Another week – another story. This week… the YWCA.

One of the most common questions we are asked here at the YMCA Heritage Project is… Was the YWCA founded by George William’s wife and are you the same? Well, wouldn’t that make a great story!? Unfortunately, the answer is no…

Started during the mid 1800’s by two ladies in London, Lady Mary Jane Kinnaird and Emma Robarts, two distinct movements were founded which both called themselves the Young Women’s Christian Association.



One provided accommodation for nurses in the city, and the other was a society offering female servants with a safe and moral place to read the bible (the latter sound familiar to anyone?). Eventually, after learning about each other, they decided to combine their efforts and today they exist as ‘The World Young Women’s Christian Association (World YWCA)’, a global movement working for women’s empowerment, leadership and rights in over 120 countries around the world.

Nonetheless, our histories, though unique, do collide. During the night of May 4th & 5th, 1942, Exeter’s YWCA lost their home in Dix’s Field due to the Blitz – the same bombing in which YMCA lost King’s Lodge. After both our centres were lost, YMCA and YWCA rallied together to run joint socials for their members, supporting each other during tough times. It was then decided in 1952 that the two associations would occupy the same premises at 41 St David’s Hill, due to “a demand from the younger members of the (YMCA) Association to have girls in for certain activities, and as the Y.M.C.A. could offer better facilities for the members of the Y.W.C.A.”


So, whilst Mrs William’s didn’t found the YWCA and we remain two independent organisations, our stories do overlap in Exeter and both organisations are still thriving over 70 years on from that fateful night in 1942.


YMCA Exeter needs you! (and any YMCA related artefacts you may have!)


In preparation for our exhibition in Exeter Library in July and August we are looking for any old photos, artefacts, or memories the local community has of our history.


To date we only have a few treasured gems from our past, like this wonderful journal which found its way to us after surviving the trenches in 1917. Belonging to YMCA Padre, Reverend John James Haworth, the journal is full to the brim with insights on the impact of YMCA on the front line.

We also have this gorgeous triangle pin from 1917, another item owned by the Reverend, and together with the journal has seen a lot of remarkable history.

YMCA badge from 1917, 100 years old! #ymca #heritage #Exeter #Local #history #WWI #1917

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From our more recent days, we have this photoboard from which we have been able to put faces to all the names in our dusty archival minutes! A man called Bob Whitchurch helped to orchestrate the revival of the YMCA and the St. David’s Hill rebuilding in the late 80‘s and early 90’s and he has generously lent us this photo board for the exhibition



Another gem we have can be found in a very old YMCA newsletter, it is a drawing of our previous home at King’s Lodge. This is one of the only pictures we have of the headquarters that served us so well for half a century, until the beautiful building was lost in the Blitz.

So why do we need you?


To make our monumental exhibition even more unique we need more gems like those already mentioned. No matter how small or insignificant it may seem you – an old YMCA badge, a 15-year-old YMCA newsletter, or a photo of a distant relative who was a YMCA trustee – these artefacts each have a story to tell and we want to tell them!


So, if you have anything you would like to share with us, or indeed you have a story to tell that we can capture in words, then please get in touch! You can leave your comments below, email or ring the YMCA Exeter Heritage team on 01392 410530 ext. 217.

YMCA Exeter Mysteries: King’s Lodge

Did you know that King’s Lodge was the home to YMCA Exeter in the 1940’s, where we used to run loads of different activities such as a billiards hall and an extensive library? But, where was King’s Lodge we hear you ask? Well, on Kings Alley of course! Yet for us involved in the Heritage Project, finding King’s Alley in Exeter was not quite as simple a task as you would think…


What we do know:

  1. King’s Lodge was on King’s Alley
  2. King’s Lodge was blitzed to rubble on 4th May 1942
  3. King’s Alley was on, off, or near Exeter high street – the area affected by the blitz

Blitx map C Ex Mem.JPG

As you may know, Exeter is an ancient city, meaning that lots of the streets emerged organically rather than in a structured and planned manner. This results in two things…


Firstly, odd little streets like Parliament Street in Exeter that is about 0.64 metres (2 ft 1 in) at its narrowest, approximately 1.22 metres (4 ft 0 in) at its widest and only 50 metres (160ft) in length!


Secondly, some old streets are not recorded on many maps, so whilst King’s Alley was presumably wider than Parliament Street, we just couldn’t find it on any of the maps we had.


Historical research is, if nothing else, essentially detective work. Unfortunately, detective work in real life is rarely as glamorous or exciting as television and movies would have you believe – although thankfully gun fights over historical resources are also less common.


