Since 1844, the YMCA Movement has been helping thousands of people all over the world live happier, healthier, more fulfilled lives. Central YMCA – the first ever YMCA which includes the YMCA Club – is proud of its rich heritage below…
YMCA Founder - Sir George Williams
On 11th October 1821, George Williams - one of eight children – was born into an Anglican farming family in Dulverton, a small town in west Somerset. Keen for him to learn a trade, his parents send him forty miles away to Bridgewater where he starts out as a draper’s apprentice at the age of 14. In 1841 at the age of 20, George spreads his wings and moves to London. He’s one of 150,000 young drapers from across the country, eager to make his living in the capital. George fortunately finds work and lodgings at ‘Hitchcock and Rogers Drapers’ next to St Paul’s Cathedral, but is appalled by the terrible living standards which many of his peers are confronted with.
Long hours and cramped working conditions are taking their toll and low pay means decent, affordable accommodation is out of reach for most. Many spend the night at local taverns or gambling dens subjecting themselves to all kinds of excesses. According to a local shop assistant, “No class was more degraded and dissolute, none were sunk deeper in ungodliness and dissipation, than the shop men of London.” As a committed Christian, George is concerned about his colleagues’ spiritual and physical wellbeing, “Young men at that time spent most of their evening at the ‘free and easies’ and at all sorts of places of amusement…..The language, the immorality, the drunkenness, everything was evil.”
George’s faith compels him to make a difference. From 1841, George and a dozen other like-minded drapers’ assistants regularly meet in his bedroom at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard for prayer and Bible study. They discuss how they would improve “the spiritual condition” of young men engaged in drapery and other trades. On 6th June 1844, at the age of just 22, George forms the first ever Young Men’s Christian Association. They run Bible classes, family and social prayer meetings and mutual improvement societies - a healthier and safer alternative to the drunken debauchery which is ruining so many young lives around them.
The Rapid Growth of a New Movement
The meetings increase in size and within weeks, they hire a larger room in St Martin’s Coffee House in Ludgate Hill. The YMCA transcends social class. This new movement doesn’t care if they’re a young apprentice or a senior manager - their shared faith and meeting the social needs of their community are all that matter. They decide that young men should also be developed mentally as well as spiritually so in 1845, they rent out halls for lectures on a range of subjects including Art, History, Mythology, Travel and Science. By 1847, some lectures are attracting as many as 1,400 people. To accommodate such large numbers, they hold lectures at the prestigious Exeter Hall in the Strand, which helps the YMCA gain credibility in intellectual circles.
As Britain becomes more industrialised, drapery is her fastest growing trade. George becomes head of his department at ‘Hitchcock and Rogers’. His employer has many wholesale contacts across London and other cities, which help spread the news about the YMCA like wildfire. As a result, the YMCA branches out into Manchester, Leeds (1845), Taunton and Bath (1846). In 1845, the London YMCA appoints its first paid employee and in 1849, moves its headquarters to Gresham Street which houses a library and reading rooms. They hold German, Latin, French, Hebrew, Greek, English and Maths classes and start opening their doors to non-Christians who have “good moral character” and can pay an annual fee of £1. Lord Shaftesbury, the Christian philanthropist, is appointed YMCA’s president in 1851.
The Great Exhibition of 1851– the word’s first international trade show in Hyde Park – propels the YMCA into a global movement. Thousands of YMCA leaflets are circulated among its six million international visitors and following the exhibition, letters are sent to similar organisations all over the world. As a result, the YMCA expands into Europe, America and Australia. Henri Dunant from YMCA Geneva, convinces YMCA Paris to host the first ever YMCA World Conference in 1855 and the World Alliance of YMCAs follows. Meanwhile, physical education is growing in America and at the second YMCA World Conference in Geneva in 1858, members discuss the merits of integrating wholesome recreational activities into their programmes. ‘Muscular Christianity’ is born and promoting a healthier body becomes the third component of the YMCA ethos, complimenting spirit and mind.
