George, a farmer’s son, had been described as ‘a careless, thoughtless, Godless and swearing young fellow’. Following an incident in which he overturned a cart of hay his family decided to send him to be an apprentice at a Drapers in Bridgwater, Somerset. It was at a Zion Congregational Church, previously sited in Friarn Street, that he was converted and became a committed member of a non-conformist church.
In 1841 George moved from Bridgwater to London to work at Hitchcock & Rogers on Ludgate Hill as one of 140 drapery assistants. Most of these were under 20 years old and lived on the premises, being provided with board and lodgings. Their accommodation was sparse with two or three beds to a room and often two men to a bed and they worked long hours, usually 7am to 9pm with hardly a break. Since the doors are said to have been bolted at 11pm, there wasn’t a lot of time for leisure.
By 1844, George had risen to department manager earning £40 per annum and had married the boss’s daughter. He became a member of the Weigh House Congregational Chapel and devoted his spare time to evangelical and temperance work. There were a number of Christian men at H & R and they gained permission to hold weekly prayer meetings and bible studies on Wednesdays where they prayed for the conversion of young men. Other city companies were also holding meetings and the feeling grew that there ought to be a society for the ‘spiritual improvement of young men’.
On 6th June 1844 a meeting attended by 12 or 13 young men was held in George’s room and it was decided to form a society for the purposes of evangelising colleagues in the drapery establishments in London. It was initially known as The Drapers Evangelistic Association and was interdenominational even in those early days. By the fifth meeting, the name Young Men’s Christian Association had been adopted and within a few months the purpose had been amended to read, ‘the improvement of the spiritual and mental condition of young men’, an educational element thus being introduced.
Other associations quickly opened in London and other cities such as Leeds and Manchester and in the 1850’s following the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace the movement expanded into Europe and the wider world. In 1851 the American YMCA Movement was founded and from this came an emphasis on physical fitness. Both basketball and volleyball came out of that movement. This focus on health and fitness came to the British YMCA and when the headquarters moved to Exeter Hall in 1881, the first gymnasium was opened in the basement. So began a link with fitness that still continues.
In 1894, the 50th anniversary of the YMCA, George Williams received a knighthood from Queen Victoria and the honour was accepted by him as an honour for the YMCA. He also received the freedom of the City of London. He died in 1905 and is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral alongside the likes of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.
The British YMCA played its part in the First and Second World Wars, providing the troops with food, drink and writing materials from YMCA huts. In the years between the wars it also played its part, setting up two employment programmes. The first was British Boys for British Farms, which placed unemployed men into agricultural work, and the second was the setting up of an Employment Department to find jobs for ex-servicemen.
In the late 1950’s, following the publishing of a government report stressing the need for better leisure facilities for teenagers, the YMCA began youth clubs to help young people develop through recreation, leisure and informal education. This was followed by the introduction of a training programme for youth workers and ultimately the setting up of the YMCA George Williams College in 1970. It remained a primarily male oriented movement until 1964 when women and girls were finally admitted.
Over 170 years since the first YMCA meeting, YMCA has over 58 million members in 119 countries worldwide. Since it was established, YMCA has adapted to the changing needs of young people.
Today it works with young men and women regardless of race, religion or culture. In every corner of the world, YMCA is helping young people to build a future.
For more information on the YMCA movement in England, go to the YMCA England website