THE FOUNDATION YEARS
The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was founded in a room above Hitchcock & Rogers’ drapers shop in St Paul’s Churchyard, London, on 6 June 1844. Its aim, broadly in common with similarly concerned organisations of the period, was to ‘influence young men and spread the Redeemer’s kingdom amongst those by whom they were surrounded’. From modest beginnings, the YMCA has grown into a worldwide movement; and while those early aspirations have, by necessity, been subject to revision as governments, policies, needs and concerns have changed, the YMCA has never lost sight of its Christian focus and the principles of its founder, George Williams.
Williams was born in 1821. The son of a Somerset farmer, he was apprenticed at the age of 14 to a draper in Bridgewater; there he became a committed member of the Zion Congregational Church. In 1841, he moved to London to work for Hitchcock & Rogers. Williams worshipped at the King’s Weigh House Congregational Church, then meeting in Fish Street Hill in the City of London, close to the Billingsgate Fish Market. He began holding prayer meetings there with a few like-minded colleagues.
At the time, somewhere in the region of 150,000 young men were working long hours in the London drapery business, most living on low incomes in cramped conditions. Much of their spare time was spent in local taverns and gambling houses and, according to one shop assistant who would go on to be a clergyman, ‘no class was more degraded and dissolute, none were sunk deeper in ungodliness and dissipation, than the shop men of London’. George Williams and his friends decided that they would try to help their fellow shop workers through the creation of this new Association.
It was not the first society of its kind; other Christian groups similarly concerned with the spiritual and moral welfare of young men had emerged, but none expanded so quickly. The strong evangelical, multi-domination Christianity of its founding members was a firm basis for disseminating their simple, yet persuasive, spiritual and moral message. The time and place of the YMCA’s beginning were also important: Britain was a nation in the midst of rapid industrialisation and communications were improving. From the 1840s onwards, railways enabled the mass movement of people and goods. The drapery business was the fastest growing, most efficient retail trade in London. Hitchcock & Rogers had a wholesale business with contacts across the capital and towns and cities across England, all of which helped news of the YMCA to spread.
Within weeks, numbers had grown to such an extent that the YMCA had hired a larger room in St Martin’s Coffee House, Ludgate Hill. Soon branches were being formed elsewhere: London, Leeds, and Manchester in 1845; Taunton and Bath in 1846. During 1845 the first paid employee, a secretary and missionary, was appointed and, by 1855, there were 40 YMCAs outside London with 6,000 members coming into contact with about 25,000 young men.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 helped to forge early links with young men’s associations in other countries and, in 1855, the first YMCA International conference was held in Paris. A confederation was formed which was to become the World Alliance of YMCAs. An agreement, later known as the Paris Basis, was drawn up at the conference. The Paris Basis sought to formalise the organisation’s ethos and aims:
George Williams’ connections meant that the YMCA was gaining the support of prominent men, including many of London’s most respected nonconformist preachers who were appointed as vice-presidents in 1845. By 1850, the clergy of St Paul’s Cathedral were actively involved. The notable Victorian philanthropist, Lord Shaftesbury, was appointed president in 1851, a post he held until his death in 1886.
In the first few months, members had agreed that the YMCA should aim to develop young men mentally as well as spiritually. As a consequence, beginning in 1845, the Association introduced educational work, mainly through a series of lectures with subjects ranging from History and Mythology to Art. In 1847, the lectures continued in the grand setting of Exeter Hall in the Strand, gaining credibility in intellectual circles.
In 1849, the London YMCA moved to new headquarters in Gresham Street, with a library and reading rooms. Classes were held in German, Latin, French, Hebrew, Greek, English and Arithmetic, and it was agreed to open its doors to ‘associate members’, not necessarily Christians but men of ‘good moral character’ who could pay an annual fee of £1.00 to use the library and reading rooms; however, associate members had no voting rights.
In 1881, the London YMCA purchased Exeter Hall as its headquarters. It became home to the London Central YMCA, which was formed in 1895 when the Exeter Hall Association merged with Aldergate Street and Cornhill YMCAs. In 1882, the National Council of YMCAs was founded, covering England, Ireland and Wales.
From available records, it was previously been assumed that Mr. Fred Bacon had been the founder and first president of the Grimsby, Cleethorpes & District YMCA on its formal establishment in 1906. However, investigations undertaken have revealed evidence of a Grimsby YMCA much earlier, established by a local grocer and businessman, James Kirkby Riggall.
Like YMCA founder, George Williams, James Kirkby Riggall was the son of a farmer. Born in Gayton Le Wold, Lincolnshire, on 4 November 1828, he attended a private school on Michaelgate in Lincoln, a short distance from Lincoln Cathedral. It is tempting to think he may have heard Williams speak and been inspired, or that their shared farming heritage provided a point of identification. It certainly seems to have helped instil similar values of faith and determination.
