An unassuming, quiet square between the University of Leeds campus and the city centre was the unlikely setting for the world’s first science fiction convention. Its origins lay in the formation in Leeds (in 1935) of the first chapter of the Science Fiction League outside the USA, and it was this group which later hosted what is widely regarded as the first ever SF convention. The event took place on 3 January 1937 at the Theosophical Hall, Leeds. Without the burden of the negative connotations which have come to surround the words ‘science fiction convention’, this appears to have been a low-key gathering (and exclusively male, which may have planted the seeds of future stereotypes). Around twenty fans attended, these well-dressed delegates including authors Eric Frank Russell and Arthur C. Clarke, local fan John Michael Rosenblum, as well as editors-in-waiting E.J. Carnell and Walter Gillings.
The convention programme is held within the Science Fiction Collection at the University of Liverpool, and photographs, believed to have been taken by another attendee, Harold Gottliffe (later Godfrey) were donated to the University of Leeds Library’s Special Collections. A group portrait is reproduced above, together with this recent image of Queen Square, which shows it to be relatively unchanged. A great deal of further information about the convention, and a comprehensive history of science fiction and its fans in the UK, can be found at Rob Hansen’s excellent site.
Whilst not strictly within the SF remit, it might be of interest to note here that the papers of Alfred Orage, founder of the Leeds branch of the Theosophical Society, as well as the influential Leeds Arts Club, are also held at the University of Leeds Library’s Special Collections. The Society is still based at the Theosophical Hall at 12 Queen Square, and continues to host a varied series of talks and events.