15 November 2014

This year, YMCA London South West is celebrating that it is 140 years since the Association was established in Kingston upon Thames. However, a few years ago, local historian Audrey Giles discovered that the YMCA formed in Kingston in 1874 was not the first, but rather the third to be established in the area.

Audrey GilesSoon – hopefully next year – Audrey’s research into the early YMCA Movement will be available for all when her book on the subject is published by Kingston University Press.

In 2008 after Audrey finished a Social Science PHD and a paper on railway accidents published in 2011, she decided to write It Started With Coffee in the Vestry, which covers the early years of the YMCA in Kingston and Surbiton from 1858 to 1908.

If it had not been for her husband Peter Giles, who rescued the minute books and papers, the story of the early YMCAs in this area would probably never been made available to the wider public. She says:

“During the YMCA’s move from Eden Street in Kingston to Victoria Road in Surbiton in the 1970s about eight minute books and a considerable amount of paper work was thrown out as rubbish. This was rescued at the last minute and carefully stored.

However, it was decided that these books and papers should be sent to the YMCA archive in Birmingham (insert link). This prompted the writing of ‘It Started with Coffee in the Vestry’, as a means whereby these books and documents, full of nineteenth century detail, but destined to be held in the YMCA Archives, could be retained within the locality.”

The early years 1858-1874

It was when she started digging into the old YMCA minute books, the few remaining annual reports and early copies of the Surrey Comet (established four years prior to the YMCA, in 1854), that Audrey made her surprising discovery about the early years of the YMCA in Kingston and Surbiton.

The Surrey Comet, especially, turned out to be a fruitful source. Audrey writes:

“Reading the Surrey Comet dated June 1, 1862, it was reported that the Association had for three years carried on its useful operations and that a Young Men’s Christian Association had been formed in March 1858 in the Kingston Congregational Church”.

This means that only 14 years after George Williams established the YMCA near St Paul’s Churchyard in London an affiliated YMCA was set up in Kingston upon Thames.  She says:

“Although Kingston did not register with the parent body until the early 1860s the early Association in Kingston must have predated many of the other associations within the country”.

Audrey found that the 1858 Kingston YMCA started in March, when Reverend Lawrence Byrnes of Kingston Congregational Church invited the young men in the local area to take coffee with him in his vestry and 40-50 young men arrived in response to this invitation.

From then on, meetings were held every Wednesday evening, and different topics were discussed. Audrey says:

“On the first Wednesday of the month there was a Prayer Meeting, on the second, Bible Study, on the third, Conversation or Discussion and the fourth, a Lecture. At some of these meetings essays and papers were read on various subjects, and amicably discussed; at others brief addresses were delivered and adapted to meet the interests of young men”.

The Early Closing Movement

Eden street 1925However, the meetings in the vestry were sparsely attended, due to the long hours the young men were expected to work.

“The 1858 YMCA supported the Early Closing Movement in their bid to reduce shop workers’ hours. Many young people worked more than fifteen hours a day, living in the building where they worked, and rarely seeing daylight except on a Sunday. This involvement in trying to reduce work place hours and better working conditions continued throughout the nineteenth century,” Audrey says.

“This was the only secular movement supported by George Williams”.

According to Audrey, another significant event in the early years of the YMCA in Kingston was the visit from Signor Alessandro Gavazzi, Guiseppe Garibaldi’s Army Chaplain, who spoke at a YMCA meeting in Kingston.

“Ten years later after he returned to Rome, Gavazzi became head of the Free Church of Italy and later founded a theological college”.

The Second and Third YMCAs in the 1870s

After the influential and important Rev. Byrnes left Kingston in 1869 the YMCA in Kingston faltered. In 1872, a new Association was formed within Brick Lane Baptist Church.

“However, the current Association reformed outside the Baptist Church in 1874, feeling it important to go beyond spiritual needs and provide the practical help of evening classes within the locality,” Audrey explains.

“Soon after the 1874 group formed classes in arthimetic, reading, writing, and shorthand together with the creation of an Association library, available in a room in the market place, free to all young men in business from 7-10pm every evening except Sunday”.

The Surbiton Association

The Surbiton YMCA was also formed and reformed before it merged with the Kingston movement in 1885. Audrey says:

“The Surbiton YMCA started in 1868, stopped in 1879, restarted in 1882 and eventually combined with the 1874 Kingston Association three years later. Kingston YMCA therefore became Kingston and Surbiton YMCA in May in 1885, long before it came to Surbiton in the 1970s.”

The YMCA’s role in society

What became prominent when reading through the old minute books and the Surrey Comet’s archives, was how important the YMCA was in Kingston and Surbiton society.

“Throughout the nineteenth century the Kingston YMCA (and later Kingston and Surbiton YMCA) appeared to be involved in many of the main events in the town. The book only charts the first fifty years of the Association within the Kingston area but during those years it is possible to see a growing awareness that adequate provision for the well-being of the young must include not only spiritual but mental, social and physical activities,” Audrey says.

“There are of course many differences between the YMCA then and now, but the Association today continues at it did in both 1858 and 1874 to supply the perceived needs of individuals within the community”.

Audrey’s story

Audrey Giles’ own life has crossed paths with the YMCA at several points in her life. She first started helping out in the canteen at Eden Street when she was ten, in 1946, and later became involved with the Women’s Auxiliary. Read more about Audrey’s involvement with the YMCA  here. 

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