The 1953 British National SF Convention was held at the Bonnington Hotel on Southampton Row, London, over the Whitsun weekend, Friday 22nd - Monday 25th May. It did not officially start until Saturday, but many fans turned up the day before for a gathering in the White Horse pub that evening. At the time of the convention, Winston Churchill was once again Prime Minister and the streets were festooned with flags and bunting in preparation for the coronation of Elizabeth as Queen of England the following week on June 2nd, hence 'CORONCON'. (Personally, I'd have gone with 'CORONVENTION'.) Here we encounter the usual problem of naming some early British conventions. What's on the ticket above is more of a description than a name. In the report below you'll see that even while it was going on people were referring to it by a variety of names including BONCON, CORONCON and LONCON '53. However, CORONCON soon emerged as the favoured name, the one we know it by today.
Bookrooms as we know them today were unknown at British conventions of the time. Instead there were displays by publishers, by the various fangroups, and sometimes by the UK promags. Unusually, however, there was an easy and convenient means for fans to buy SF at CORONCON. Coincidentally, the con hotel was barely a hundred yards from Sicilian Avenue, then the home of Fantasy Book Centre. Proprietor Frank Cooper took out a full page ad in the programme book directing congoers to his shop and promising it would remain open and be fully staffed for the duration of the convention.
The following report has been edited together from those written by Walt Willis and Fred Robinson, and those that appeared in ASTRONEER (the quarterly fanzine of the North West Science Fantasy Club) and SPACE DIVERSIONS (Liverpool Group club zine), with a couple of minor bits from other places, in an effort to give as complete a picture of the convention as possible. My own notes and bridging pieces are in italics. The reason the reports by the northerners are so different in tone from the others lies in the tensions then existing between London and Manchester fandoms. For some background on this feud, I've included Eric Bentcliffe's diatribe from the April 1953 issue of SPACE TIMES, the monthly clubzine of the North West Science Fantasy Club), link below.
Most of the photos are from the Vince Clarke collection, with additional photos as sourced by Peter Weston. In recent years, Pete has put enormous efforts into scouring the country and assembling an indispensible archive of UK fan photos. He has also been responsible for identifying many of those in said photos, faces to whom we might not otherwise have been able to put names. In most instances, we do not know who the photographers were since fans at the time would share photographs around and the same pictures show up in several collections. Fred Robinson describes taking photos in his own report so it seems likely some of these may be by him.
According to the report in FANTASY TIMES the convention "averaged 152 attendees both days", but these are the only names we can be sure of.
In the report below, Willis is sometimes referred to as 'WAW', while Sam Youd is referred to by both his real name and his professional pseudonym 'John Christopher'. H.J. "Bert" Campbell was a working scientist and, of course, the editor of the prozine AUTHENTIC SCIENCE FICTION.
Here are links to pages devoted to the individual days and also to 'sidebars' such as a one-shot distributed at the con, another written at the con, and the founding document of the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund.
The report opens with James White and Walt & Madeleine Willis arriving in Liverpool early in the morning on the ferry from their native Belfast. With them they have an American visitor, 26 year-old Bea Mahaffey, then the co-editor of the prozine OTHER WORLDS (having been hired by editor Ray Palmer at the 1949 Worldcon), who had been shown around Ireland by them the previous week. James White wrote an extensive report on this entitled 'The Beacon' that appeared in HYPHEN #4 alongside Walt's much shorter report on CORONCON, from which most of his material below is taken. The Fred Robinson material is taken from the report in his fanzine CAMBER #2.
Halfway to the dock gate we were met by Dave Gardner who had been up since six and lost no more time in celebrating Bea's arrival by presenting her with a complimentary copy of the Liverpool group's newly published symposium Sex and Sadism. Bea gracefully accepted this bouquet of neuroses, opened it casually at one of the lewdest illustrations ever published in the fan press, and quickly closed it again. Shortly an enormous black car loomed up driven, appropriately enough, by vile huckster Frank Milnes of SFService. We found later, however, that it hadn't been bought with the money bled from us poor fans but had merely been hired to take half the population of Liverpool to the Convention. We all got in and strolled about the interior, avoiding the dangerous overhanging slopes of Sex and Sadism, until we arrived at a sleazy cafeteria. which was all Liverpool had to offer at this hour of the morning. Breakfast was over and the waitress was polishing the table with a dirty rag and a black look, when Eric Frank Russell made his entrance. He stepped immediately into his natural niche as life and soul of the party, greeting Bea with the remark that while in his writing career he had often said what he would like to do to pro editors, he'd never imagined it could be a pleasure: and proceeded thus outrageously to skate on the thin ice on the brink of bad taste without once putting his foot in it. Larger than life and a great deal more interesting, he manages to set the standards in any company in which he finds himself. But at one point he took time off from goodhumouredly insulting everyone present and warning Bea against the Londoners to tell the plot of an as yet unpublished story. It was one of those warmly human short stories of his which show Russell, beneath his bluff exterior, to be one of the most sensitive writers in the sf field and he told it so well that we all felt we only needed to have learned shorthand to be sure of a Galaxy cheque. Even the people at an adjoining table stopped talking to listen and when he had finished there was the moment of silence which is the supreme tribute to an artist.