‘Spirit, Mind and Body’ – Origins of the YMCA Logo
In 1881, during the 9th YMCA World Conference, the World Alliance of YMCAs launches their official logo – a circle around the Greek letters ‘Chi-Rho’ (an abbreviation of Christ) and an open Bible showing John chapter 17, verse 21: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” A few years later in 1889, American gym instructor - Luther H. Gulick from the YMCA Springfield College in Massachusetts - proposes another idea. He suggests the symbol of an inverted red triangle to crystallise the YMCA philosophy of ‘spirit, mind and body’. This newer logo implies that the body, mind and spirit are one unified whole, which needs to be balanced and developed in relation to each other. Luther elaborates:
“Physical - his body, all the organs of the body and how they are related to each other and all the things they do, everything from digestion to winking, from circulation of blood to conflicts within the body against disease and disorder. This can all be summed up under the general word, PHYSICAL. This includes the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system.
Mental -then there is another self, very closely related, which is convenient to call the MENTAL. This is the thing that remembers. This is the thing that we can store with knowledge and information. We say that consciousness is mental, knowing that you are yourself, is mental. This is all machinery – mental machinery.
Spiritual -then there is the part, which is convenient to call SPIRITUAL. This includes all of love, faith, hope, aspiration, repentance, resolution, will, desire, belief, good taste, morals, all capacity for God, willingness to serve others and so on.”
Despite some people’s objections, Luther creates badges of his new logo and in 1891, launches a YMCA magazine called ‘The Triangle’. That same year, Springfield College adopts his triangle as their logo. In 1895, the wider YMCA agree to adopt a more complex logo comprising of the triangle, and the original circle, Chi-Rho and an open Bible showing John chapter 17, verse 21. During World War 1, the YMCA drop the latter symbols and return to the simpler, more distinctive triangle which adorn their huts for soldiers all over England – a major contribution to the war effort. This triangle logo - with the YMCA initials - becomes famous throughout the world, though other variations of it do exist. To this day, the World Alliance of YMCAs still uses its original circular Chi-Rho, Bible logo.
A constant source of innovation
The YMCA movement has always attracted pioneers and has paved the way for many new ideas throughout history:
The founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross (1863)
In 1852, Henri Dunant from Switzerland forms YMCA Geneva and helps establish the first international YMCA Conference In 1855. Whilst on a business trip to Solferino in Italy, a battle breaks out leaving 23,000 men wounded and dying. Dunant takes it upon himself to mobilise civilians to care for the injured, regardless of whose side they’re on. He also organises provisions and erects makeshift hospitals. On his return, he writes a book about the cost and chaos of war, and the absence of a neutral organisation to nurse the wounded. Dunant forms the ‘International Committee of the Red Cross’ on 17th February 1863 and in 1901, he’s awarded the first ever Nobel Peace Prize for his work.
The term “Bodybuilding” is coined (1881)
Skilled gymnast, Robert J Roberts, lands a job as a Gym Supervisor at the Boston YMCA in 1872. He establishes the YMCA’s first physical education program in the late 1870s and in 1881, coins the phrase ‘bodybuilding’. Unsurprisingly, Robert is very muscular and his chiselled back is used as an advertisement for the YMCA’s gym.
The invention of Basketball (1891)
In 1890, James Naismith from Canada begins his studies in Physical Education at the YMCA International Training School in Massachusetts (later known as Springfield College). Athletic Director, Dr Luther Gulick, asks his class to invent a new game, which can be played inside during the winter. James combines the elements of existing games and publishes the rules of ‘Basketball’ on 21st December, 1891. Its popularity spreads across America and in 1946, the American National Basketball Association (NBA) is born, which has grown into a multibillion-dollar enterprise.
The invention of Volleyball (1895)
In 1895, Naismith’s friend and Director of the Holyoke Massachusetts YMCA - William G Morgan, creates another game. ‘Mintonette’ combines basketball, baseball, tennis and handball and is originally designed to be a gentle indoor sport for older YMCA members. At its first official outing in 1896 at Springfield College, the volleying nature of the game becomes obvious, so it quickly becomes known as ‘Volleyball’. It spreads all over the country as other YMCAs adopt the game. Volleyball becomes an official Olympic sport in 1957.
The concept of ‘Poppy Day’ is born (1918)
During November 1918, whilst Moina Michael is working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries' headquarters in New York, she reads John McCrae’s famous wartime poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ in a copy of ‘Ladies Home Journal’. Visibly moved, Moina vows to always wear a red poppy in remembrance and buys 25 silk poppies. She wears one and distributes the rest to her colleagues. She campaigns to get the poppy adopted as a national remembrance symbol. It becomes a worldwide symbol of remembrance for those lost in battle.
