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

A post shared by YMCA Exeter (@ymcaexeter) on


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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/25653008

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.

The life of John Dinham: Tea and Philanthropy

This week we have a very local focus for our post, John Dinham, who local may recognise from his statue in Northernhay Gardens.

Born in Kenton on 5th August 1788 and educated at a private school in Chudleigh, he finished his education at the age of fourteen and was apprenticed to a Mr Tucker, who was a grocer on Exeter High Street.

John Dinham’s first business was a Jeweller and Silversmith opened in 1809, but it slipped into financial troubles and he opened a section of the store to sell groceries.

Dinham was the victim of unscrupulous men, travelling salesmen purchased goods from Dinham and after making significant profits in Exeter, returned to the continent without settling their accounts which – quite unfairly – bankrupted John Dinham.

Starting again, Dinham began a clerkship Messrs Kingdon’s paper business in Fore Street, which by a stroke of luck brought him to the career that would define his fortune. A London Tea Company decided in 1827 to open a branch in Exeter and appointed John Dinham as its Manager. After running this company successfully, and profitably, for several years the Tea Company decided to close its Exeter branch. Dinham, however, with a few wealthy friends began another firm which generated enough wealth to clear Dinhams bankruptcy.

With his newly accumulated wealth Dinham turned his attention to philanthropy, being a deeply religious man he helped to fund several good works including funding the Church Pastoral Aid Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Church Missionary Society and the Religious Tract Society. Additionally he founded several Sunday Schools, the first being in Mary Arches Lane, and an Infant School on Preston Street. Other charitable acts included the founding of institutions for the deaf, dumb and blind and other homes of refuge for persons in need, as well as the foundation of the Exeter Free Cottages – which are still in existence and undergoing refurbishment.

The land which is now called mount Dinham was suggested as a location for public entertainment like fun fairs and travelling shows. However, being rather puritan Dinham did not think that the public needed this type of entertainment and purchased the land, giving some to the Episcopal Charity Schools – of which he was a trustee – for the building of a new school. Naming the area ‘The Charity Land’. The building of four (from sixteen) blocks cottages began – all of which which Dinham built at his own expense.

He also gave over a large portion of the site to the church, on which the beautiful St Michael and All Angels was built in 1868.

However, the greatest achievement of this excellent gentleman was – clearly – his instrumental role in funding the first YMCA in Exeter. By turning his benefaction to George Williams’ vision, John Dinham started 170 years of good works – and counting.

This great philanthropist died at Dawlish on 27th June 1864 at the age of 74, bequeathing his fortune to between fifty and sixty charities, Dinham was buried on 2nd July 1864 in Bartholomew Street Cemetery.

Sculpted by E B Stephens ARA of London in a white marble stature was erected in Northernhay Gardens in 1866 in Dinhams honour, bearing the inscription “Erected by the Citizens of Exeter and others in memory of his piety, integrity and charity 1866”

YMCA India

This week was going to be a broader topic – YMCA World Wide, looking at a few YMCA’s and their origin stories. I was inspired by a wonderful drawing in the archives of the Nagpur YMCA in 1901 (which copyright prevents me from displaying here, sadly). Showing a huge white stone building, with luscious plants, and the implication of excessive heat – strangely pervasive in a black and white drawing. So inspired I began to research the YMCA in India, and found so much material and such an interesting history – I could not write a mere hundred words on the subject.

The first YMCA in India was formed in Calcutta in 1854, just ten years after George Williams started the first in St Pauls Churchyard, though it functioned only briefly. A second attempt in Calcutta in 1857 also failed and it was in 1875 – nearly twenty years on – that the association was established permanently and joined the World Alliance of YMCAs in 1891.

The earliest YMCAs in India mainly surrounded prayer meetings, bible studies, lectures, and libraries but soon began branching out to assist in other areas.  Similar to YMCA Exeter and other branches, the YMCAs in India were actively involved in both the First and Second World Wars, providing services and entertainment to the troops as well as rehabilitation for wounded and disabled soldiers.

YMCA in India was concerned with the greater community, running training courses as early as 1911 with a training school for secretaries. Further again was the consideration of the rural areas. K. T. Paul, described as “one of the greatest pioneer and visionary of the Indian Movement”,  lead the initiation of rural reconstruction and in 1930 a plan was outlined for the development of rural welfare.

K.T Paul is regarded as being largely responsible also for one of the most interesting developments, the YMCA Indian Students Hostel in London. Which was begun in 1920 and is still running today. The hostel provided a home away from home for the Indian students that studies in London. An advocate of Indo-British goodwill he felt that a physical home was needed for the cultural and social well-being of students in London.  The centre hosted several meetings with eminent speakers. Between 1930 and 1940 the Indian Students Hostel became central to discussion and a measure of public opinion regarding Indian affairs. Eminent Indian’s such as Nethaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Lala Lajpat Rai, Sarojini Naidu, Acharya J B Kriplani and Jeyaprakash Narayan spoke there. Mahatma Gandhi conducted an Inter- Faith dialogue program in 1931 at the hostel.



Similarly to Exeter YMCA, the premises was affected by the Blitz with a German bomb taking out a large part of the building and costing one student his life.

In the year 1946 , one year before Independence, there was a large influx of Indian Students who braved strict post war conditions, rationing, austerity, and inadequate accommodation. By 1950 the hostel found a new home at Fitzroy Square and was able to open three years later. The hostel is not only still in operation, but is flourishing – it even has a restaurant!


