16 November 2014

Next year, Kingston based historian Audrey Giles will publish her book ‘It Started With Coffee in the Vestry’ about the early years of the YMCA in Surbiton and Kingston. Read more  here.

However, Audrey does not only have in-depth knowledge about the early years of the Association. She has also been involved with the YMCA herself at various points in her life, and she has numerous interesting stories to tell; from the homeless man who always came to get his thermos filled with tea, to the time a Chinese delegation visited the YMCA.

Happy atmosphere

Audrey’s very first visit to the YMCA on Eden Street in Kingston was in 1945 or 1946. She says:

“Although I cannot remember exactly the date I first went into the building it was probably before May 1946.

During the week and on Saturdays the place was always full of hungry young men in uniform eating or waiting to be fed by a resolute number of ladies recruited from all walks of life. The YMCA, especially the Women’s Auxiliary, did incredible voluntary work during this period. As there was no hostel accommodation, to counteract the lack of overnight stay, several of the ladies would offer young men a bed for the night in their own homes and breakfast in the morning.

What I remember particularly was the noise, a smell of food and the kitchen being a hub of activity.  There were about five ladies trying to satisfy the hunger of a considerable number of uniformed young men, and women, together with others who were obviously wives and sweethearts. Most of these individuals were sitting at small tables in the main hall. There was laughter, excitement and a very happy atmosphere”.

It was Audrey’s neighbour, Mrs Alice Kendall, who brought her along to Eden Street at the age of ten. An important figure in the Women’s Auxiliary during the war, on 10th April 1946, Mrs Kendall was awarded the YMCA’s ‘Order of the Red Triangle’ at a ceremony in Guildhall in Kingston.

A special visit

One of Audrey’s early memories from the YMCA, was a very special visit taking place in May 1946.

“On the 18 May 1946 Mrs. Kendall told me to bring my autograph book with me when I went to the YMCA. She must have been in the Eden Street building in the morning because she said that the ‘Chinese Navy’ had arrived.

From hindsight I think it possible that the seven young men in uniform were not Chinese. It would be very interesting to find out where they actually came from. Today we are used to seeing individuals from every part of the world in Kingston. Then it was not so common and everyone seemed very excited by the visit. These young men were seated in the armchairs in the room next to the kitchen and were all smiles when they were asked to write in my autograph book.”

Soon after this Audrey started Senior School and the visits to the YMCA at Eden Street became less frequent.

The Women’s Auxiliary

“I rejoined becoming part of the Women’s Auxiliary when I was about nineteen in 1954. Unfortunately Mrs. Kendall’s asthma had become more severe and I do not think she was quite so active as she had been previously. I was working in a London bank and joined because I remembered what it was like when I was ten. Also, I was bored at weekends and thought this would be a complete change from my weekday job.

After the first Saturday helping out, Mrs Hilda Woods who was the chief cook asked me if I would like to do the cooking and I said ‘yes’. The ‘cooking’ was very basic and on offer was egg, bacon, baked beans, mushrooms and chips. It was extremely easy. Most people who wanted food did not have everything, but various combinations of what was on offer. 

As far as I remember we never had complaints, except from the homeless man who occasionally wandered in. He always complained that there wasn’t enough bacon in his sandwich but Mrs Woods told him off as he only paid two or three old pennies for what he had, and he was given extra thick bread and his thermos was always filled to the brim with tea”.

Audrey left the Women’s Auxiliary soon after she married Peter Giles. By 1965 they had children. With a family to care for, it became difficult to do much to help the Association, however, she continued to be involved in small ways and attended functions and did the occasional odd job.

Also, Peter, like Audrey, had strong ties to the YMCA, and he would continue to be heavily involved in the years to come.

Peter – The Boys’ Club and Snooker

Like Audrey, Peter came into contact with the YMCA in his youth and developed a life-long relationship with the Association.

“Peter joined the YMCA as an Associate member when he was sixteen in 1949”, Audrey explains.

“As he a lived five minute walk away from the YMCA and only had five shillings a week pocket money, the majority of his spare time, at least one night during the week and sometimes one time at the weekend, was spent in the YMCA playing billiards and snooker in the room above the main entrance of the building”.

From 1956 onwards, Peter’s involvement with the Association also included coming along to the Boys Club’ annual camping trips to the Lake District and other areas.

“In 1956 Fredrick Daldry, the General Secretary, persuaded Peter into helping with the boys club. Every year, he, alongside Len Newman, the County Deputy Surveyor, and one or two extra helpers, took about thirty 10-14 year old boys camping. Peter would come along to help with the cooking”.

“Being a talented snooker player, Peter also at this time ran the Metropolitan Region Knock-Out Snooker and Billiard Championship. Two teams, each with three players met at the various YMCAs in South West London and the winning team continued into the next round”.

In 1962, Peter Giles became board member of Kingston and Surbiton YMCA. He was on the Board until 1990, when he joined the Housing Committee. Up until 2000 his role consisted of checking the fabric of the houses and the main YMCA building, and producing lists of the various jobs required.

“This was hands on as he painted, marked out the Badminton Court, put on locks and various other jobs,” says Audrey.

In 1995 Peter retired from work, joining the YMCA walking club and driving the second van on trips where they took the over 60s to their holiday destinations and collected them on their return. Today, he continues as a Vice President of YMCA St Paul’s Group.

Audrey’s book about the beginnings of the YMCA movement in Kingston and Surbiton, ‘It Started with coffee in the Vestry’, will be published next year by Kingston University.