The birth of Butlin’s (1936)
In 1873, the first YMCA holiday camp is established on the Isle of Wight. It’s so popular, another 25 camps open - boasting entertainment, sport, activities and wholesome meals. Billy Butlin adapts the idea and opens his first Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Skegness in 1936.
The invention of Racquetball (1950)
In 1949, Joe Sobek - a professional tennis player at a YMCA in Connecticut - starts playing handball with a tennis racket. In 1950, he designs a shorter-stringed racket, ‘paddle racket’, to gain more control over the ball and starts selling them to other YMCA members. In 1952, Sobek forms the ‘National Paddle Rackets Association’ (NPRA) and prints an official rule book. San Diego tennis star, Bob McInerny, later coins the term ‘racquetball’ and by the 1990s, 10 million Americans have taken up the sport.
Supporting our armed forces
During both World Wars, the YMCA make a significant contribution in terms of provisions, education, recreation and pastoral care for soldiers and munitions workers. Throughout WW1, the YMCA set up nearly 2,000 relief huts across the UK, Europe and Africa where soldiers can eat, shower, read, rest and relax. The ‘YMCA Women’s Auxiliary’ is formed which recruits over 40,000 YMCA volunteers. They man relief huts, serve meals, organise entertainment, offer lodgings, transport and provide notepaper for over 200 million letters. By 1917, volunteers are running 150 canteens serving around 200,000 munitions workers per day and managing 10 hostels accommodating 3,000 men. Many volunteers receive military and civilian honours. Many lose their lives.
During WW2, the YMCA introduce second-hand tea vans in camouflage green. By the end of 1940, there are 500 vans providing refreshments, chocolate, cigarettes, toothpaste and stationery to troops, rescue workers and bombing raid victims. Mobile cinemas and libraries follow. The YMCA set up ‘War Prisoners Aid’ to support displaced people, refugees and prisoners of war in 38 countries. In Britain, they run a prisoner of war education programme which enables 1,000 POW to retrain as Primary School Teachers. They also provide entertainment and relief in the form of sports equipment, musical instruments, art materials, radios and gramophones. Today, the YMCA continues to provide opportunities for the ‘Career Transition Partnership’, which is the armed forces’ resettlement and jobs programme. The YMCA are their preferred training provider.
Confronting social injustice around the world
Fighting social injustice and inequality has become increasingly important to the YMCA at home and abroad. Like our founder, George Williams, who improved the deplorable living conditions of his peers, the movement has continued to confront other social evils. In 1931, YMCA member and Jamaican-born physician, Dr Harold Moody, formed 'The League of Coloured Peoples' at Central YMCA in a bid to fight extreme racism and exclusion. The organisation also tackled the persecution of the Jews ahead of World War 2.
In 1855, the first YMCA World Conference (now World YMCA) was held in Paris. Today it endeavours to bring social justice and peace to young people and their families around the globe, regardless of ability, age, background, culture, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background. In 1984, ‘Y Care International’ - the YMCA’s overseas development agency - was established to help the world’s most disadvantaged people out of poverty. Today, it works in over 20 countries.
Creating opportunities through education and training
The YMCA has been a strong advocate for education since 1845, when it first began delivering lectures to its members. The charity has always responded to the changing needs of society by creating opportunities for people to better themselves in difficult circumstances. During World War 1, the YMCA rolls out a mass education programme for soldiers, which later becomes the ‘Army Education Corps’ and finds jobs for 38,000 ex-servicemen as the War ends. In 1932, the YMCA sets up the ‘British Boys for British Farms’, which helps 25,000 young unemployed men into agricultural work. In 1970, the ‘YMCA George Williams College’ is established, which is now the UK’s leading provider of youth and community qualifications.
In a bid to tackle high youth unemployment, the YMCA launches ‘Training for Life’ in the late 1970s. This becomes ‘YMCA Training’ – one of the UK’s leading apprenticeship providers, which has benefited over one million learners and impacts around 60,000 people every year. 1984 sees the launch of ‘YMCAfit’ and offers the first ever ‘Exercise to Music’ course, which produces over 70,000 qualified Aerobics Teachers. Since then, we’ve trained over 100,000 Health and Fitness Instructors from Personal Trainers to Postnatal Exercise Practitioners. Today, nearly every British gym employs YMCA trained staff. 1998 sees the launch of ‘Central YMCA Qualifications’ - the UK's first ever regulated awarding body to specialise in health and fitness – which later becomes ‘YMCA Awards’. To date, we’ve awarded over half a million globally-recognised qualifications through more than 300 education providers. 300,000 people have advanced their career thanks to YMCA Awards.