Come back next week , when we are back on Exeter turf, discussing the excellent life of one John Dinham!



Sir George – all the details!

The claim of YMCA Exeter of the founder of the YMCA, as we know it, as *one of us* is admittedly a little tenuous, Williams was technically born into a farming family in Dulverton … JUST ….over the Somerset county line.

However! George Williams was educated in Tiverton at Gloynes School, and upon arriving in Exeter for a visit he said it ‘felt like coming home’!

Williams was sent to Bridgewater Drapers when he was a teenager after getting into a spot of trouble – as teenage boys are wont to do – the final act was his turning over a hay cart. However, being a member of a well-respected family, rather than being thrown out George was simply apprenticed in the next town over. He was an exceptionally hard worker who rose to prominence quickly and was soon described by his co-workers as indispensable to the company.

Moving on from Bridgewater the intrepid young gentleman moved to London to pursue the drapers business.



The Drapers was located in St Pauls Churchyard


After a few years of working hard for his boss, George Hitchcock, Williams managed to marry Hitchcock’s eldest daughter. Later, once he became a partner in the business and after George Hitchcock had died, Williams made the very sound decision to add his name to the business but not remove the Hitchcock name – ever. This was the kind of man Williams was – by no means averse to attention for his accomplishments but more concerned about the greater good than his own aggrandizement.

This attribute can be seen in one story of the gentleman – while unlikely to have actually happened it would not have been out of character– upon receiving the news that he had been offered a knighthood. Speaking with his secretary, and old friend, George Williams was hesitant to accept the honour as it seemed rather over the top, however it was put to him that he should not accept the honour for himself but rather for the honour and enhancement of the YMCA. Williams reportedly smiled and replied that he would pray on it, “but not a word to Lady Williams”.

The decade before his death has been called on several occasions by Clyde Binfield “a prolonged jubilee”. This is not an overstatement, in 1894 he was awarded the freedom of the City of London, and after being knighted in July of that year, the YMCA’s membership globally had reached half a million.

Sir George was, by any standards, an incredibly wealthy man and significantly involved in charitable efforts beyond his own organisation. He gave generously to several groups including the Young Women’s Christen Association and the Band of Hope – reportedly a third of his income every year was donated, as well as leaving legacy gifts in his will. By order of his will, the amount he left to his sons was a respectable £248,450 – nothing to complain about there! However one must remember that he died in 1905 – accounting for inflation this would be a whopping £27,826,400 by today’s value!


Sir George Williams died in Torquay in the Victoria and Albert Hotel on the 6th of November 1905, and was buried seven days later at St Pauls Cathedral. This was attended by three Bishops, fifty Anglican and forty Dissenting clergymen, and 2600 general public. George Williams achieved an awful lot of good, was praised for it in his lifetime, and will be remembered for it now and in the future.

YMCA 101 – the Grand Overview!

Traditionally the start begins at the beginning, however we will begin with everything. So -let’s cover 172 years and 119 countries in a few hundred words, just to get the feel for the grand scope of the YMCA and to reiterate why micro histories are more than just interesting – but are also important.

Micro history, what’s micro history? Don’t worry I am not going lecture you on complex historical theory. Micro history is exactly what it sounds like, history of the small things. Big history tracks the political motivations of world powers and the ways in which those powers affect world conflicts. Micro histories are concerned with the real lives of everyday people and how those politically motivated world conflicts affect them.


The YMCA has always been concerned with the everyday person, George Williams was concerned with the well being of his workers. George Hitchcock (Williams’ father in law, and boss) was active in the Early Closing Movement and they were one of the first businesses in London to enforce a Saturday afternoon holiday – these things might seem minor today but in an era where working 18 hour days seven days a week was almost required of the working this mind-set was incredibly liberal. Further to this type of concern Williams found himself ever increasingly concerned with the moral well being of his workers, many people who came to London were soon taken in by the less than pious lifestyle the city offered.

At this point Williams began a group for the workers to attend should they wish to, called the Drapers Evangelical Association. This group discussed work, life, and the bible. It was a religiously motivated support group for those who felt that their life was missing that. Soon after its first incarnation, the group was renamed the Young Men’s Christian Association, and it began to form into what we recognize as the YMCA today.




The Americans identified with the ethos of the YMCA. Thomas Valentine Sullivan, A Boston sea captain and missionary, was worried about the temptations facing young men in cities, just as George Williams had. Inspired by the work of the first YMCA, he led the formation of the first U.S. YMCA in Boston, on December 29, 1851. Thus the YMCA was picked up with vigor by the Americans, who have become known for their prolific youth organisations.

Worldwide in 2016 there are thousands of YMCAs globally and today reaches 58 million people. Each YMCA is run with a focus unique to the people who run it. For example, in South Australia the YMCA is focused almost exclusively towards sports, they run gyms, fitness programs, team sports, and provide access to all of these through social support programs that assist those who have physical disabilities or who are less able to access these services. Whereas, Exeter has a heavy focus on youth homelessness – though it is not our only focus.


YMCA Exeter is 170 years old, making it one of the oldest YMCAs in the United Kingdom outside of London. This history, and the discovery of it, is going to be the focus of this blog – so come back next week for a rundown of George Williams before, during, and after – and why we claim him (rather tenuously) as an Exeter boy!