At the beginning of World War II the YMCA were most visible through the frequent appearance of the ‘tea car’ or mobile canteen. Usually a second-hand van fitted with a small kitchen and painted camouflage green, the concept was introduced by the British YMCA. By the end of 1940, there were 500 vans in service with various national YMCAs running them.

A typical YMCA ‘Tea Car’

The tea cars followed advancing and withdrawing armies. As well as serving mugs of tea, they sold cigarettes, chocolate, cake, hair cream, toothpaste and stationery. In contrast to the static huts of the First World War, the tea car was a more mobile service for increasingly changeable theatres of war. On the Home Front, particularly during the Blitz, these mobile canteens provided food and drink to those made homeless and hungry.

The YMCA’s world fellowship came into its own as the war progressed: tea cars, cinema vans, and mobile libraries bearing the red triangle of the YMCA were a common sight. The first British YMCA mobile canteen landed on the Normandy beaches on 29 July 1944.

YMCA Tea Hut in operation

Internationally, the World Alliance of YMCAs expanded its work with prisoners of war and refugees: more than 250 secretaries visited camps in 38 countries. In Britain, there were large-scale education programs for prisoners of war. Around a thousand prisoners were trained as primary school teachers, coached to pass university entrance exams or given basic theological training.

In the United States, the YMCA, together with five other national voluntary organisations, founded the United Service Organisations for National Defence, today known as the USO. YMCA staff worked in U.S. internment camps holding 110,000 Japanese Americans, organising clubs and activities for the children.
In Australia, along with the Salvation Army, the YMCA was given responsibility for troops’ ‘Recreational, Social and Moral Welfare’ and ‘care of the walking wounded’. The YMCA was afforded the same status as the Red Cross Society, the Australian Comforts Fund and the Salvation Army.

This gave them ‘official military establishment status’ – essentially, they had permission to operate with troops in all areas and particularly in front line positions. The official history of the Australian YMCA provides an insight to the dangers faced by mobile units, some of which found themselves ahead of the front lines: ‘Sometimes they [the mobile canteens] were official vehicles and at other times they were trucks that had been co-opted. The canteens enabled the YMCA staff to keep up with the battle or at time get ahead of it. In these circumstances the canteens came under attack and the men were wounded or captured.

For some national associations the close connection of the YMCA to the military was problematic. Canadian academic and YMCA historian, Jon Weier, writes that, in the aftermath of the First World War, the YMCA had found itself defending charges that it ‘attempted to convert Catholic or other non-Christian soldiers to Protestantism, as well as to the charge that the YMCA had benefitted financially at the expense of Allied soldiers’. As a result, during the Second World War, the YMCA adopted a somewhat less ‘belligerent’ attitude than that which had operated during the First World War.

In October 1939, Grimsby YMCA received a Form of Requisition from the Admiralty: the entirety of the Heneage Road building was to be taken over for use as a military hospital. The committee discussed the matter and wrote to the Admiralty, pointing out that the loss of the Heneage Road centre would result in serious financial and operational problems for the Grimsby YMCA.

The claim for compensation was dealt with in London. At a meeting at All Saints Hall in May 1940, a letter from YMCA Headquarters was read out along with a letter from the District Valuer which stated that a rental value of £130 had been placed on the building. This amount would be paid to the YMCA; however, the Grimsby association had claimed a value of £400 per year. In October, agreement was reached for the reimbursement of £220 rent per annum and £33.7s.0d for removal expenses. A further reminder letter about non-payment was sent before any money was received.

Faced with the need to find new accommodation at short notice, the YMCA began a search for properties in Grimsby. Offers made included the use of rooms above Burton’s tailors in Freeman Street at a rental of £1.00 a week plus rates. This proved to be unsuitable and after further investigations into properties in Brighowgate and Grimsby Market Place, the Association relocated to All Saints Church in Heneage Road. From here, they began to provide support for servicemen and to run boys clubs. However, the set-up was far from ideal and, by January 1941, the service was reduced to three nights a week, before ceasing to operate entirely after complaints made by church officials about damage caused.

As they had in 1917, the YMCA operated a hostel at the Imperial on Grimsby Road. There was great demand for additional accommodation, particularly given the numbers of naval men and troops in transit. Minutes of the National Association’s War Committee dated 23 November 1939, shows an almost immediate realisation that the town needed a dedicated centre, particularly in the light of the loss of Heneage Road. Within a week, the War Committee’s representative, Mr Oliver H. McCowen, had visited Grimsby. He reported back at the meeting on 30 November, confirming that the YMCA would take over ‘Dring’s Temperance Hotel’ at 78 Cleethorpes Road at a cost of £4 per week plus rates ‘as a hostel for petty officers with dormitory accommodation for ratings’. It was estimated that equipment would cost approximately £300 and authority was given for expenditure up to this amount. Within two months, heating was installed. Still, demand far exceeded the 80-bed capacity.

At the War Committee meeting on 3 February 1940, Major General Price Davies reported an official visit by himself and the Mayor of Grimsby to the Grimsby Hostel. By this point, the hostel had been operational for some weeks. It was, he said: ‘warmly appreciated as a centre for men of the navy and the Mercantile Marine.

During the first few months of 1940, the War Committee continued receiving requests from the Grimsby hostel for additional funding to cover the costs of alterations and equipment (£360. 9s 11d), additional equipment (£50), and water heating (£70). On 25 April 1940, approval was given for the provision of additional sleeping accommodation of a cost not exceeding £250. Five additional beds were purchased in June 1940. On 24 July, the committee approved expenditure for ‘1 gross of cups and saucers; 3 Dozen 8 inch plates; 3 Dozen Egg Cups; 3 Dozen Tumblers’.

