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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Then: The sad story of William Dyson

I've just started reading Rob Hansen's massive history of British science fiction fandom, Then, and finding it fascinating. Although I was only ever on the periphery of fandom—a member, at times, of the British Fantasy Society and the British SF Association, but never that active—I've always found its history fascinating. It dates back to my school days and a project I did about early British SF magazines (which eventually became about one British SF magazine, but that's another story). While I was researching, I read Walter Gillings' "The Impatient Dreamers" series and was, for the first time, introduced to early SF fandom.

Some years later, Rob Hansen published a fanzine called Then, which detailed far more of fandom's history from the 1930s through the 1970s.. Now there's a massive volume, published by David Langford's Ansible Editions, that expands Rob's work even further—it's now a 454 page monster with some 228,000 words and hundreds of photographs to break up the tightly set text and now available in both hardcover and softcover.

Amazingly, for all its depth, there are still stories to be discovered. On page 27, for instance, I read: "At some point in 1936 one of the Leeds group's earliest members, W. A. Dyson of Huddersfield, was killed in an accident." Behind those twenty-or-so words lies a rather tragic tale...

William Aldwyn Dyson was born in 1916,  the son of Henry Cresswell Dyson (1873-1944) and his wife Amelia Mary (nee Morgan, 1876-1954), who had married in 1904. Daughters, Hilda Mary (later Barker, 1904-1986) and Irene Maud (1906- ), were born soon after. The family lived at 10 Leeds Road, North Huddersfield, in 1911, and Mr. Dyson, who had been born in Huddersfield, made his living as a foreman in a local cotton and wool dyeing business.

It was a trade his son would try to follow him in. In 1933, when the family were living at Arnold Street, Birkby, Huddersfield, William began attending Leeds University, travelling in every day from Birkby to study colour chemisty, with a view to taking up dyeing. In May 1936, when he was in his third year and preparing to take his B.Sc. degree, he began sitting his City and Guilds exams.

On Friday, the 8th of May, at about 5pm, a few hours before he was due to sit his fourth and final exam, William's body was discovered by a member of staff in the basement of the chemistry department at the University, an area not usually frequented by students as it was used primarily as a store-room. His face was covered with a large wad of cotton wool which had been saturated with chloroform. A doctor was called and William was removed to the General Infirmary, but was pronounced dead on arrival.

Foul play was not suspected and William's father, Henry, by now a partner in the firm of Tom Liversidge & Sons of Canal Bank Works, Huddersfield, admitted that his son had been considerably depressed during the previous week, telling the Yorkshire Post:
He repeatedly told me that he was afraid he would not be successful in passing his examination, but in spite of the fact that I told him not to worry he has been worrying a good deal. Some weeks ago he was confined to bed for seven weeks through fluid on the knee as a result of overstrain when taking part in athletic competitions.
    The doctor had warned him that he would never be able to take part in athletics to the same extent again, and the two things together had caused him to be extremely depressed.
An inquest was held on the following Monday during which it was revealed that William's injury would have prevented him from playing football for the whole of the next season. His head of department, Professor F. M. Rowe, described him as a brilliant student and had told him that he had no need to worry about the results as he had passed far stiffer examinations during his time at the university.

Despite this reassurance, William had taken a flask of chloroform down to the basement below the chemistry department where he sat down on a bale of wool. The inquest recorded a verdict of suicide while temporarily insane.

"It was the first death in British fandom," records Rob Hansen.

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