Official letterhead

I know that you have to limit the amount of space given any special subject, but I think the 1957 World Science Fiction Convention in London was so pivotally important that it should have been an exception to the rule. Here was the first Worldcon to be held in Europe. The problems were somewhat different than those in the United States, and there was the unusual aspect that the president of the convention committee, John Wyndham, and the chairman of the committee, John Carnell, were full-time professional writers and editors, something, rare even to the present in the United States when it comes to a world convention.
.....Sam Moskowitz (letter of comment on THEN #2)

The 1957 World SF Convention, the first outside North America, was held at the King's Court Hotel, located on the corner of Leinster Gardens and Queen's Gardens in London's Bayswater area, over the weekend of Friday 6th - Monday 9th September. It did not officially start until Friday, but many fans turned up the day before for a gathering in the Globe pub that evening. The hotel is still there today but is now called 'The Caesar' and the main entrance is no longer on Leinster Gardens but on Queen's Gardens.


The King's Court Hotel in 1957.

The Caesar in 2010. (photo by Rob Hansen)

In September 1957, Eisenhower was in the White House and Harold Macmillan was in 10 Downing Street. On Saturday 4th October, four weeks after the convention ended, the Russians would launch Sputnik into orbit and the Space Age would begin.

The following report has been edited together from those written by Walt Willis and James White with a couple of minor bits from other places, in an effort to give as complete a picture of the convention as possible. After the prologue, my own notes and bridging pieces are in italics. Source notes can be found here.

Most of the photos presented here come from the collection of Norman Shorrock, though this doesn't mean a particular picture was taken by him. Where recorded, the collection others are from is noted in parentheses thus: (ejc) Ted Carnell, (tj) Terry Jeeves, (el) Ethel Lindsay, (avc) Vince Clarke, (ww) Wally Weber. Because of the sheer number of photos there are of this convention I have created a number of mini-galleries in the text that will take you to more photos of a particular part of the proceedings. Even so, I think I've used barely half the available pictures. As always, a tip of the hat to Peter Weston for identifying many of the people in these photos and for supplying most of them in the first place. Unlike those at modern conventions, the badges used at LONCON were simple cardboard blanks on which the name of the attendee was written (see opposite). They carried no artwork or other convention identifiers at all.

John Beynon Harris has gone by that name in earlier reports but is referred to throughout here as 'John Wyndham' since as Convention President that is how he was identified.

Here are links to pages devoted to the individual days and also to 'sidebar' material connected with the convention.

If London Had Lost Its Worldcon Bid

Some of the original reports used to compile this composite one can be found at the links below:

The Hotel - a pre-con visit

VINCE CLARKE (letter to Mike Rosenblum, 10 February 1957):

As you'll know by this time, we've finally picked the Con Hotel, and do hope that for once we'll see you at a con. As the hall is rather narrow, displays will probably be done in lounges; this will mean that the stuff can be kept under lock and key, and under surveillance when open, if necessary. I've been wondering if there would be sufficient interest to justify a show of magazine and book rarities, and will let you know how the wind blows.

Mentions of meetings at Eric Williams' Catford home before the War reminds me to point out an odd coincidence; Ted Tubb's home is now within 200yds of the old Williams address.

BETTY ROSENBLUM:

Whenever Michael and I contemplate a visit to London, we are always full of plans for which theatres we are going to, where to eat and, as for me, which shops to gaze into. The only slight blot on the horizon is the fact that we don't know where to stay. We have stayed in all three of Joe Lyon's gaudy, gilded, noisy warrens; and have not enjoyed our visits very much. We have also had experience of smaller places where the prices were very slightly lower than the ones already mentioned, but the service (?) was too condescending for our taste, and the request for a cup of tea at nine pm sent the staff into a panic.

So when details of plans for the London Convention arrived, together with a description of the King's Court Hotel, we thought, "Just the job". It sounded just what we've always looked for -- moderate price, comfort, various lounges, willing staff, good cooking (although all we ever want in an hotel is breakfast). I wrote to the manager, booked a room on the first floor (supposedly one of their best), packed our bags, dumped our two darling offspring on to their Grandma with great glee, and off we set for a carefree, happy weekend in the Metropolis.

Came the dawn, I was amazed to find a very shabby, dingy place, badly in need of thorough cleaning, not to mention decoration. There was a strong aroma which made my tummy feel very peculiar indeed, but which I couldn't at first identify. After a while I realised that it was Cats. Many of them, and cats which were not too particular about their personal habits. Then we were shown to our room. Quite large, very high, with twin beds on which lay bedspreads which looked as it they had only just been unscrewed from the ball and picked off the floor. A decrepit wardrobe with one hanger. A dressing table covered with burn marks, a gas fire, and a wash basin. It was this last item that caused me to remark to Michael that just possibly the brochure which we had received was not quite accurate? The wash basin had once been white, but was now dirty grey. It had a very large lump missing from the front edge. That had probably been bitten out in fury by a previous guest who had tried to get hot water by the usual method of turning on the hot tap, but finding that the hot tap gave only cold water. Michael did find out later that hot water did eventually come through the tap marked cold. Quite a novel arrangement.

