On the outbreak of war in August 1914, troops billeted in training camps across Britain were immediately withdrawn to bases for mobilisation. With the YMCA already a presence in many army camps, an emergency meeting of the YMCA National Council was called and the decision taken that the Association must throw itself wholeheartedly into meeting the needs of the new armies. YMCA General Secretary, Arthur Yapp, drew up and signed ‘a strong YMCA appeal to the public’ and, within a few days, £25,000 had been subscribed to enable the organisation to support the growing numbers of men volunteering to serve.

The main focus of the National YMCA’s work during the First World War was the construction of more than 200 YMCA ‘huts’. Soon these were a common sight in cities, towns, villages and at railway stations across England. They were also built close to the front lines of many battlefields and were often subjected to shellfire.

Exterior: The ‘Roger Francis Draper’ Hut, Weelsby Camp. Draper, a Captain in the 6th Yorks and Lancs Regiment was killed at Gallipoli.

The huts were, in fact, large, solidly-fabricated wooden structures of uniform design. They provided a comfortable and homely sanctuary for soldiers and sailors, supplying food, tea, cigarettes and a place to rest and read. The YMCA also supplied stationery for soldiers with which they were encouraged to write letters home. The huts enabled the organisation to work together with other groups and societies such as the Workers’ Education Association and University Extension Boards. Together, they began an education programme of lectures, discussions and concerts for the troops that would later be taken on by the Army to become the Royal Army Education Corps.

The need for new huts and, importantly, the staff to run them, grew so rapidly that it became a cause for concern. To meet the desperate need for volunteers for the YMCA’s war work, the National Women’s Auxiliary was established. With Princess Helena Victoria, third daughter of Queen Victoria, as its patron and president, 50,000 women were recruited during the course of a single year. Princess Helena later visited troops in France, arranging entertainments with the approval of Lord Kitchener.

Also among those joining the Women’s Auxiliary and lending support was Clementine Churchill who joined the YMCA and played an active role in providing canteens for munitions workers. Accompanied by her husband – Winston Churchill had been the First Lord of the Admiralty as well as serving for several months on the Western Front – she spoke at several meetings. Writing in the Daily Telegraph in 2013, Zoe Dare Hall recalled how Clementine had ‘gathered together a group of “local ladies”, according to a YMCA newspaper report at the time, to help run the huts, providing beds, baths, refreshments and recreation for exhausted munitions workers who already worked overtime and would travel for hours to get to work’. The report spoke of Clementine and her volunteer cohorts ‘dressed demurely in ankle-length blue and white uniforms’.

The Women’s Auxiliary had a fundamental role in helping to raise finances to grow and increase the work of the YMCA movement throughout the British Isles and was crucial in the rapid expansion and influence of the organisation during and after the war. The YMCA also escorted relatives of terminally wounded soldiers to France and provided a safe place to stay, enabling countless families a final visit with loved ones close to death.

Although the YMCA had been working with the British Army since 1890, mainly providing activities and support at summer training camps for army volunteers, the blurring of social and national boundaries during the First World War meant that the Association’s workers and volunteers came into contact with a far broader section of society than had previously been the case. Other national YMCAs supported their troops, following the progress of soldiers from their home country to various theatres of war. Huts, equipment and merchandise were loaned between national YMCAs within an area in order to assist the troops. It was understood that the nation whose troops were receiving assistance would dictate the nationality of the YMCA overseeing the service offered.

During this period the red triangle was adopted as an easily recognisable emblem of the international YMCA war work movement. It soon became a familiar symbol, its three sides representing the growth of ‘mind, body and spirit’, which were – and remain to this day – of fundamental importance to the YMCA. As one rain-soaked soldier recalled in August 1917 on missing his train on the way back to the front: ‘… had my first experience of what the YMCA really means to us out here – how we blessed it! We had a party of 50 men and 20 officers given hot coffee and a place to sleep.

