2. DAY ONE: LONDONOn Saturday, April 8th, E. Frank Parker and the con's Organising Secretary Dr John K. Aiken set off from Teddington by train to meet fans at the agreed meeting place on Waterloo's platform 1. Unfortunately, they encountered a problem. As Aiken related in his report in FUTURIAN WAR DIGEST #35:
"Aiken and Frank Parker arrive at Waterloo without tickets and are detained by officials. In the distance they see hordes of conventioneers, tho' avoid their gaze. Eventually they are permitted to leave the platform. Gathering of the fans: Syd Bounds (Kingston), Hal Chibbett (Bowes Park N.11), George Ellis (Manchester), Bruce Gaffron, Fred Goodier, Gordon Holbrow (Teddington), Ron Lane (Manchester), Arthur Hillman (Newport. Mon.), Peter Hawkins (Surbiton), Don Houston (Letchworth), John Millard (RCAF, Jackson, Mich.), Dennis Tucker (High Wycombe) and Arthur Williams (Camberwell) have accumulated. Attempts are made to read the Con booklet, which Hawkins has spent the whole previous day in duplicating, but although the cover is fine the paper inside too bad and the attempts are swiftly abandoned. (The quiz which was particularly illegible is to be reprinted.) Everyone worries because Gus does not appear (it is later learned that all leave is cancelled in his area)."The Gus referred to here is American fan Norman (Gus) Willmorth, who was an ex-director of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. When America entered the war after Pearl Harbour and Americans began being posted to Britain, it was inevitable that some of these would be fans and that they would seek out their British counterparts. Willmorth arrived on these shores in August 1943 as a corporal assigned to an American ordnance supply depot 'somewhere in Britain'. In the October 1943 FWD, editor J.Michael Rosenblum had reported:
"Contact betwixt the respective fandoms of USA and England in person has at last been effected. By a short head, Norman "Gus" Willmorth beat John Millard in saying hello to Anglofandom. The noble Angeleno made a visit to Teddington and the Cosmos Club in August and met some nine of the members who thought highly of the American ambassador, a feeling which appeared to be duplicated. Shortly afterward Johnnie Millard of Jackson, Michigan dropped a line to JMR saying that at last he could spend a weekend in Leeds."So ubiquitous was Willmorth to become at British fan gatherings up and down the land in the following months that the absence of this friendly figure in his American uniform was keenly felt. While those at the convention would not have known why Gus could not be there we certainly do. This was April 1944, and all leave in his area had been cancelled in preparation for the D-Day invasion. Rosenblum himself was another notable by his absence, but he had travelled down to London in February to visit the Cosmos Club and meet with other London-area fans. From his account of this meeting it's clear that while the Blitz was long over, occasional bombing raids on the capital were still a hazard the con attendees would have been aware of. Fortunately, the V2 had yet to start hitting Britain. The first of these would not arrive until 8th September 1944, when it would land on Staveley Road in Chiswick, some miles from both Teddington and Central London.
Having gathered at Waterloo, the group listed above then made their way to Charing Cross Road to scour the many bookshops it then contained (here in the present, it's now down to its last few). No great finds were reported, the shops presumably having already been well picked-over by local fans. At 4.30 pm everyone moved to the Coventry Street Corner House, the London tearoom first announced as having been booked for the purpose in the original programme.
The Corner Houses were a chain of tearooms run by J. Lyons & Co., and the Coventry Street one had been the first. This was located on the junction of Coventry Street (north side) and Rupert Street and opened in 1909, eventually closing in 1970. (The building now houses 'Planet Hollywood'.) Corner Houses offered reliable meals in clean and attractive surroundings. Their waitresses, known as ‘nippies’, became London icons in their smart black and white uniforms. The Corner Houses were rather more impressive than the term 'tearoom' might suggest. Here's a description (from http://www.kzwp.com/lyons/cornerhouses.htm):
"The Corner Houses were huge restaurants on four or five levels and each Corner House employed something like 400 staff. Each floor had its own restaurant style and all had orchestras playing to the diners almost continuously throughout the day and evening. At one time they were open 24 hours. The ground floor was usually taken up by a large Food Hall where many speciality products form the Corner House kitchens could be bought. Items such as hams, cakes, pastries. hand-made chocolates, fruit from the Empire, wines, cheeses, flowers and much more. There were hair dressing salons, telephone booths, theatre booking agencies and a food delivery service to any address in London, twice a day. Meals and snacks were priced to meet most pockets. There were three Corner Houses in London, situated at Coventry Street, Strand and Tottenham Court Road."Though the Eastercon attendees were probably unaware of it, the Coventry Street Corner House was famous in gay circles throughout Britain as a welcoming venue where male homosexuals could meet socially at a time when their behaviour was criminalised. Also, of course a J. Lyons teashop (not a full-size Corner House) at 36/38 New Oxford Street was where the tradition of London fans meeting in town on Thursdays that continues today in the first-Thursday pub meetings first got started.