By this time I was seething, but Michael who is always very forbearing, and anxious to look for the bright side, tried to calm me down, and we went off to look at the West End, and book for theatres and have an early dinner before astounding our friends by our sudden appearance at the Globe. By the way, I forgot to mention that we had been supplied with a very small hand towel each, and no soap, for the three nights that we were to stay.

After the first night at the place, where, incidentally and by now, quite surprisingly, we found the beds very comfortable, we arose early so as to have breakfast and get to the Ideal Home Exhibition in time for the opening. According to a list of meal times, the dining room should have been open for breakfast at 7.45 am. It wasn't. At 8.00 am Michael went to the receptionist to find out when we would be able to have a meal. At 8.15 am we were finally admitted by a slovenly waitress, who proceeded to serve us at leisure. The choice of food at this hotel with the French cuisine was corn flakes or porridge, and bacon and eggs. I'm very awkward with food for breakfast. I don't like cereals, nor do either of us take bacon. I also find it difficult to digest eggs first thing in the morning, but I do like a little fresh fruit of some kind. It needs no preparation or serving, but there was no such thing in the place. Michael had very indifferent porridge and ordered a boiled egg. When that came it had hardly been cooked at all, albumen poured out of the shell in a most sickening way, and poor Michael just had to leave it. The girl took it away, but didn't offer to have another egg cocked more thoroughly. There was toast, marmalade, generous quantities of tea and coffee, and plenty of margarine, with 10% butter.

The following morning was a replica of the first, except that Michael ordered scrambled egg, which was not too bad. The third night we were there, our last, we arrived at the hotel at midnight, to find that our towels had been removed and not replaced. This time Michael went down to the receptionists desk and really gave them a few home truths, and the receptionist was most apologetic. However it took twenty minutes and a visit from the housekeeper and another visit from the cheeky chambermaid to get any towels, and apparently neither of these women thought that our complaint was at all justified.

That night the place was packed mostly with American Servicemen. We were pleased to note that there didn't seem to be any colour bar, but there was also no bar to any kind of behaviour through the night. The noise was awful, of shouting, fighting, furniture being moved over our heads, thuds up and down the corridor, and sundry unidentifiable squeaks, squeals and sounds. I must say that I slept through most of the night, because it takes an awful lot to wake me up or prevent me from sleeping, but Michael suffered all night and hardly had any sleep at all. From that point of view, the King's Court Hotel is an excellent venue for a Convention. No-one will stop anyone from doing just as they like. But I do advise anyone who contemplates attending the Convention, and who is not in the very best of health to start with, to arrange for a nice long rest and a holiday afterwards. It was without regrets that we left that hotel far behind us, and we will not return.

Can anyone recommend a clean, quiet, moderately-priced hotel in London, not too far from the centres of entertainment?

MIKE ROSENBLUM:

The foregoing is a straight and honest account of our impressions of the Hotel chosen for the London Convention later this year. I must point out however, that we are not the easiest persons to satisfy and other people may say quite legitimately that sleaziness is a fair exchange for a tolerant attitude. But since then I have had a tape of impressions and explanations from some of the Liverpool group who have also sampled this hospitality, and moreover had a long talk with the hotel manager. Apparently the hotel in "winter dress" does not cater for the same clientele as in its proper season, is run with skeleton staff, and is due for redecoration and refurbishing at Easter. So perhaps we caught it at its absolute lowest level, We hope so. But I think Betty will be amongst those not present in September, and I am not too happy about attending myself unless I can stay elsewhere.

Prologue

On Saturday 31st August 1957 - the weekend before the Worldcon - Eric Bentcliffe travelled by train from Manchester down to London, where he met up with his fellow Northerner and TRIODE co-editor Terry Jeeves, who had travelled down earlier that same day. The two then made their way across town to the home of Arthur Thomson, who had agreed to put them up for the night. When they arrived they found Mike Moorcock and visiting Swedish fan Lars Helander were also there to greet them. (At only 17 years old, Moorcock was then the editor of 'Tarzan Adventures'.)


Lars Helander (ww)

Mike Moorcock

As Bentcliffe reported:

I hadn't met either Mike or Lars before, although I knew them both from correspondence, but was pleased to see their fine, sensitive fannish faces. Lars was much younger than I expected. I knew that he was still at school but had got the impression from somewhere that he was in his early twenties. We nattered about this and that whilst Olive, Art's charming wife, plied us with sandwiches. After a considerable amount of persuasion Mike decided not to play his guitar!

Somewhere around twelvish, Arthur locked us in for the night, and after I'd gagged Terry's snores with a pillow I got some sleep.