After breakfast EFR drove us to Chester, passing through about ten feet of Wales just so Bea could say she'd 'done' it, then back to his house for a magnificent lunch, and then down to the station where we said goodbye to the hospitable Liverpudlians. It was a relief train and we had a carriage to ourselves for the whole of that golden journey to London. We talked and laughed and sang the whole way, except when we were reminiscing nostalgically (already) about the trip round Ireland. James found the key of his room at Portballintrae which he'd forgotten to hand in, and carried out an investiture of Bea with the number-plate as with the Legion of Honour not forgetting the most trivial detail of punctilio, and, carried away, proposed to her several more times. Next time she'll know to bring a suitcase of rejection slips.
Shortly before the train got into Euston, where 'Harris' was to meet us, James filled his waterpistol and began to hum "High Noon"; but when we got out Chuck was nowhere to be found. James suspected an ambush and began to talk wildly of erecting barricades, but I finally ran Chuck to earth at the wrong platform. He had a girl with him whom we took to be his sister; however it later turned out to be Rita Krohne whom as a friend of our idol Robert Bloch we'd been ready to welcome with open arms. In the taxi we proceeded to let our old friend Chuck in on all the fannish nonsense we'd had so much fun with in the trip round Ireland, until Rita pointed out that the expression 'George' which poor Bea had taught us was actually quite passe. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they are evidently right up to the minute on these matters, George went out over a year ago and had been superseded by other expressions which we can't remember now, possibly because we couldn't feel the same affection for them as we had for the now discredited George. Mourning the dear departed, we finished the journey to the Bonnington in sober silence; then on to the White Horse where our spirits were lifted by the warmth of the London Circle welcome.
(The visit to the Bonnington would be for Bea to sign in since she was staying at the hotel, whereas the others were all staying with Chuck Harris at his home in Rainham. However, there were others intending to meet Bea at the Bonnington, though whether or not they succeeded....)
KNOCK ON WOOD film comment brings back memories of the day when they were filming a scene from it in London. It was the first day of the '53 Con., and it was being shot only a hundred yards from the Bonnington, the Con Hotel. I was working with Ted Carnell at the time in a stationers shop directly at the scene of the shooting, and through some miscalculation we were both working during the morning. Well, working... he was brushing up a speech or something and I was stapling Convention programmes, and every few minutes throughout the morning there would be cries of "Stop, thief!" outside and running feet would pass over the pavement above our heads... we were in the basement. And when we went out to meet Bea Mahaffey and the rest, did we get glared at by Jon Pertwee - who was doubling for Danny Kaye - and the rest of them...! I guess there must have been fifty people employed there that morning; even the 'casual passers-by' in the scene were extras, of course, yet when I saw it on the screen the scene went by so fast that if I'd blinked I'd have missed it. Fifty people for one morning to produce about three seconds shown-to-the-audience....no wonder Hollywood has a name for lunacy.
I literally staggered out of Paddington Station around eight-fifteen on Friday evening, weighed down to the ground by having put all my eggs in one basket - to be more precise one very large and very full suitcase.
However, less than an hour later I was hurrying through Norwich St, and pushing open the door of the White Horse expecting to find fans hanging to the ceiling by their eyebrows, but instead it was comfortably half full which was indeed a blessing for it afforded me ample elbow-room to wield my camera. It gets a might awkward in a crowded room lugging a fifteen pound battery pack which is the power unit of the electronic flash I used to photograph.
During the evening pretty well all the British actifans came in and out, (mostly out) complaining of being tired - Ghu! what a way to START a Con, feeling tired. Amongst the many regional accents to be heard that evening in the bar there were several that were strongly Transatlantic. Firstly of course there was that of the first lady of the Con. editress Bea Mahaffey who came in during the evening with Walt Willis his very charming wife Madeleine, whom I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time, and that expert on aqueous weapons, James White. Then from Milwaukee, Wis., came Rita Krohne, an aspiring writer with a very inspiring personality - I'm sure she'll go over great in Philly (Shapiro please note).
Also there representing Southern fandom was Jesse Floyd - from whom fandom is going to hear quite a lot I fancy - watch Quandry for this. Also helping Bert Campbell make the W.H. like the old Bull & Bush was my old friend Bill Harding who has emerged from several months silence in Bristol with a beard which fooled me for a moment. Bill comes from Buffalo --- just don't grow horns Bill!
It's difficult to say which of our American visitors drew the most attention or worked the hardest to help the Con become the success it was but there was no doubt at all about which British personality stole the honours. It was Bert Campbell's Con all the way through. His personality, ability and sheer hard work made the weekend a howling success.
One great piece of news emerges from that evening - it was revealed by Jesse that The Fort Mudge Steam Caliope Co. after great research has discovered a new use for steam - it cleans things. No doubt Watkins will be shortly advocating that all fanzines be subject to treatment. However, more will be revealed to you about this at a later date as Jesse is shortly to visit Cardiff and this meeting will surely result in something - even if it's only a hangover.
When Lew (Mordecai, the White Horse's celebrated landlord) finally got rid of us at closing time we adjourned around the corner to another pub which closes later. Bert offered to take Bea around on his motorbike - that's the first time I ever saw anyone ride a motorbike sidesaddle. As Bill Harding put it "she's got more guts than any woman I've ever known," - having ridden on Bert's bike I tend to agree. What a picture - Bert in a duffle coat, his beard flowing in the breeze and Bea hanging on behind.
From here we tottered around to the Bonnington where the Con was to be held, only to find the bar closed, so we grabbed all available transport and adjourned to a place somewhere in the Leicester Square area. Having had no tea, the evening's liquid refreshments were beginning to take effect, so I proceeded to demolish a pile of chicken sandwiches, hope I left some for the other people, anyway as I felt a bit groggy I faded out and went back to get some sleep. Evidently I missed quite a night.