At the Coventry Street Corner House, the others were joined by new arrivals Michael Lord ("looking magnificent enough to be his namesake of the Admiralty"), Tommy Bullet, and the Ouseleys of the Stoke-on-Trent group, which was believed to be the only active fan group in the country before the Cosmos Club made themselves known to wider fandom. Some were unimpressed by the food on offer, however, Manchester fans expressing surprise that Londoners could keep alive on such fare and retiring to recuperate in a nearby park. Ah, that old North-South sniping! Not everyone was seated in one session, as CSC member Gordon Holbrow discovered after spending too long in Charing Cross Road and missing the main assembly for tea:
"This teaches me because, when I do report to a fan wearing a red rosette in his buttonhole at the Coventry Street Corner House I get put in charge of the second party. It seemed really wonderful how the whole of London had converged on that Corner House. I charge my little party into the throng and almost at once lose it. I feed myself and report back to the fan with the rosette wearing a sheepish grin on my face and say "I've lost my party". He forgives me and gives me another batch and hopes I do better next time. This party is bound for a Disney show and it is not to my credit that we get there. A French ATS causes a little diversionary marching but, as I've already said, we get to the News Theatre."The Disney programme at the Cameo News Theatre at 307 Regent Street was the next item on the agenda and this started at 5.30 pm. The Disney film 'Fantasia' had been a big hit with fans of the day and seen multiple times by many of them, but in this instance the programme on offer was Disney Short Subjects.
As the name implies, New Theatres had been established primarily for the showing of newsreels such as those by British Pathe over here and the 'March of Time' series in the US, though these were also shown before the main feature in other cinemas up through the 1960s. The Cameo itself underwent various changes of name over the years, finally ceasing to be a cinema in April 1980. It was taken back into use by the Polytechnic of Central London (today known as the University of Westminster) for use as a lecture hall and performance space, and the canopy over the former cinema entrance removed.
Following their cinema visit, the fans decamped to a pub in Greek Street. As for the party Holbrow was in charge of:
"Again it is not through my efforts that we arrive there safely. For one thing a couple of WAACS happen to pass the cinema on our exit. Then Johnny Millard knows the way to Greek Street. I decided that Johnny Millard was a fine guy, mainly because he told me to avoid a drink known as a black and tan."The pub was the Pillars of Hercules, right next door to the restaurant at 8 Greek Street where the evening meal had been booked. As John Millard wrote:
"About 6 or 7 of us - Art Williams, Ron Lane, Dennis Tucker, Gordon Holbrow, Fred Goodier - spent the rest of the time to dinner at the pub next to the Shanghai Restaurant drinking a few glasses of beer. Finally, about 7 pm and 3 pints later we retired to the sidewalk (pavement) outside where the rest of the party had congregated - Wally Gillings and wife had joined the party by now. Wally was editor of Tales of Wonder and one of the first fans I met here in England at the time of my first visit to the home of JMR. So up the stairs of the Shanghai Restaurant for dinner, where a Chinese dinner was served to us. Us being about 23 or 4. A very good meal too; I'll leave it to you who know about Chinese meals."The restaurant is no longer there and if it still survives has presumably long since moved south to Gerrard Street - now designated London's Chinatown - and doubtless changed it's name several times, too. Here's Holbrow on the meal:
"The dinner is a three-cornered match between Tommy Bullet, Mike Lord and myself. The end - an enormous pile of empty plates."And here's Aiken:
"Some participants perform prodigies of eating, despite the theory that the soup is nothing but an aquarium. They become completely surrounded by piles of empty dishes. Others hang back delicately, valuing their stomachs. Scotch Ale is brought in an enormous Jug, and is imbibed. Professor Low, unable to be present under military exigiencies, sends the gathering his love. Names are signed in wax (stencil). Deveraux, Gillings & Aiken decide that everyone must take everything much more seriously."Walter Gillings was famously concerned that fans should be serious and present a responsible face to the world, a view which would form part of his speech in Teddington the following day. With Professor A.M.Low unable to attend no one gave an after-dinner speech. According to Millard, the stencil signing alluded to by Aiken was the final act of the evening:
"One of the last things we did before the days activity came to an end was to sign a stencil which Peter Hawkins, I believe it was, started around the dinner table. The days activities ended about 9.45 p.m. (D.B.S.T.) Things finish early over here you know and Tomorrow the Convention is to continue at Teddington."D.B.S.T. was of course Double British Summer Time. During the Second World War, double summer time (two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time) was introduced and replaced ordinary summer time. In the winter, clocks were kept one hour ahead of GMT.
Looking at a map, it's clear the organisers had deliberately chosen venues for Saturday's activities that were close together. Clustered in a small area bounded by Regent Street to the West, Charing Cross Road to the East, Oxford Street to the North, and Coventry Street/Leicester Square to the South, the distance between those venues could be quickly and easily covered on foot.