The detective work, in this case, was done by Tom Browne, Senior Fundraiser and research enthusiast at YMCA Exeter.


Tom discovered that before YMCA Exeter lived at King’s Lodge in 1892, it had previously been the site of a day and boarding school ran by headmaster, Mr Quicke. Quicke had established the school in 1797 specifically for young boys in the area. Going through the story, Tom then found that Mr Quicke was living at King’s Lodge in 1851, where the address in the census was given as, “King’s Ally, St Stephen’s, Exeter”.


Lightbulb moment!


Part serendipity, part hard work, we found our answer. King’s Lodge was located on the opposite side of the High Street to St Stephen’s Church. The physical location of King’s Lodge might seem a trivial matter but this building was our headquarters for 50 years. The building gave the YMCA a real home in Exeter from which we could engage with the community, provide a place for young men to meet, and help the community through the First World War and a significant portion of the Second – until it was blitzed!

Blitz showing SSTephans.JPG


WWI Front Lines

Following on from last week with our WWI time frame, this week we want to look at all the work the YMCA did beyond Exeter. Money raised on the Homefront often went to fund YMCA Huts on the front lines.

But what were YMCA Huts? Huts were, well – huts. Tents, small structures where soldiers on leave could go to recuperate from the horrors of the trenches. There were cakes, and tea, and sometimes even music. Huts provided a lot of for soldiers on the Warfront – simple things like free writing paper and envelopes so that soldiers could write home, or a quiet place to sit and chat.

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We are very lucky to have access to the diary of Reverend John J. Haworth. The Diary has been lent to us by one of his descendants who still supports YMCA today.  The reverend was ordained at Exeter Cathedral in 1903 and in 1917 he was serving in France as a YMCA Padre. Commenting in the pages of his diary he comments that without the YMCA Huts life in the rest camps would have “become utterly wearisome, even injurious to the men”

As useful as the YMCA Huts were to soldiers it was not all we provided. The aim of the YMCA on the front was described in 1915 as “to carry the principles for which it stands into the Army, and help the men become more fit in spirit, mind and body. It has provided huts, tents, and workers at every military camp, and it has extended its labours to the front, where they are of the greatest value.” (Devon & Exeter Gazette 31.5.1915)

As we learned last week, YMCA Exeter opened accommodation up to any servicemen in uniform. Regarding this undertaking Mr Walker King, the President of YMCA Exeter at the time, revealed something else about the people of the YMCA – “Within six months of the outbreak of war every eligible member of the Exeter Y.M.C.A. joined the forces without waiting to be called upon to do so.”

Serving in the army, providing workers for military camps, funding and running huts, on the front lines –YMCA Exeter was there.


WWI – The Home Front

The YMCA in Exeter was doing well in 1914, with over 100 men accepting an invitation to a social gathering at our King’s Lodge Headquarters. We were doing so well that Arthur E. Brock was even asking for houseplants:

“By the generosity of the subscribers the Exeter Y.M.C.A. is now on a sound basis, and doing excellent work among the young men of the city. The premises having been thoroughly renovated are most attractive, but we feel that a few palms would make them more homelike and cheerful. I am writing in the hope that, possibly, some of your readers who have greenhouses would be able to spare us just one hardy palm. If so, we shall be grateful, and on receipt of a postcard, will gladly send to fetch it.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 28.1.1914)

Yet, the YMCA in Exeter, like the rest of the country, had a sharp shock to the system when Britain went to war in Europe. Nobody but an interested few registered the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, but as diplomacy failed and negotiations to avoid war went on, more and more people became interested, gathering outside the Western Times Office at 226 High Street to hear news.

On the 4th August 1914, a crowd waited for the latest headlines to be posted in the window. The Western Times described the scene after the midnight announcement that Germany had declared war – ‘A tremendous cheer was raised, and then all heads were bared while, by general impulse, the National Anthem was sung’.

It is a strange image to look back on, men throwing their hats and singing, when soon the ravages of war would be so severe that come the second world war – the first having not ‘ended all’ as promised – conscientious objectors would rally that ‘King and country were no longer enough.’

Nonetheless, upon the announcement of war YMCA Exeter sprang into action and our war effort began…

Mr H. W. Michelmore wrote to the local newspaper on the 7th August, 1914, that all were welcome to join in united prayer daily at Kings Lodge. On the 8th August, an appeal was issued for 100 sewing machines so that women could sew for the war effort. Then on 11th August, it was announced the YMCA would open its doors to all servicemen in uniform.

