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The first known Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting in Britain was held in a room at the Dorchester Hotel on 31 March 1947. The movement had been founded in the USA over a decade earlier when Dr Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith, who had both suffered from alcoholism, pioneered a new approach to its treatment which recognised alcoholism as an illness that required complete abstention to overcome. Anonymous support groups were set up initially in Ohio, New York and Cleveland and in 1938 Wilson and Smith founded the non-profit Alcoholic Foundation to manage their work. In 1939 they published the textbook ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’, known as the ‘Big Book,’ setting out the group’s philosophy and methods, including its now famous ’12 Steps of Recovery’ and the concept of the ‘AA service,’ which is defined as anything that helps a fellow sufferer.
In Britain there was some early contact between individuals and the Alcoholic Foundation in the mid 1940s but it was not until 1947 that real progress was made when an American AA member, Grace O, arranged the Dorchester meeting during a visit to London. The meeting was attended by eight people, with further meetings held in private homes and cafes. In 1948 the first London Group was formed, meeting at Chandos Street, followed by the first Bolton Group who met in Manchester in 1949 and the first Scottish Groups who began meeting the same year. The first known AA meeting in Wales took place in Cardiff in April 1951.
As membership began to grow, so too did the need for even limited organisation. An Advisory Committee was formed in 1948 to liaise between members and groups and offer guidance on publicity and other matters. From October 1949 it was renamed the Central Committee. The London Group had been producing a regular newsletter since 1949 but in 1950 AA co-founder Bill Wilson visited Britain, bringing with him a donation of 1500 copies of ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ to be sold in support of the British AA. This resulted in the establishment of the Pre-Foundation Committee to manage distribution and income from their sale, incorporated in 1953 as the Publishing Company.
In 1951 the first Group Representative Committee was formed to manage all matters relating to the growth, welfare and activities of the AA Fellowship, and in 1952 they opened their first London Service Office at 11 Redcliffe Gardens. The Central Committee was responsible for running the London office and liaising between British groups and the Alcoholic Foundation. In 1957 the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous (Great Britain and Ireland) Ltd was formed.
By the end of the 1950s there were around 100 AA groups meeting in England and Wales and around 30 meeting in Scotland. As a result the Group Representative Committee was expanded to become the Area and Group Representative Committee from 1958, meeting three times a year. Management of the London Service Office was taken over by one of the group’s sub-committees, the General Purposes Committee. In Scotland, differences in language, law and custom, was recognised by the formation of a unique Scottish Service Committee by 1972 to adapt the service structure of the AA to the Scottish regions. In 1981 a regional system was adopted for the whole of Great Britain, dividing it into sixteen regions, each with its own Regional Assembly and Intergroups.
In 1966 the AA held its first General Service Conference Great Britain, an event which attracted more than one hundred delegates. The conference has since been held annually. Delegates from Great Britain also attended the AA’s first World Service Meeting in New York in 1969 and in 1974 London hosted the first World Service Meeting to be held outside of the USA. In 1978, a year after the 1000th group was registered in Great Britain, a European Information Centre was established at the General Service Office to respond to enquiries from mainland Europe. The growth of the AA in Europe led to the first European Service Meeting being held in Frankfurt in 1981.
By 1986 the General Service Office in London had become increasingly costly to maintain and the decision was made to move the office to Stonebow House in York, although Redcliffe Gardens continued to be used for the regional telephone office until 1999 when it moved to the London Regional Service Office at Jacob House. In 2007 the General Service Office moved again to Toft Green in York.
Today the AA in Great Britain holds more than 4000 group meetings a week and these continue to represent the ‘front line’ of AA service. Group representatives within an area meet several times a year as an intergroup with their own chairman, vice chairman, treasurer, secretary and liaison officers, and Intergroups in turn send representatives to the Regional Assemblies. Regions nominate trustees to the General Service Board, which meets in York, and also send delegates to the annual General Service Conference. In 1998 Great Britain was estimated to have nearly two million AA members.
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'A Brief History of the AA in Great Britain' in The AA Service Handbook (York, 2013).