In August 1850, Riggall travelled to the United States of America. The purpose of the trip is unknown, but as the YMCA in the United States had begun to develop, it is possible that he may have visited
‘The Young Men’s Christian Association seeks to unite those young men, who regard the Lord Jesus Christ as their God and Saviour according to the Holy Scriptures, desire to be His disciples in their Faith and in their life, and to associate their efforts in the extension of His Kingdom amongst young men. Any differences of opinion on other subjects, however important in themselves, shall not interfere with harmonious relations of the constituent members and associates of the World Alliance.’ or witnessed the early years of the movement, perhaps in New York.
Riggall returned to England and, on 1 March 1853, married Anne Foster at Centenary Methodist Church, Louth.
In 1855, Riggall and his business partner, Joseph Guy, a draper, acquired the real estate of Matthew Stevenson Bee, ‘tailor, woollen draper, hatter and board and lodging keeper’. Under the heading ‘Grocers and Tea Dealers’, an 1856 guide to Grimsby businesses lists ‘Dales and Riggall’ in the High Street and ‘Riggall, James Kirkby’ in Victoria Street.
The loss of an infant child, Edward, one of twins, in September 1862, seems to have confirmed Riggall in his faith. In the Stamford Mercury of 17 June 1864, he is named as Secretary in an appeal for tenders to build a new chapel in Stallingborough, Lincolnshire; and there is some evidence to suggest he held Bible study classes and lectures in the rooms above his premises in the Old Market Place in or around 1866.
First records of Grimsby in connection with the YMCA appear in documents prepared for the Young Men’s Christian Associations’ Paris Conference in 1867: Grimsby is listed; however, given the absence of a delegate name, it is unlikely the town was represented. Records further suggest Grimsby had been identified as a potential location for a branch of the North Midland Conference of YMCAs, formed in 1873. An indication of Riggall’s commitment to forming a YMCA branch appears in a Grimsby Observer article, dated 8 March 1876. Under the heading ‘YOUNG MEN’S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION’, it announced the formation of a local YMCA movement:
‘An effort, which promises to be successful, has been started with a view of establishing an association of this kind in Grimsby. Similar societies exist and flourish elsewhere, and are instrumental in doing much good amongst the young men, for whose religious, moral and mental improvement they are intended. The Grimsby association is to be of an unsectarian character. A public meeting in support of the movement is soon to be held.’
It seems the appeal was less successful than Riggall and the Grimsby Observer had anticipated. It was not until 30 December 1881 that a report appeared in the Lincolnshire Chronicle giving details of a preliminary meeting to discuss the formation of a YMCA branch in Grimsby:
‘On the evening of 21st, under the Presidency of Mr. J.K. Riggall, a preliminary meeting was held in the Reading Room of the Bullring Coffee Hall, for the purpose of inaugurating a Young Men’s Christian Association in this town. The meeting was principally addressed by Mr. Hern [sic. This was probably misheard as the travelling secretary was Mr. Henry Thorne.], one of the travelling secretaries employed by the London Association for forming like institutions, who gave an abridged history of the Young Men’s Christian Association, and also explained the principles on which it was worked. After the close of the deputy’s remarks, several gentlemen gave their opinions as to the advisability of at once starting an association. It was then proposed by the Rev. E. Lauderdale, Baptist minister, and seconded by Mr. Whitlam-Smith, “That a Young Men’s Christian Association be commenced at once.” On being put to the meeting, the resolution was unanimously carried. The meeting was then adjourned to the following evening, when a committee was formed, and other business transacted. The idea first originated with Mr. J. K. Riggall.’
The National Association’s Monthly Notes of 1882 recorded the formation of a new branch in ‘Great Grimsby’ following the visit of North Midlands District Secretary, Mr Henry Thorne. It noted that ‘Mr. Riggall, a local friend, has kindly promised to provide a room, gas firing, furniture, books, and cleaning, at his own cost. Are there not many friends of the Association in other places who might with advantage “go and do likewise”?’
However, three years later, in 1885, Henry Thorne’s Monthly Notes reported that the Grimsby branch was in a ‘most feeble condition’, but that, on a recent visit ‘two gentleman have promised liberal subscriptions, one of £50 and one of £10 towards the salary of a secretary’. In truth, little more is known about Grimsby’s first YMCA and, in all likelihood, its membership dwindled with, perhaps, a few dedicated souls continuing Riggall’s good work. On his death in January 1898, James Riggall bequeathed £10,600 9s 4d – worth in excess of £1,100,000 by today’s value. His executors were his son, Albert, and Harold Herbert Smith, a draper; however, there is no clear record of the beneficiaries and Riggall’s death notice in the local newspaper made no mention of his connection with the YMCA.