Later, by February 1916, 50,000 letters had been written by troops who used free material provided at our King’s Lodge HQ and 450 pocket New Testaments had been distributed. We were also providing accommodation for soldiers, who looked “upon the building as their home from home”.

During the period, we had even made a financial appeal to help us cover all the extra cost incurred of supporting the troops.

Simultaneously, across the country, other YMCAs were highly regarded for their support for soldiers… “It is quite impossible to over-estimate the excellent work being accomplished by various Y.M.C.A.’s in different parts of the country during the present crisis.” (Devon & Exeter Gazette 18.12.1914)

So, whilst well know Evangelist and Lecturer Mr Gipsy Smith questioned Exeter Y.M.C.A over our fundraising contribution, we were anything but disengaged from the war effort on the home front!

Time Travel at Sleep Easy

As many of you will know, this past weekend was host to Exeter’s Sleep Out – along with the wonderful Exeter Castle. Sleep Easy 2017 was fantastically successful even though the weather was … challenging!

My favourite part of the night though, was Paddle Boat Company, of course! This theater company is incredible, a few months ago I floated an idea – roving actors at Sleep Easy, having one on one conversations with people from the perspective of a historical character. Paddle Boat took this idea – armed with naught but a character list and a concept – developed it, engaged the amazing Rebekah Horton to script write, and excelled. What I saw at rehearsals was a group of dedicated and talented young people who had taken this idea and made it their own – and could sing while doing it!

We had ten young people who learned not only their scripted monologue but also enough background information about their character to maintain an engaging conversation with a Sleep Easy patron. On the night I heard a Mod from 1960 explaining to a young person exactly why Mods were better than Rockers, a short older lady explaining to her husband that she had actually just been talking to John Dinham whose statue is on the other side of the wall, and a youth club user exclaiming to her Facebook Live audience that she has just have a very nice conversation with a Victorian woman.

Our Rocker, Victorian Lady, and Wounded Soldier

I was going to choose my favourite characters and talk about them but it soon dawned that I had ten favourite characters and it would take me at least a thousand words to describe them. So, my run down – my favourite monologue was the injured soldier. He wrote his monologue himself and spoke about having his photograph taken on a YMCA camera near the front line in the First World War. My favourite costume was the tea lady, on point– complete with helmet. The Mods looked excellent and the Rocker was tough. The Patrol Gentlemen was funny, but his wife – she was a firecracker. True to period and well spoken, the quasi-suffragette helped her husband and did her bit in the war. Our biscuit toting, morale boosting soldier was charismatic and likable. Roaming through the crowds we were fortunate enough to have Sir George Williams, our founder, and Mr John Dinham, our Exeter philanthropist.Then they sang, and they sounded amazing.

YMCA Exeter cannot thank Paddle Boat Company enough – the level of work that went correlates to how incredible the performance was! Special thanks also to Rebekah Horton for her excellent work and dedication!

Wait… what’s an oral history?

‘What is that?’ is the most common reaction I get when I tell someone that this project has a focus on Oral History.

Oral history is the collection and study of history through memories, conversations, video and audio tapes, and planned interviews.

Oral history is important because it is the best way to access the history of real people. History and history books are great at tracking the things that happen – everyone know there have been two world wars and man landed on the moon (this is a conspiracy theory free zone). But the history of real people is often overlooked in favour of these global events.

Oral histories can be collected in several ways, from interviews to email. However there are several challenges – some practical and some ethical. First up is the ethical angle. The people who are being interviewed or spoken to must give consent to be recorded, as well as understand that their stories and sometimes words will be used or published. Practically it involves getting a whole group of people aware about what you are doing and convincing them that it is worth their time! Most people want to talk, but convincing them what they have to say is interesting is surprisingly tough!

One of the most effective ways I have found to reach out to the community is through Facebook and local groups like Exeter Memories. We are organising as many interviews as we can, with anyone who remembers the YMCA – if you want to get in touch please don’t hesitate to do so! Your stories could end up in a book, on our social media, or as a major clue to a part of our history we had no idea about!

So if you are interested – having an interview with us entails either meeting us at our café for a coffee, or two of our team can come and meet you. We would sit down and just chat! If it is easier or you prefer, we can converse over email. It isn’t an interrogation, we aren’t going to question you within an inch of your life – we just want to hear what you remember!


Research Fun at the Archives!

The University of Birmingham is home to an extensive network of knowledge that not nearly enough people know about – the Cadbury Research Library and its respective archive. Three lucky Extonians, along with some of their national colleagues, were permitted admittance to the mysterious stacks to investigate the secrets held there.