With the loss of so many men to the services, there was a need to make provision to continue the Association’s work with young people. On 4 November 1940, the War Committee allocated a salary of £208 per annum plus travel expenses for Mr King, a Youth Work Secretary in Grimsby. The post was initially for a trial period of three months. Later, the Association formed a National Youth Work Committee to undertake civilian youth work.
On 31 March 1941, it was reported that the Admiralty had agreed to make a grant of £1,400 towards the cost of an extended scheme – presumably hostel accommodation – at Immingham. The scheme, jointly the responsibility of the YWCA and YMCA, would have catered for officers and crew of the numerous ships disembarking at the port.

Throughout the war, the Grimsby hostel continued submitting funding requests for equipment, bedding and additional expenses. On 7 November 1946, the War Committee made the decision that Merchant Seamen would no longer be permitted to use Services Clubs and Canteens. Given the lack of any further funding requests, it is likely that the Association’s use of Dring’s Hotel would have ceased around this time.

With Grimsby’s fishing fleets fighting on two fronts throughout the Second World War – some vessels continued to fish, while others were requisitioned for service with the Royal Navy as minesweepers and auxiliary patrol vessels – the YMCA played a crucial support role on the home front. The town itself had contributed greatly with many men fighting overseas. Over the course of the war, the Grimsby Telegraph reported on 119 fishing boats from Grimsby as war losses. In the first year of the conflict 59 minesweeping trawlers and drifters were lost at sea, 34 of which were struck by mines. Overall, Grimsby lost 600 fishermen during the war. The YMCA was on-hand, playing its part in providing moral, spiritual and practical support.

YMCA postcard, circa 1940

When the British Secretaries Association (BSA) for the YMCA met for their annual conference in 1945, they faced important questions about the organisation’s future. In response, they agreed a series of actions that would come to define the YMCA in the immediate post-war years. The secretaries were unanimous in their commitment to re-building the Association as a civilian movement, agreeing that, while there may have been the ‘remnant’ of ‘vital young Christian membership’ in the associations, there was also a need to recruit among those being demobilised. The conference felt that such a membership could only be built up if the YMCA became a ‘united movement’ with a plan of action based on accepted principles. The organisation must function effectively on a ‘democratic Christian basis throughout’.

The secretaries felt there was a need to clarify YMCA policy on many important issues, including ‘the movement, training and frequency of sectary; national and divisional organisation; finance; work with boys; mixed work; relationship with the churches’. They proposed that national council should appoint a post-war planning commission comprising laymen and secretaries, concluding:

‘To have a post-war policy seems to the B.S.A. members a matter of extreme urgency and with demobilisation and the return to peace-time conditions gradually but surely overtaking us, there is danger of the Y.M.C.A being pre-occupied with special tasks arising out of the war to such extent that it may not be sufficiently strong to take the place in the establishing of a civilian movement.’

A photograph held in the YMCA archive gives a flavour of the Association’s work as the war ended. It shows a mobile van with service personnel taking part in activities with the caption: ‘Now that the fighting is over men and women in Europe and this country can give more time to YMCA handicraft courses – tapestry, carpentry, embroidery, leatherwork, etc.’

With the war at an end, the Grimsby and District YMCA returned to the headquarters on Heneage Road. High on the agenda was a lack of hostel facilities; it was considered unfair that boys from the Grimsby area would be welcomed at hostels in other parts of England and around the world without any reciprocal arrangement locally. The YMCA purchased an adjoining house in Heneage Road, and refurbished it as a hostel. Within no time, it was full. A second house was bought with the YMCA purchasing a property in Healing for £600 to re-home the existing tenant.

In 1947, Grimsby Rural District Council offered the YMCA a five acre plot on the Humberstone Fitties. It contained a pool, which was converted into swimming baths, with Vice President, Roland Smith helping to finance a new filtration system. The site had a number of huts which made useful accommodation for school children and Boys Brigade members to camp in the summer. When Grimsby hospital was nationalised – mostly likely in 1946 or 1947 – the YMCA took over the running of the local singing group, the Wellow Waits, known locally for Christmas concerts at the hospital.

For the YMCA, as with so many other organisations committed to the well-being of those whose needs are often overlooked, the importance of fund-raising cannot be overstated. Among those collecting for the YMCA in the late 1940s was Roland Archer, Chairman and later Deputy President of the Grimsby YMCA. Since 1985 a trophy in his name has been presented annually to the staff member or volunteer of the year.

The inaugural meeting of the Grimsby YMCA Women’s Auxiliary was held on 15 October 1947, presided over by Her Grace, Winifred, Duchess of Portland. As President of the National Women’s Auxiliary, the Duchess gave her support to events across the country. Her officiation at the Grimsby meeting was considered an honour and the finance committee approved the amount of £6.00 to cover additional expenses. At the meeting a committee was formed which, it was agreed, would be active in the interest of the YMCA, especially in regard to the improvement of furnishings in the buildings. Their commitment to this task and particularly the fund-raising required to ensure its success is, perhaps, best summed up by the minutes of that meeting:

‘You will agree that the foregoing is not a flourishing report of any great success but we can take courage from the fact that the foundation of our work was being securely laid and if every member were willing to face up to hard facts and pull their weight the Association has a glorious future in Grimsby.’

‘The more we put into the work the quicker we shall see results we all desire. It is as well to remind ourselves at this time of our avowed message namely Jesus Christ who is the revelation of what God is and of what man through him may become.’

In this spirit of looking to the future, Grimsby and District YMCA embarked on fundraising efforts that would bring about major changes for the organisation, preparing the ground for years to come.