Recognised as the official founder and first president of the Grimsby, Cleethorpes & District YMCA, Fred Bacon was born in Grainsby, near North Thoresby on 6 September 1874. As a young man, Bacon moved to Grimsby, finding work as a grocer’s assistant, later becoming a grocer’s manager. He married Edith Mary Maria Cockerill at All Saints Church, Brompton, near Scarborough on 24 September 1900.
The first newspaper advertisement to feature Fred Bacon as a fish merchant appears in 1903. With the help of his brother, Herbert, and with a new family to support – Bacon’s first daughter, Frances Maud, was born in January 1904 and was joined by her brother, Fred Stanley, in July 1905 and a sister, Edith Mary, in November 1906 – he set about building a successful company.
Outside of business, Fred Bacon’s greatest interest was the YMCA. It was his drive and initiative as a young man in Grimsby, coinciding with his emergence as a fish merchant, which led to the foundation of a YMCA club in the town. Although his first invitation to young men to join the YMCA received no replies, Bacon refused to be discouraged and, after a meeting with the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Grimsby YMCA was formed in 1906. As a fishing vessel owner and merchant, Bacon’s sphere of influence would, almost certainly, have exceeded that of James Riggall. There is, however, some evidence to suggest the families were acquainted, if not related, as a 1939 death notice for Fred Bacon’s uncle lists ‘Mr and Mrs E. L. Riggall, Waltham, great niece and nephew’ as mourners.
There is no doubt that Grimsby in the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a town whose young men would have been seen as in need of spiritual and moral guidance. The first railway links to the town had arrived in 1848 and, in 1857, the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company financed construction of the first fish dock. By 1881, there were at least 625 fishing smacks (traditional fishing boats) working out of the town’s port, as the book, Distant Water, explains:
‘Smack owners took advantage of a plentiful source of labour, apprenticing young, poor and underprivileged boys from workhouses, reformatories and charitable institutions across the country, focusing particularly on poverty stricken urban areas. This activity was legal under the archaic Elizabethan Poor Law Act of 1601 which stated that all destitute children should be apprenticed to a trade, minimising their cost to local authorities. Boards of guardians from overcrowded workhouses were eager to supply the needs of Grimsby’s smack owners, even paying them a small fee to accommodate the boys.’
Mr Baldwyn Fleming had been commissioned to compile a report on the status of fishing apprentices. His report, The Treatment of Pauper Apprentices to the Grimsby Fishing Trade, published in 1873, spoke of the moral corruption of the apprentices. Fleming believed there was a need for ‘continued education and moral training after joining the sea service’, and that strict controls on public houses and brothels were urgently required. With only three days on shore between trips, many youngsters followed the example of the older fishermen, spending their allowances on an immediate orgy of excess and becoming frequent drinkers from the age of 14.
The increased social consciousness of the Edwardian era brought fresh attention to the plight of the remaining apprentices. In 1905 the London Magazine published a series of articles by Robert Sherard investigating the condition of pauperism in England and Scotland. In The Child Slaves of Britain, Sherard wrote that trawler owners saw the lads as ‘criminals or idiots’. He spoke of the treacherous natural conditions faced by apprentices and fishermen alike. One told him, ‘We are the dirtiest men in the world and we are always the wettest and, in winter, we are the coldest. Our heads are under snow and the drenched waves…our hands are wounded by the passive defences of our prey. Our fingers are gashed and torn so there is suffering always.’ was the context in which Grimsby’s YMCA emerged.
First reported in the Hull Daily Mail on 12 February 1904 – the Hull branch of the Association had been formed in 1860 – the need for a YMCA in Grimsby had been brought to the attention of the Grimsby and District Free Church Council. The organisation had tasked its Executive Committee to fully investigate the matter and report as to how far they deemed it feasible to inaugurate a movement of this kind. Clearly it was successful and, by 1906, the newly-formed Grimsby YMCA was providing rooms for club activities on Heneage Road. As demand increased in later years, adjoining property was acquired with further alterations, including the addition of living accommodation.
On 14 October 1908, the Hull Daily Mail wrote that the Mayor of Grimsby’s appeal for subscriptions to purchase the suitable house known as ‘Fernlea’ on Heneage Road for the purpose of establishing a branch of the YMCA in the town, had received a good response. £253 3s 0d had been received. It appears that donations were from a select group of people as Mr. D Brocklesby had contributed £100; Messrs F.S. and F.W Bennett £50 each. Mrs. E.A. Riggall, almost certainly a relative of James Riggall, quite possibly his widow, donated £25. With Fernlea as its home, the YMCA had arrived in Grimsby and was ready to make a contribution to the spiritual and moral welfare of young people in the new century.