Hyperbolic? Only slightly.

The Cadbury Research Library is not an Ivory Tower guarded by knowledge hoarding dragons, it is in fact open to anyone who wishes to enter – all you need is valid ID and 5 minutes to fill out the form that registers you for a Membership Card. As for the dragons – the archivists are lovely, not to mention incredibly knowledgeable about the collections as well as the items within them. The Cadbury Research Library is located in the Muirhead Tower and it holds approximately 200,000 rare books from as early as 1471 and around 4 million – that’s a ‘four’ followed by SIX zeros – manuscripts. Among these is a Qur’an manuscript, which radiocarbon analysis has dated to the period between 568 and 645 CE with 95.4% accuracy, making it among the earliest written textual evidence of the Islamic holy book known to survive.

The Qur'an Manuscript display

I’m not talking about the Cadbury Research Library because it is amazing, it is amazing but that is separate to our post today. The reason it is featuring on our blog this week is that it holds the national YMCA archives, and we found ourselves invited to a workshop – an opportunity not to be missed.

The YMCA archives are extensive, with a simply search of ‘YMCA’ returning 4721 results, which include things like meeting minutes and sports programs to diaries of soldiers, thousands of snapshots, and the spectacles of George Williams himself.

YMCA Exeter records do feature in the archive and we had some excellent success, however there are YMCA branches with more information held at the archive who would absolutely benefit – no historians’ bias of course – from engaging with this amazing resource to their heritage! We were fortunate enough to discover an image that no one on our Heritage project had seen before, a drawing of our premises in Kings Lodge. As some of you will know – and others will find out in an upcoming post – we lost our Kings Lodge location to the Germans on May 2nd 1942 along with records of it. Now thanks to the archive we have more information and an image to associate with it.

Another aspect of the Cadbury Research Library is the conservation laboratory where any archival material that needs some TLC is sent and looked after. This includes washing, rebinding, repairing and reconstructing documents and pieces that could be hundreds of years old. This laboratory and the archives themselves are a controlled environment; humidity and temperature control are one thing but the protections are a whole other world – argon fire suppression and fire resistant acid free cardboard storage boxes and specially treated walls and ceilings to hinder the entrance of fire and flooding precautions – for a geek like your humble author it is Disneyland!

The stacks of the #YMCA #Archive at @CadburyRL

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Archival research is invaluable to heritage projects as it records both the big and the small – the ceremonial sword of our founder and the annual reports of small branches.  A balance between the big and small is needed to weave a captivating and relevant history. So, everyone, go and investigate at the Cadbury Research Library, as well as your local archives – they are SO important.


An Argument for Archival Research Methods: Thinking Beyond Methodology, Barbara E. L’Eplattenier, College English, Vol. 72, No. 1 (September 2009), pp. 67-79


History, Love, and Badminton

Short and sweet today, and focused – of course – on love.

Love in the 19th century is a field of study on its own; the complicated courting, love letters, etiquette. In that time, it all boiled down to marriage – and children.

George Hitchcock, big boss at the Drapers in London, married in 1831 in our own St Edmunds which is still in existence (sort of) and can be seen from Exe Bridges.

Sir George Williams, rather cheekily, married his boss’s daughter Helen Jane Maunder Hitchcock in 1853. They went on to have eight children, although not all of them survived past infancy and their eldest daughter died at nineteen – a loss which crippled Lady Williams, who never fully recovered from it.

John Dinham was married twice. The first time, shortly after setting up his first business he married Martha Ford at St Stephen’s Church on 27th August 1808, and the only thing Sir Harold Papworth had to say on the marriage was “it was not a happy one”. Martha Ford died after fifteen years of marriage, in 1823.  Nearly a decade later in 1831 Dinham married a second time, to Susannah Foster. This marriage was different, nearly thirty years in length until Susannah’s death in 1859.  They lived with their two servants at 104 Fore Street, above the team emporium which afforded them so much wealth.

Moving from the 19th to the 20th, in the sixties one of our Exetonians remembers working in the Coffee Bar when rockers would show up on Friday nights. The courtship between her and her then boyfriend happened largely at the YMCA and at the badminton games played there, and upon returning from one of these games her boyfriend became her fiancé. This lady was also one of the first female members of the YMCA after removal of gender restrictions in 1964.

So there we have four stories, courtships and marriages, surrounding the YMCA. Do you have any memories of dates at our dances or spouses proposing? Let us know, oh and Happy Valentines Day from YMCA.