As you know, our story begins with local Exeter philanthropist John Dinham, who caught the vision of the national YMCA movement and was passionate about creating an Exeter expression. John Dinham was born in 1788 in Kenton and was a very wealthy tea merchant with a business on Fore Street. The very first meeting of YMCA Exeter was held in Gandy Street and our vision today, remains the same as during that mid-Victorian era, to share God’s love in a truly inclusive and caring way, practically responding to the changes in social, economical and an cultural contexts.
There are lots of places in Exeter which mean a lot to local people. Whether you studied at the university, have worshipped in the cathedral, are an avid Chiefs of City supporter, or have spent many special days down by the quay, the great City of Exeter means many things to so many different people. Yet for some, their attachment is with Exeter’s YMCA. As a place of rest during the WW2, to a place of learning in 2017, YMCA has played a fundamental role in Exeter’s recent history and we are inviting you to join in making some new stories in the 21st century.
To help us do this, we have only gone and developed an app! Yes, that’s right, our Victorian movement has well and truly stepped into the 21st century. The interactive app tells the of our rich history in some bitesize nuggets and takes you through the story in short anecdotes, quotes and photos.
YMCA Exeter is one of the second oldest YMCAs in the world and our first home was at Taylor’s Hall in Gandy Street where we were founded in 1846. As a non-sectarian Christian organisation, our aim was to provide a safe and welcoming place for young men who could enjoy respectable leisure activities, rather than less socially acceptable activities such as drinking and promiscuity!
YMCA helped young men expand their worldview through Bible classes, devotional meetings, lectures and education. To complement spiritual development, we also provided physical activities such as a gymnasium, football, cycling, cricket, and “all manly, healthy and strengthening amusements”, as the Devon & Exeter Gazette described them in 1891.
After having several different homes including a building at 27 Queen Street and The Arcade in the City Centre, we eventually moved to King’s Lodge, a grand Georgian building which was re-established as the YMCA in October 1892. George Williams opened these new premises which included a large lecture hall, a games room and a world class gymnasium. YMCA Exeter lived at King’s Lodge until May 1942 when the Blitz destroyed the building.
Back in June the co-ordinator of the Heavitree Ladies’ Group got in touch with the Heritage Project and asked if we would join them at one of their meetings. They had heard about our Heritage Lottery Funded project through a presentation we had done for another group earlier in the year and were so impressed they asked us to visit one of their monthly Tuesday evening gatherings. We snapped up the offer and last Tuesday the evening arrived!
Over 30 ladies were present and we were asked to speak specifically about the project. We entitled the talk, ‘YMCA Exeter: 170 years of Supporting Young People’. We took the group on a whistlestop tour through the decades and wooed them with a joke, or two or three or four…!
From describing the early years and the involvement of Exeter businessman such as John Dinham to looking in detail at the vital role of YMCA Exeter women during World War One and World War Two, we went on to share about our modern day service provision and our support for young people throughout our city.
It was truly an honour to be invited, we received the warmest of welcomes and the ladies LOVED perusing the Heritage themed Christmas cards that our young people made earlier in the summer.
If you are a member of a community or church group and would like a guest speaker, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
In the years following the Second World War, YMCA Exeter found its new home at 41 St David’s Hill, and between 1948 to 1987, a Youth Service was run from our premises which included a sports hall, gym, table tennis, billiards and a café. In 1972, we purchased a hostel next door (number 39) which was used primarily by young men who needed a place to stay. Many of them were from oversees and were working locally.
In 1987, the social context had changed and to best serve the community, YMCA Exeter felt it was neccessary to demolish part of our old buildings and start again. In 1990 we produced a board game based on the idea of Monopoly, called the “Exeter Challenge”. 3,000 copies of the game were produced and had an RRP of £14.50. The Exeter Challenge was launched in the Guildhall by the Mayor of Exeter. The game was available in many local shops and 68 businesses were advertised on the board and chance cards. By December, 1,000 copies of the game had been sold. Profits from the game were to be used towards the redevelopment of 39/41 St David’s Hill.
In June 1992 the Express & Echo reported that, “YMCA has completed the 1st phase of its Caring for Youth redevelopment project, the next phase still needs more funds.” The funds were eventually raised and in Autumn 1993 a 31 bedroom residential centre opened which would house young men and women who had been homeless.
