George Williams founded the YMCA Movement in 1844 in London. George Williams was a young man who had come to London from Somerset to learn the drapery trade. The drapery employed large numbers of young men. George Williams held prayer meetings and bible studies in his lodgings with other young drapery assistants who, like himself, shared the Christian faith.
It was not long before the group expanded, drawing to it young men who were alone and lonely in the City of London. George Williams and his friends recognised that they should not just serve young Christians and offer them support, but they should welcome all the young people who were coming to the city. With this in mind they decided that the organisation should take the inclusive name of the ‘Young Men’s Christian Association’; they rejected the more restrictive ‘Young Christian Men’s Association’ title. This principle of inclusion remains central to the philosophy of YMCA work.
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 & Wales website.
The YMCA now works with both women and men and has grown into an international Movement operating in over 100 countries. It has some 30 million members and programme participants.