The history of YMCA St Paul’s Group
YMCA St Paul’s Group has been in existence in various forms in Kingston for just over 160 years since the Association was first established in 1858. However historian and YMCA Committee Member 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.
In 2008 Audrey wrote It Started with Coffee in the Vestry, which covers the early years of YMCA in Kingston and Surbiton from 1858 to 1908.
If it had not been for her husband Peter Giles (now Vice President of YMCA St Paul’s Group), 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 YMCAs 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. This prompted the writing of ‘It Started with Coffee in the Vestry’, as a means whereby these books and documents, full of 19th 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 Audrey 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 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
However, 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 15 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 19th century,” Audrey says.
“This was the only secular movement supported by George Williams”.
According to Audrey, another significant event in the early years of 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, 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 arithmetic, 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.”
YMCA’s role in society
What became prominent when reading through the old minute books and the Surrey Comet’s archives, was how important YMCA was in Kingston and Surbiton society.
“Throughout the 19th century 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 50 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 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”.
A social hub on Eden Street, Kingston
Audrey does not only have in-depth knowledge about the early years of the Association. She has also been involved with 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 YMCA.
Audrey’s very first visit to 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 10. An important figure in the Women’s Auxiliary during the war, on 10 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 YMC, 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
Audrey, pictured right, sitting on floor
“I rejoined becoming part of the Women’s Auxiliary when I was about 19 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 10. 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 YMCA in his youth and developed a life-long relationship with the Association.
“Peter joined the YMCA as an Associate member when he was 16 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.
Audrey and Peter Giles at YMCA Surbiton’s cafe
Audrey Giles’ book, It Started With Coffee in the Vestry is available from Amazon
13 February 2019