I’m not sure whether it was by accident or design, but I spent my stay in Brisbane at the George Williams Hotel, hardly an Aussie Rules kick from the city’s magnificent river. To my shame it took a day for the dollar to drop! I was sleeping in a YMCA hotel named after the organisation’s founder, George Williams. To say the least, given my attendance at the State Youth Affairs conference, this was most appropriate and led to reminding myself of some of the YMCA’s history.
According to a number of sources George, a farmer’s son, described himself as a ” careless, thoughtless, Godless and swearing young fellow”. I think we might have got on. However at the age of 16 George became a Christian and evangelist. At this point I suspect our paths would have diverted, but it’s good to think we might have carried on the discussion.
Whatever, as Mark Smith explains,
During June and early July 1844 a series of discussions took place in rooms above Hitchcock and Roger’s drapers shop in St Paul’s Churchyard. George Williams, Christopher Smith, Edward Valentine, John Symons, and the eight, nine or ten other young men involved, discussed setting up what quickly became known as The Young Men’s Christian Association. They set out with ‘the view of uniting and directing the efforts of Christian young men for the spiritual welfare of their fellows in the various departments of commercial life’ (YMCA 1857: frontpiece). In other words, they began by looking to the needs of people like themselves – a form of mutual aid. As the Movement grew, those involved were quick to amend rules and activities in response to the needs they identified. For example, by 1848 the object of the Association was not just ‘spiritual’ but also ‘mental’ improvement; and the concern was with young men in general.
The one Association within a year had branches in the West End (the Scots Church, Swallow Street, Piccadilly), Islington, Pimlico, Southwark – and then in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Exeter, Bristol, Plymouth and Hull. These then became independent associations. Furthermore, following the activities of the London Association during the Great Exhibition of 1851 associations spread to Australia, France, India and to North America. So was formed the distinctive shape of the Movement. It was to be a movement of, by and for young men; built around faith in Jesus Christ. It was to be evangelising; ecumenical in spirit and membership; and to be concerned with improving social conditions and promoting learning. Central to this was ‘the duty of Christian young men to witness in practical ways to their faith in the sphere of their daily life’ ( see Shedd 1955: 39). Crucially, YMCAs were organized around collective effort via the formation of local associations. While George Williams may be honoured as the founder – the growth of the Movement was very much an associational effort.
Find Mark’s referenced version here.
Also see this brief YMCA History.
I was taken aback by the fact that the YMCA boasts 58 million members across 119 countries world-wide, never mind that basketball was invented in its corridors.
Over a hundred and fifty years later the YMCA George Williams College in London maintains a critical continuity with the YMCA’s rich tradition, openly advocating a pluralist and radical youth work perspective, together with housing the invaluable on-line Infed resource