As part of our Heritage Project we invited Double Elephant to lead a print workshop with our residents. Double Elephant are a printing company based at Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre. They offer courses, resources and support to budding artists and professionals and they are passionate about people of all ages enjoying the benefits of print making.
During the afternoon workshop, our residents were given a lesson in printing and then got to have a go themselves! Using inspiration from the stunning stain-glass windows and backdrop of St Stephen’s Church (where YMCA Exeter held services in the 1930’s!) our residents were able to create imaginative designs which not only capture the fascinating history of our city but also bring that history to life for the 21st century. The designs will be turned into Christmas cards and sold to raise funds for YMCA Exeter later in the year.
During WW2 YMCA Exeter once again opened up our doors to soldiers who were travelling through the city and needed a place to stay. We also provided meals and helped soldiers find shelter through a B&B service by putting them in touch with local people who had spare
bedrooms they could offer.
However, when the bombs fell on Exeter during the night of the 3rd & 4th May, 1942, YMCA’s headquarters at King’s Lodge were completely destroyed. For over 50 years the lodge had been YMCA Exeter’s home, located just behind the High Street, where Clark’s now is. It provided countless people with a place to stay, to meet and make new friends.
Despite being victims of war, YMCA Exeter still rallied the local community together to provide support for civilians who too had been displaced by the bombings. Working with the Women’s Auxillary, when the blitz sirens stopped, we travelled around Devon in canteen vans to offer essential food and drink to people affected by war. Whether this was tea or corned beef
sandwiches, YMCA’s support was vital in helping communities rebuild their lives.
From fancy frocks to military precision canapes, BBC Spotlight to WW1 renditions, Tuesday 4th July saw the launch of our two month exhibition in Exeter Library.
Attended by over 60 people, including the Bishop of Exeter and the Mayor Exeter, the event took guests on a unique journey of discovering of 170 years of YMCA Exeter history.
So whether you have 15 minutes from your lunch break or are a regular at the Exeter Library do take some time to look at our exhibition in the foyer and discovery your local YMCA like never before.
Special thanks to Exeter Cookery School for the canapes and Nettl of Exeter for the photo montage.
YMCA & World War 1
At the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, YMCA Exeter became particularly active, both at home and on the front.
At home, YMCA Exeter opened its doors to all serviceman who could stay at the YMCA for as long as they needed. Some were travelling home, some were making the first steps of their journey to the continent. Whatever people’s need, YMCA was passionate about meeting it, whether that was by providing writing materials for soldiers to write letters home to loved ones, or picking up soldiers from the railway stations.
Out on the front, Westcountry vicar, Reverend John J. Haworth, travelled to France to serve as a Padre with the YMCA. He kept journals of his time in the trenches and in 1917 wrote this about life in the YMCA huts:
“The sleeping quarters [were] small but full of good things. [They were] a shelter where men could sit and eat their cakes, drink tea and then have a chat. Without the YMCA life in the rest camps would become utterly wearisome, even injurious to the men.”
Haworth’s descendents still live in Exeter to this day and remain actively involved with the YMCA. The photo above is of Rev. John J. Haworth in his uniform for the 51st Division of Highlanders.
On Tuesday we had the pleasure of welcoming Jim and Lucy Fisher from Exeter Cookery School to lead our weekly Food Hub.
On the menu? Shepherd’s Pie and Syrup Sponge Pudding! Hmmmmm….
But not only did Jim & Lucy teach us how to make this delicious English recipe, they also taught us about how food has developed over time. From using different cuts of meat and sourcing easily obtainable ingredients, to learning how sugar and salt have changed our taste buds over the years, we got a real insight into how food is more diverse now than it ever has been.
Exeter’s Underground Passages are almost 800 years old and are an incredible testament to the magnificent city we live in. Last week, we took a group of our young people to look around them…
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Exeter Blitz, we (YMCA Exeter residents and staff) were given a specially themed tour of the passages, with sound effects and all!
We began the tour in pitch black, with nothing but a small flickering light to navigate the way. The atmosphere was truly eerie and one which helped us understand what it might have felt like that fateful night in May 1942 when Extonians raced into the Underground Passages to shelter from the air raid.
Learning about what happened that night as well as experiencing some of the conditions people used to live in, our trip to the passages was truly an incredible experience enjoyed by the whole group. But enough of our words… let the photos speak for themselves!
Special thanks to Exeter City Council for the tour and the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting this great opportunity.