The story of Alcoholics Anonymous
in Bristol and the West of England

The earliest beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous in the West Country go back to 1944 in Washington, DC, USA, when John M at the prompting of his wife Frieda joined the Welcome Group.  He achieved sobriety in 1947 and came home to England with 'this message' in the same year, with his redundancy pay of 100.

The first known meetings in the West of England were at Mickleton, Gloucestershire, in 1948.

The Bristol group came into being in 1953 at the instigation of Dr. Jim H from Belfast, then stationed with the RAF at Pucklechurch. The first known meeting place was at the Full Moon public house in Stokes Croft!

Bath followed in 1955; Frieda also started a small Alanon group (for families of alcoholics) in the same year, the first in Britain.

A major landmark occurred in 1956 when the first English convention was held in the Bellevue Hotel, Cheltenham.

In 1957 Calne started its own AA and Alanon groups in a member's home.  In Bristol, the first lady member joined-and stayed.  She died sober in 1980.

An important development came in 1959 with the second English prison group being started at Dorchester with the help of Bristol members.  Leyhill Open Prison followed in 1963, with groups at Horfield in 1964, Shepton Mallett in 1965 and Dartmoor prison in 1966.  The Verne, Portland Bill, followed in 1967.  A Prison Intergroup (PIG) started in 1965, with Bristol represented by Travers C who was closely involved in all the work.

>From 1960 onwards there was a continuing dispute over monies raised for a General Service Office to serve the needs of the fellowship in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  This was finally resolved in 1966/7 with the purchase of a lease in Redcliffe Gardens, London.  They subsequently moved to Stonebow House, York, in 1986.  The Western Service Office opened in 1974; present day service structures in Bristol date from this time.

1960 saw the beginning of hospital groups, with the founding of a group at Wells, Somerset.  This was followed by a group at Barrow Hospital in 1967.  The late Sixties also saw the start of the Tower Hill group.

Meantime, a second AA group started in Bristol and groups sprung up in Taunton, Plymouth, Bruton, Bournemouth, Salisbury and other places, leading to the formation of the South West Intergroup (SWIG) in 1964.

The Bristol Sunday Club started at the Toc H premises in 1965 from 2pm to 9pm.  Bristol members attended the first meeting of an Alcoholics Anonymous European Committee which met in Paris in 1967; this early initiative was not a success.

In April 1968, a Bristol Akron Group formed and published the first copy of Bristol Fashion, an independent AA journal for members, in June 1968.  The journal highlighted the belief that the AA programme was a spiritual one.  The launching of Bristol Fashion was greatly assisted by the editor of The Road Back, published from Dublin by Sackville, and he contributed regularly until his death in 1979. 

The publication still comes out regularly.  In 1982 it received a congratulatory letter from the General Service Board of AA Inc. in New York.  The responsibility for its circulation was taken over by the Newcomers Group of Bristol in 1976.

In 1968 the 21st anniversary of AA in England and Wales was celebrated at the Grosvenor House Hotel, Park Lane, London on 29, 30 and 31 March.  The weekend celebrations ended with an interdenominational service of thanksgiving at the Royal Parish Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

Meantime at home the work crept onwards.  A group started at Westbury-on-Trym in November of that year, and Portishead started its own group in 1970.  In 1971 a young people's group, later to become the Fellowship Group, started in Bristol.  In 1971, the first European Convention of AA was held in Bristol.  Sixteen countries from all over the world were represented and the guest of honour was the Apostolic Delegate, His Excellency Archbishop Enrici.  This meant that the Bishop of Clifton was also involved, together with the Lord Mayor of Bristol and her husband and the Sheriff and Sheriff's lady: the Archbishop was afforded a full diplomatic welcome to the city.

A special production of Lady on the Rocks was presented at the Winston Theatre during the visit, playing to full houses.  There were visits to prison groups, talks, social events and a reception at the Mansion House.  The convention closed with a service at Bristol Cathedral, led by the Bishop of Bristol.

An unforeseen result of this visit was an invitation to Rome for a Dublin member and a Bristol member in 1972 to carry 'this message.'  They were well received and were awarded the papal medal, the Order of the Good Shepherd.  This was taken to New York in 1984 and is currently on display in the Archives.  Dr. Jack Norris, Chairman of the GSB in New York, followed up the visit to Rome by making contact with Italian and Vatican doctors regarding medical aspects of alcoholism.

The Newcomers meeting started in 1972 and a Borstal Alcoholics Anonymous group started in Portland, Dorset.

The years continued with reunions, pre-Christmas dinners, visits and moves.  In 1974, the Withywood group started and the Avon Intergroup Hospitals Committee held its first meeting.

Archives in the West of England, based in Bristol, began in 1980, following a trip by two Bristol members to the World Convention in New Orleans where they met Nell Wing, AA's first Archivist.

In 1983, the Bristol Reunions, which had been revived in 1981, began forming their own tradition: not only had an Archives display and an Archives Meeting become an integral part of the weekend, but so had the Marathon Meeting with its lighting of the candle by the oldest member present on the Friday night and the blowing out of the candle by the newest member present on the Sunday morning.  This was the first time there was a comprehensive Literature Store at an AA convention.

The 50th anniversary year was celebrated in 1985 with a three-day convention for the Avon Intergroups at the Grand Hotel and a pilgrimage of a party of 12 to New York and to Montreal for the World Convention.  Bristol Fashion was one of just three AA journals invited to make a presentation.

This brief summary will stop here.  The years following brought the deaths of many of the founder members but the Beginning had by now been accomplished.  From this point on, Alcoholics Anonymous was here to stay.

In the 25 years since 1975 the number of groups meeting on a weekly basis in the Bristol and Avon area grew from 16 to over 70.

For a fuller account of the triumphs and heartbreaks of the early years, see A History of the Birth and Growth of Alcoholics Anonymous in the West of England, available from the Archivist, Avon South Intergroup, PO Box 42, Bristol BS99 7JR

First printing February 2002
Copyright The Regional Archivist

Bristol & Avon Area Archives

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