YMCA - A Safe Space for All
Throughout our 175-year history, buildings have played an important part in the delivery of our education, health and wellbeing programmes. From simple meeting rooms and basic accommodation, through to elegant halls, well-equipped gyms and state-of-the-art classrooms, we strive to make each place a safe space.
From 1845, the YMCA hire out Exeter Hall on the Strand, which contains a huge hall for 3,000 people where they hold meetings and lectures. When Exeter Hall hits financial problems, the YMCA buy the building in 1880. They refit it with a large gym and incorporate personal fitness into their programmes from 1881. Exeter Hall becomes the YMCA’s headquarters for the next 20 years and hosts major events including the YMCA’s 50thanniversary (1894) and the start of George Williams’ funeral procession (14th November 1905). Due to building regulations, failing to make full use of the venue and high maintenance costs, Exeter Hall becomes financially unviable and is demolished in 1907.
Central YMCA build new premises in memory of George Williams on the corner of Great Russell Street and Tottenham Court Road, which open in 1912. The building is designed by architect, R Plumbe, for recreational and educational activities and includes the first purpose-built gym, swimming pool, meeting rooms, restaurants and a hostel comprising of 240 rooms.
During the 1970s, London experiences a boom in hotel development, so Central YMCA sells off part of its premises to the St Giles Hotel Group. The former YMCA hostel becomes the St Giles Hotel and the ‘YMCA Club’ reopens in 1976 further down Great Russell Street, focusing on health, fitness, wellbeing and education.
Designed by the Ellesworth Sykes Partnership, the Club’s post-war Brutalist architecture is bold and honest in design. Inside, an open staircase descends into a huge space, exposing facilities on every level including a 25m swimming pool. Today, the award-winning YMCA Club also boasts six exercise studios, a sauna and steam room, health and beauty treatments, three badminton courts, the biggest fitness timetable in London with over 125 classes per week and state-of-the-art classrooms where 165 YMCAfit instructor courses are delivered every year.
Happier, healthier, more fulfilled lives
No matter who you are, the YMCA believes that better wellbeing (mind, body, spirit) paves the way to happier, healthier, more fulfilled lives. We’ve been boosting wellbeing in a multitude of ways for 175 years. The YMCA Club accommodates all ages, backgrounds, communities and abilities, from absolute beginners to elite athletes and everyone in between. Given the Club’s sheer range of fitness programmes, nobody is left behind:
Renew - twelve-week exercise programme for people in their 20s and 30s, recovering from cancer. It rehabilitates nearly 100 cancer survivors every year.
Positive Health – GP referred twelve-week exercise programme for people living with HIV.
Positive Strokes – award-winning swimming club for people living with HIV from absolute beginners to international competitors.
Different Strokes - a safe exercise group which helps people recover from a stroke.
Ante/post-natal fitness – weekly one to one sessions for during and after pregnancy.
Sunday Hub Club - weekly activity club for young disabled people (aged 14 to 25) and their families / carers.
Children’s Programme (aged 4 to 12) - action-packed Holiday Playschemes and term-time courses including swimming, trampolining, creative arts, bouncy castle fun, cookery, obstacle courses, educational trips, outdoor activities, street dance and lots, lots more!
Youth Programme (aged 13 to 18) – at a reduced rate, young people can access the pool, cardio zone, youth classes, badminton courts and suspension training. We also run a Young Volunteers Scheme where participants must adhere to safeguarding and undergo training.
Older Adults Programme (over 60s) – around 700 members enjoy a range of exercise classes, bespoke fitness workshops and social get-togethers.
The Club offers less strenuous activities, which contribute to wellbeing, including prayer and meditation in the YMCA Club Chapel, nutrition advice, art and ceramics classes and the opportunity to join our community choir! For those wanting to alleviate stress, need help recovering from an injury or simply want to be pampered, we offer a range of professional services including physiotherapy, sports massage, osteopathy and beauty treatments. The Club also offers several ‘mind and body’ yoga and stretch classes. In 2015, we increased our Pilates and yoga offering by opening ‘YMCA at One KX’ in Kings Cross. One KX is the UK's only licenced training centre for ‘STOTT Pilates’ and ‘Merrithew Health and Fitness’ who are leaders in ‘mindful movement’.
Happy Birthday YMCA - here's to the next 175 years!