more as a collectors item that Beyond the Wall of Sleep. He also indicated that he had enclosed a surprise gift with the book. When I opened the parcel sure enough along with the treasured book were three pairs of ladies nylon stockings. This seems trivial today but considering the shortages which occurred during and after the war 'nylons' were impossible to get hold of. So three lucky ladies also got nice surprises.

These two Lovecraft memorial volumes may seem insignificant today but they brought into being Arkham House which, to collectors, published the acme in macabre and cosmic horror stories.

Arthur C. Clarke

Two of my most interesting visitors of that time were William F. Temple and Arthur C. Clarke. Temple had written a book called The Four Sided Triangle which was a very good example of SF at the time, and was later made into a film. He brought his wife and two friends when on his way home from the seaside and we enjoyed a very pleasant 'get-together'.

Arthur Clarke was lecturing to the Manchester branch of the British Interplanetary Society in 1954. At that time I was on the committee of the Preston Astronomical Society and as we were in correspondence I asked if he could give the same lecture to us in Preston. He was quite willing to do this but asked particularly if domestic accommodation could be found as he detested hotels. So as we had a spare bedroom we were able to put him up for a couple of nights. I managed to get a day's leave from work so that I could spend a day with him. At that time I had a small detached house in Lea Road, Lea. This meant I was able to have a small room equipped as my library with a well stocked collection of books. More importantly, though, was a good number of complete sets of American and English SF magazines. These were all bound into volumes as described earlier. To anyone who had never seen such a complete collection this really was 'something'. This proved to be like a magnet to Arthur and I had the greatest difficulty getting him out of the library. Even when the evening meal was ready he had to be called three times before he reluctantly appeared. After the meal we made our way into Preston for the lecture which was given to a packed house. There were many questions afterwards including; "What do you think of flying saucers?". His answer was brief and to the point - "Not much!". I found this rather strange as it had been a favourite subject of his when he was younger. Obviously he had had a complete change of heart on the subject.

The next day he only managed to get about an hour in my library because he had a fairly early train to catch back to London. In spite of his little foibles and mannerisms he is a great guy and a pleasure to be with and talk to.

John Russell Fearn

One author I met who became a very good friend was John Russell Fearn. He was a quiet retiring chap who lived with his mother in Blackpool. However his mother usually kept well in the background when John had a get-together with other fans.

Due to ill health John was exempt from war service and worked as a qualified projectionist at a Blackpool cinema. He also owned a 9mm silent home movie projector, which in the world before video recorders were rare items indeed. One day he set up a surprise for us. He had obtained a silent copy of Metropolis. But in order to enhance our enjoyment he provided a musical background by playing CHU-CHIN-CHOW on the gramophone. This seemed slightly inappropriate but it was all good fun.


Of course, I do not know if you will find all this interesting, but it all concerns the early days of not only SF but also SF fandom. I hope that what I have said in this bit of chit-chat has served to convey to you a feeling of what those early days were like and perhaps also meaning in the light of today's Fandom.

One last memory which occurs to me was a public lecture I gave, in 1957, on behalf of the Preston Astronomical Society. The lecture was entitled "Problems and Possibilities of Space Travel" and it was held in the old Preston Town Hall, which has since burned down. It was well attended and the amount of interest was demonstrated by the number and quality of the questions at the end. In fact the questions went on far beyond the allocated time so the chairman called for one last question. Someone near the front asked how long did I think it would be before man could accomplish space travel. I did not want to be too bold in my answer, so I answered that it would be possible within the next 25 years.

"RUBBISH!" the questioner exclaimed standing up.

Well as we know Uri Gagarin was in space three and a half years later, and Neil Armstrong was on the moon 12 years after my lecture. It always gives me a feeling of satisfaction seeing the dream of SF authors come true, not to mention the fulfilment of my prediction.

Well I think that just about 'wraps-up' my report on the early days of Science Fiction. I hope you have enjoyed my attempts to put those wonderful days into writing. Many writers, professional and otherwise, have tried to segregate the early days of the genre into various 'ages' of Science Fiction. It seems rather fruitless to me to try to classify something as a 'Golden Age' or otherwise and arguing over the point. However I believe that those days were the Golden Age of SF fandom and it was the army of fans who bought those early magazines who helped to make SF a media which was different from anything that had been before. This resulted in a friendly army of enthusiastic people who not only enjoyed reading the genre, but like myself, consider it almost a way of life.

I hope you have enjoyed my rather amateur efforts at journalism, please accept my good wishes to you all sincerely.




BERT LEWIS was born in Silverdale, Staffordshire in 1906, and moved to Preston, Lancashire when he was 13. He worked at English electric as a plate moulder and in the foundry where he made parts for the Blackpool trams. He has also worked as a Post Office Engineer and made it to inspector grade. He was a member of the Preston Astronomical society and has been a member of the Interplanetary Society for many years. Now he is a full Fellow of that society.


Published by Kimota Publishing. © Bert Lewis 1989


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