The reason for the TRIODE duo's trip was that they were on their way to Belgium for a few days, from where they would travel on to Holland to greet the arrival in Amsterdam of the KLM charter plane that would be setting out from the US with a cargo of American fans and pros including TAFF-winner Bob Madle, Forrest J Ackerman, Steve Schultheis, Val Anjoonian, Robert Abernathy, Will Jenkins, Shel Deretchin, Fred Prophet, Sam & Christine Moskowitz, and the honeymooning Dave and Ruth Kyle along with Dave's brother and his wife. Also aboard were Harry Harrison and wife Joan who were moving to England. And so the following morning Bentcliffe and Jeeves took Tube, train, and bus to Southend for their flight to Middlekerke Airport, just outside Ostend. Here they were met by local fan Jan Jansen (editor of newszine CONTACT) and his wife Rosa. In their tiny Citroen, the Jansens drove their visitors back to Antwerp, their home town, and booked them into the Cecil Hotel, where fans visiting the city usually stayed.


Eric Bentcliffe and Terry Jeeves in Belgium

On Tuesday, Jansen drove Jeeves and Bentcliffe to Amsterdam to greet their American visitors, killing some time in a hotel before heading for the airport. The KLM charter had first landed in London where it had disgorged many of its passengers to be met at the airport by Ted Carnell, Ken Bulmer, Brian Lewis, and Sandy Sanderson then whisked off by hired bus to the convention hotel. The remaining passengers had then flown on to Holland. Here's Terry Jeeves:

The point of the trip was to meet Dave Kyle and his flock. They were due to arrive on the 9pm plane at Schipol Airport. By 10.30, we had seen people arrive from Persia, Blackpool, South Africa, and all points East, but still no Dave Kyle. Our coat lapels were worn down to the padding through thumbing our Worldcon badges in the faces of people who looked like Kyle, looked like Americans, or just looked. After another three trips to the enquiry desk, Jan found that they had been holding a message for a 'Mr Jansen'... The staff were amazed to find that he was Mr Jansen. Apparently, Kyle & Co. had arrived at 7.30 and were sitting waiting for us at the KLM offices in Amsterdam...five minutes from our starting point. We set off back and found them busily chewing lumps out of KLM's polished floors. Gear was loaded into taxis, and the giant fleet swung off in impressive array. People gaped at the impressive parade, but the effect was slightly spoiled by the little Citroen gamely struggling to keep up at the back. However, we gave the royal salute to all and sundry, took a wrong turning, just missed parking in a canal, and got to the hotel in time to save the flock from being turned away. The manager finally bedded down the 20 odd fen and near-fen, we had the pleasure of sampling some of the Kyles' lovely wedding cake after we had rescued Ruth Kyle from the clutches of Bentcliffe (apparently no one had warned her) and set off back to Antwerp just after midnight.

Jan Jansen, Eric Bentcliffe, Sonja Jansen, Ruth Kyle, Dave Kyle, and Terry Jeeves outside the Cecil Hotel.

The Americans would be joining them in Antwerp the following day and booking into the same hotel. They would barely have time to squeeze in a day or so of sightseeing because on Thursday it would be time to travel back to London for Worldcon, and the pre-convention meeting at the Globe.

Guest of Honour John W. Campbell was flying into London on Wednesday 4th September, and Ken Bulmer proposed to meet him there and drive him to the convention hotel. However, it proved impossible to hire a car at short notice and the task fell to Ted Carnell, who described what happened in a letter to Bob Madle:

After Ken had exhausted the possibilities of hiring a car, we then checked every garage within a mile radius of this office without success. It was decided that I would go out to the air terminal and hitch a ride on one of the airline coaches to the airport, while Ken continued his efforts to hire a car to meet us out there, but at this time (mid-day) there was little likelihood of my reaching the airport by 3:30 p.m. When Campbell's plane was due to arrive from Ireland. This was also complicated by the fact that I had arranged for a BBC radio interviewer to meet John upon upon arrival and felt that it would be essential for me to be there to get the two factions together.

However, just as I was leaving the office, artist Brian Lewis arrived on his Vespa motorcycle and immediately offered to take me out to the airport. Then ensued a rather wild ride, which delivered me at the airport at 1:30 p.m., two hours before the plane was due.

From the time Campbell arrived, things went magnificently - the BBC interviewer had arranged to record the discussion in their airport studio, and as John and his wife came through the Customs we went straight into the studio where the whole interview went very well indeed.

During the whole of this time I was still expecting to receive a message from Ken or his arrival by car to take us back to the hotel, but as we left the studio the BBC interviewer asked whether we had transport, and not having seen or heard from Ken we accepted his offer to take us to the King's Court, where John as his wife were delivered in fine style to the amazement of the delegates in the foyer.


John W. Campbell (ejc)

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