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In the mid 1940s, the General Service Office in New York started to receive enquiries from alcoholics in Great Britain eager to know more about AA’s Twelve Step programme of recovery. Aware of the interest in Britain, American member Grace Oursler, a writer and contemporary of F Scott Fitzgerald, was inspired to organise a meeting while on a trip to London. The meeting, which took place in Oursler’s suite at the Dorchester Hotel on 30th March 1947, is recognised as the first official AA meeting to take place in Great Britain.

Grace O

Grace O, the North American member who organised and hosted the first ever AA meeting in Great Britain in her suite at the Dorchester Hotel (1940s)
Archive reference: AA/13/1/2/1

One of the eight alcoholics who attended that first meeting in Room 202 of the Dorchester was an expat engineer from Toronto known as ‘Canadian Bob’, who would play a pivotal role in the early development of the British Fellowship. Indeed, Canadian Bob’s house in Kew served as a regular venue for the First London Group, before they found a permanent location at the Medical Society of London, Marylebone. Elsewhere in the capital, two other pioneering members of the First London Group, greengrocer brothers Bill and Roland H set-up the first AA telephone helpline from their small office in the London Fruit Exchange in 1948. Pre-dating the Samaritans by five years, it is possible that it was the first crisis helpline of its kind in the United Kingdom. While manned at irregular hours and on a shoestring budget, it was the embryo of what came to be one of AA GB’s most vital points of contact for suffering alcoholics.

Canadian Bob's House

The home of Canadian Bob’s home in Kew. Bob was one of the pioneering members of the British Fellowship, and his living room served as a location for the First London Group’s earliest meetings (c1946)
Archive reference: AA/13/2/2/2

In order to spread AA’s message beyond London, those early British members organised outreach events, and placed advertisements in national and regional newspapers. In November 1948, Canadian Bob made contact with married couple Alan and Winnie, and together they founded the first regional AA meeting, known as the Bolton Group (later the Manchester Group), which held meetings at the Millgate Hotel, Manchester.

Advertisement in the Financial Times

Advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous in the Financial Times, 10 June 1947. The first advertisement for AA in a national British newspaper
Archive reference: AA/12/1/1

Correspondence from Philip Dundas, founder of the first AA groups in Scotland, to the First London Group. Philip D discusses his time visiting members of the Fellowship in America, and his desire to spread the message back in Great Britain (17 March 1948)
Archive reference: AA/1/1/5


Letters from Lottie T, the first female member of the Fellowship in Great Britain. A talented artist, Lottie decorated her letters to other members of the First London Group with illustrations inspired by her experiences in AA (1948)
Archive reference: AA/1/1/4

The path for AA in Scotland developed somewhat independently from the rest of Great Britain. Sir Philip Dundas, a gentleman farmer with a distinguished military background, had travelled to America to experience AA there, before being inspired to bring the message back home. Upon his return, Dundas reached out to the First London Group in March 1948 and arranged a visit. In August that year, the first recorded AA meeting in Scotland took place in Perth, in a church vestry with six attendees. Philip D continued to spread the message across Scotland, and in 1949 groups in Edinburgh and Glasgow registered with the General Service Office in New York.

In the summer of 1950, Bill and Lois Wilson toured England and Scotland, which led to a significant turning point in the history of AA in Great Britain. Impressed by the work so far, Bill pledged 1,500 copies of the Big Book to the British Fellowship to fund its growth and expansion. The Pre-Foundation Committee was set-up in order to manage the importation and sale of Bill’s gift. The committee evolved into Alanon Publications, which published and distributed AA literature in Great Britain, a vital tool in spreading its message. Moreover, Alanon Publications managed the publication and printing of the first British edition of the Big Book, which was its first print run outside of the United States.

Newsletter Northern Group

Announcement in the AA News Letter about the fifth anniversary of the Manchester Group of AA, the first English AA group formed outside of London. It was established by early pioneers of the British Fellowship, Alan and Winnie of Bolton (July 1953)
Archive reference: AA/7/1/2

The first meeting in Wales was held on 13 April 1951 at Cathedral Road, Cardiff. The group registered with both London and New York under the name the ‘First Welsh AA Group’ and it was held on a monthly basis. One its first initiatives was to kick start the spread of the Fellowship in Wales by donating a copy of the Big Book to every public library across the country.

In January 1955, a meeting of eight former patients of the alcohol treatment unit at Warlingham Park Hospital led to the founding of the British Fellowship’s first Hospital Group. All of its members were treated by the alcohol unit’s founder and consultant psychiatrist Max Glatt, one of the first prominent medical professionals to champion AA and the Twelve Step Programme. The Hospital Group also created one of the British Fellowship’s long-running unofficial newsletters ‘Wh-aa-key, Wh-aa-key’.

The inaugural meeting of the General Service Board was held in London in June 1957. It established itself as a charity under law, with a board consisting of eight non-alcoholic members and seven recovering alcoholics and members of AA. By the end of the 1950s, there were over 100 groups meeting in England and Wales, and around 30 in Scotland.