The interior of London’s famed Royal Albert Hall had been transformed into another world. Exotic imagery adorned the walls, and winged creatures hung from the ceiling; even the attendees themselves got in on the fun, ditching their regular clothes for peculiar costumes. In addition to admiring the elaborate displays, there was much for guests to do: There were booths laden with merchandise, sold by women in colorful gowns and eccentric ensembles, as well as quirky activities inspired by one of the era's most popular science fiction tales.
It might sound like a modern sci-fi convention, but this curious gathering actually took place more than 130 years ago.
The Vril-Ya Bazaar and Fête, a charity fundraiser and fair, was a precursor to elaborate fan events like Comic-Con and WonderCon. It has been dubbed by the BBC and others as “the world’s first sci-fi convention.” But unlike those contemporary cons, this event was dedicated to one eccentric work of imagination: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s hit novel Vril: The Power of The Coming Race.
The Power of Vril
Published in 1871, Vril told the story of the discovery of a superhuman race with advanced powers of healing, intellect, telepathy, and even flight that lived below the Earth’s surface. The book quickly became part of the cultural lexicon in Victorian England: In fact, the word Vril (coined in the novel for a special fluid that enhances the powers of the superhuman Vril-ya people) became synonymous with energy-boosting elixirs.
The book struck Dr. Herbert Tibbits, founder of London's West End Hospital and School of Massage and Electricity—which offered experimental treatments for paralysis, epilepsy, and “other nervous diseases"—as a fitting theme for a fundraising fête. It wasn’t Tibbits’s first foray into fundraising: He had organized several successful bazaars throughout the 1880s, and people were eager to see what elaborate theme he'd conjure up next [PDF].
Newspapers announced the bazaar in February; in a ceremony on March 5, 1891, Prince Henry and Princess Beatrice of Battenberg officially opened the bazaar, accepting donations on behalf of the West End Hospital. Representatives of various organizations approached the royal couple one at a time, dropping purses filled with donations before them.
Members of the public paid between five shillings and a pound and a shilling for entrance to the bazaar, where, in the main hall, they were greeted by a dazzling display: The architecture of the underground world in the novel was evocative of ancient Egypt, so a large canvas displaying ancient Egyptian imagery covered a wall; an aerial display of mannequins meant to evoke the Vril-ya people swung above attendees’ heads, and a giant "Column of the Vril-Ya" commanded the center of the arena.
People dressed up to get into the Vril spirit—some wore wings, others chose ancient Greek or Egyptian garb—and a packed program of performers kept audiences entertained. There were magic shows, dramatic readings, a concert by The Ladies’ Guitar Band, organ recitals, and more. Stalls around the hall’s perimeter offered activities like indoor fishing, palmistry, a demon dog said to read minds, and plenty of peculiar shopping options.
Attendees were encouraged to sip small glass bottles of Bovril—a savory drink made from beef extract that had been rebranded following the success of Bulwer-Lytton’s book, named as a portmanteau of bovine and Vril. The back of the event program claimed that, unlike the elixir mentioned in the book, Bovril “will not achieve impossibilities, but it will exert a marvelous influence on the system.” (Incidentally, a version of the product still exists, having evolved into a concentrate similar to Marmite or Vegemite. It’s now sold by Unilever UK and continues to boast a following.)
A Fantastical Flop
Bovril may have been a hit, but the bazaar itself was not. While the peculiar offerings received heavy press coverage and public interest, word of mouth was not great. “I saw nothing very attractive or remarkable,” wrote a correspondent for The Preston Herald after the event’s first day. The writer, expecting an elegant fête, found the decor and costumes off-putting. Another critic went further, writing in Truth, “a more humiliating display of witless and puerile fantasticalities was never designed.”
Though scheduled for three days, the event was extended by two days—but not due to overwhelming demand. The bonus days were an attempt to recoup some of the losses suffered due to such an over-the-top production. Just three months after the show wrapped, Tibbits declared bankruptcy, tracing his misfortunes to the bazaar, which resulted not in a flood of funds for Tibbits’s hospital, but a loss of £1600.
The bankruptcy proceedings revealed that the purses deposited before Prince Henry and Princess Beatrice at the beginning of the event were merely props, with few actually containing any money.
The Legacy of the Vril-Ya Bazaar and Fête
While the show proved an awkward fit for its audience, by all appearances, the bazaar pioneered pop cultural gatherings like we see celebrated today, with attendees dressing in sci-fi costumes and cosplaying favorite characters.
“We’d had lots of balls and they were quite often themed, and there were these charity fêtes, but this is kind of a crossover,” Elizabeth Harper, archive manager at the Royal Albert Hall, told Mental Floss in 2021. “The fact that it’s based on this early sci-fi novel and the way the hall was decorated really makes it stand out.”
In this way, the Vril-Ya Bazaar was less a model for the modern sci-fi convention than a precursor from which future events would take lessons. Rob Hansen, who researches the culture and history of fandom, traces that type of dedicated pop-culture following as beginning in the 1920s, when readers of the sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories began to connect with one another via letters. The first formal gathering of science-fiction fans was in December 1929, when the Scienceers met in Harlem, New York City, and the first sci-fi fan event actually planned and called a “convention” took place in the UK in January 1937. But Hansen describes the Vril-Ya Bazaar as a precursor to these fan-made events.
“We look at an event like this and say ‘that looks like a sci-fi convention’,” he told Mental Floss. “But science fiction as a concept didn’t quite exist as a genre at that time—in a way, it was kind of a false start.” It seems that in the late 1800s, the world was not quite ready for a true sci-fi convention. The Vril-Ya Bazaar may have just been too far ahead of its time.
This article was originally published in 2021; it has been updated for 2024.