THE INTER-WAR YEARS
The war years had seen the YMCA established as a presence in the lives of countless thousands of servicemen. In the years immediately after the war, it was to play a major role in rebuilding. As men returned home, they needed support to readjust to civilian life. Most importantly, they needed work and, in response, the YMCA was instrumental in setting up two very specific employment programmes. The first of these was the British Boys for British Farms (BBBF) initiative, which aimed to place unemployed men in agricultural labour; the second, in 1921, was the setting up of an employment department to assist ex-servicemen in their search for work.
The YMCA’s British Boys for British Farms programme was a forerunner to what would become Farm Institutes and Agricultural Colleges. Writing in the Derby Telegraph in 2014, Jane Goddard wrote how the BBBF ‘was seen as a means of introducing “townies” to the way of life in the countryside, help provide employment both before, during and after the Second World War and boost the country’s agricultural production.
With the support of the National Farmers Union, the War Agricultural Committee, and the Ministries of Agriculture and Labour, the YMCA helped set up 14 centres across the country. Between its inception in 1932 and the scheme ending in 1968, more than 20,000 boys between the ages of 14 and 16 took part. The boys were provided with hostel accommodation and given work and training on the land for up to 12 weeks, before moving onto farms, where they were monitored by a YMCA Field Officer for a further year. Boys from Grimsby would, in all likelihood, have been trained at the BBBF centre in Beverley (1931-34), Boston Spa (1935-39), or, after the war, at Park Hill, near Derby. The BBBF scheme was highly thought of in agricultural circles, promoted by schools, colleges, employment agencies and social welfare departments.
In 2014, an article in Farmer’s Weekly reflected on the success of the BBBF movement. Writer, Nick Fone, explained how the boys had been given basic training in all aspects of farming. Many were then placed in Commonwealth food-producing nations such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These were nations which had lost millions of young men in the First World War and been left with a critical shortage of manpower. While some young men struggled to adapt to working on the land, ‘most settled, set up new lives and a good number went on to farm in their own right.
On leaving the YMCA centres, boys were usually given a small copy of the New Testament signed by the staff and their fellow trainees. In the scheme’s early days, numbered YMCA BBBF badges were also given out. In her book, published by the YMCA in 1995, Barbara Vessey, a former BBBF Matron, summed up the BBBF’s lasting impact:
‘Such a scheme needs no monument in brick and stone. Its memorial is in the life of those who passed through the hostels, learned to love the countryside and found great satisfaction in working with nature and producing good-quality crops and livestock.
‘Many who left the city streets at the age of 14 or 15, made their way by hard work and enthusiasm to farm on their own account. Together with all those who became advisers and teachers, managers and agents, or who supported the agricultural industry in related occupations, the contribution of this very basic farm training scheme to the economic life of Britain was significant and long lasting.
The success of the BBBF led to a similar scheme aimed at training boys in seamanship. British Boys for British Yachts was aimed at preparing young men from ‘distressed areas’ to serve aboard merchant ships and private yachts. The YMCA was instrumental in the purchase and set up of land-based training ships, although there is no record of such a scheme operating in Grimsby.
During the war, the Women’s Auxiliary had done sterling work in helping to raise funds for the YMCA: they had set up and managed canteens and huts; and provided much-needed support for servicemen and their families.
After the war, the Women’s Auxiliary played a vital role in the fundraising work of the Grimsby YMCA, enabling the purchase of tennis courts. In 1924, a mayoral reception in aid of the YMCA took place at Grimsby Town Hall on the occasion of the visit of Princess Helena Victoria. In 1925, the hostel which stood on the corner of Orwell Street and Riby Square until being replaced by the YMCA’s Foyer building was opened. It brought the YMCA closer to the dock gates and ensured a visible presence for trawlermen in need of a place to stay.
In 1927, Mr Douglas Haslam, formerly General Secretary of the Leamington Spa YMCA was appointed General Secretary to the Grimsby and District Branch. In 1929, the tennis courts were converted into an 18-hole putting green. The same year also saw the Heneage Road premises redecorated at a cost of £19.
Minute books for the period 1926 to 1944 show that under the Chairmanship of Mr J. W. Haddock, the Women’s Auxiliary held regular holding fundraising Bazaars and Fayres, as well as organising ladies clubs, rambling clubs and Christmas gifts and treats for the poor children of the town.
Not surprisingly, much of the Association’s focus was on support for children. In Grimsby, the struggle to cope for many families was dependant on a successful fishing trip and it was a common occurrence for crews to land in debt. At the Junior Department Committee of Grimsby YMCA held on 17 December 1930, it was reported that sufficient promises of food had been received but that ‘the funds were not yet sufficient to enable gifts of jerseys to be given’.