Minutes of the Finance Committee of the YMCA’s National Council give an insight to the thinking of the organisation as the war continued. The minutes show the YMCA addressing the need to meet various expenses: there are large amounts for cigarettes and chocolate which would be sold in the huts, but perhaps most striking is the sum of £10 allocated to a reprint of the booklet for ‘Relatives of Wounded’. One wonders, given the physical and emotional state of so many men and the horrific wounds they suffered, how the booklet would have been received. It sits, somewhat incongruously, alongside requests for £5 for 850 copies of pictures of the King and £4 for repairs to a billiard table.

In April 1917, a note from the Religious Work Committee expressed concerns about ‘bringing the Gospel to the men’ and their ‘attitude to religion’. The committee seemed to be thinking beyond the conflict, looking to ensure that men studying religion through the Association continued to do so; and, presumably, that those not yet engaged, were given ample opportunity. Among the items requested for huts were 2,000 picture postcards illustrating YMCA Centres in Gallipoli at a cost of £4.10s. Given that the campaign which cost the lives of over 56,000 allied troops took place in 1915, it seems an odd purchase for 1917. Perhaps these were for reassurance to relatives, a reminder that the Association had been on hand to serve the men’s needs.

The appropriate use of ‘quiet rooms’ in YMCA huts was also under consideration. Presumably, these were intended for prayer, contemplation and reading of approved texts. Of course, it begs the question (unanswered in the minutes) as to what might constitute inappropriate use – smoking, card-playing, perhaps?
Later in April 1917, the National Council discussed the ‘War Roll’, a statement of religious conviction which, once signed, entitled the signatory to the receipt of letters and other literature. Increasing numbers signing up revealed that letters were being sent out (to troops) at a rate of 2,000 a week.

Since the previous May, 67,500 had been sent. There was also a discussion at to whether Roman Catholics should be permitted to sign up and a note about the emergence of the ‘Catch My Pal’ movement, which involved attendance of meetings on ‘Gospel Temperance’ and encouraged soldiers to prevail upon their mates to attend. The National Council’s financial report noted payments for marquees and equipment for Cleethorpes, Louth, Tetney and Alford.

As 1917 progressed, the National Council’s finance committee discussed preparation of a panel of specialised speakers, with a view to arranging a series of ‘Purity Addresses’ in the camps. Minutes noted the granting of £250 for special literature dealing with Purity and the ‘combatting of venereal disease’. This was seen as preventative work, but suggests that there must have been an existing need. The minutes do not reveal whether this came via the Association’s workers on the ground, or through more official channels.

The YMCA from Britain, along with other national YMCAs, also worked with prisoners of war. The work for prisoners of war in Great Britain was first undertaken just after the beginning of the war. The World Alliance of YMCAs coordinated work which included the provision of food and medical relief parcels, and religious services for troops of all nationalities and affiliations imprisoned in camps across the world. The primary services within these camps included social gatherings and sports activities, in addition to religious and educational work.

As temporary camps began to appear across Lincolnshire and many men left their homes and families to join the army, the Grimsby and District YMCA had a clear role to play. Soldiers undergoing training lived in bell tents and ate their meals in makeshift marquees. Responding to these far from ideal living conditions, the Grimsby YMCA’s first General Secretary, Ernest Lloyd, saw it as the organisation’s responsibility to improve living conditions for young men stationed in Lincolnshire. The Association sponsored the building of several huts funded by local donations, flag-day appeals and via the national YMCA fund, to whom requests were sent for contributions for the £350 needed to supply and construct each hut.

Interior: The ‘Roger Francis Draper’ Hut, Weelsby Camp
Interior: The ‘Roger Francis Draper’ Hut, Weelsby Camp







Evidence of Ernest Lloyd’s enthusiasm for hut-building in Grimsby is clear from the numbers of requests made to the national Finance Committee for funds. On 18 July 1916, Lloyd wrote, seeking money for a new hut at Tetney at a cost of £350. Equipment for the hut would, he said, ‘be allocated from the current Marquee’. He also sought money for a new hut at Humberstone – £300 would be forthcoming from the Grimsby flag-day. Similarly, the hut would be equipped from existing items. Lloyd also oversaw the building of huts at Weelsby Woods, Cleethorpes, Immingham Dock, Riby, Belton, Tetney, and Laceby. Several other huts were built as a result of specific gifts from local business people and charitable activity.

At a meeting of the Finance Committee of the National Council on 13 March, 1917, a request for funds for the purchase of a motor car for the Grimsby Branch was made by Mr C.W. Crump, Ernest Lloyd’s successor. The request, of £150, was granted. Perhaps Mr Lloyd had not been a driver, which would certainly have hampered his work across the wide area where huts were now located. Mr Crump, it seemed, intended to be more mobile.

Imperial Hotel, Grimsby Road. Cleethorpes. Photo courtesy of Grimsby Telegraph.

In February 1917, the Grimsby YMCA took over a former temperance hotel – later well-known as the Imperial pub at 157 Grimsby Road, Cleethorpes – and converted it into a hostel for servicemen. With the support of the Mayor, Councillor Jos Barker, a fundraising appeal had been launched to help pay for the refurbishment of ‘accommodation for soldiers and sailors stranded in the town overnight’.

The organising of the hostel was Ernest Lloyd’s final duty as secretary before he too joined the army. The hostel remained open day and night until the end of the war. Records show that some days it received as many as a thousand visits. The first Honorary Superintendent, Mrs. Franklin, ran a club in which letters could be written; she also oversaw the temperance bar, and ensured there were beds available. Each Christmas day, all services were free.

The popularity of the hostel resulted in the adjoining premises being taken over. Shortly before the Armistice in 1918, rooms above the Hepworth’s shop on the corner of Freeman Street and Strand Street were added, taking the total number of available beds to 158. A sense of the importance of the work of the YMCA hostels between 1914 and 1918 can be gauged by the 84,576 recorded visits. The hostels were maintained by 140 voluntary workers undertaking duties in relays of three hour shifts. The hostel remained open after the war and continued to provide vital round-the-clock support for ex-servicemen.

As the first General Secretary for the YMCA in Grimsby and Cleethorpes, Ernest Lloyd played an integral part in the development of the YMCA War Camps in and around Grimsby and Cleethorpes during the First World War. One of seven children, Lloyd was born in Liverpool on 5 December 1888 and spent his early years at Brownlow Hill in the heart of the city. Lloyd’s earliest known connection with the YMCA came in 1911; at the time he was living in Chorlton cum Hardy in Lancashire and was appointed Assistant Secretary of his local YMCA.

Lloyd’s first appearance in the Grimsby and District YMCA minute books is in 1914. Clearly a man of some ambition, records show he was invited to interview for the position of General Secretary for the Grimsby and Cleethorpes YMCA – this was the local organisation’s first paid position – based at 39 Heneage Road. Lloyd was offered the post with a salary of £130 per annum; however, after negotiation with the President of the National Association, he secured an extra twenty pounds, taking up his new position on 8 September 1914.

Lloyd quickly set about co-ordinating the Grimsby and Cleethorpes YMCA War Effort. By 1915, as a result of his work setting up camps, the National Association had agreed to pay half his salary. Lloyd had set up Weelsby Camp and a ‘Stranded Soldier and Sailor Camp’ in Orwell Street, the present day site of the YMCA Humber Foyer Project. During this period he became a frequent correspondent with the National Association, usually requesting funds for new huts across Lincolnshire.
In 1916, Lloyd requested an exemption from military service and was granted a six month grace period due to his essential war work on behalf of the YMCA. The National Association agreed to pay his full salary in recognition of his work across Lincolnshire, but it was made clear that he would be expected to sign up at the end of the six months. On  27 February 1917, minutes report that Lloyd would receive no further exemption from enlistment – this suggests he had, indeed, made a further request. He was to sign up immediately after a short holiday.

There are no war records for Ernest Lloyd; neither are there records of him working anywhere else in the country for the YMCA until he is mentioned in the Grimsby and Cleethorpes minute books in 1919. The minute suggests a letter is written to Mr Lloyd requesting his advice and possible attendance at a meeting. There was no response. However, it seems that Lloyd survived the war and was, in some way, still connected within the YMCA movement.

Details about his movements are incomplete and little is known about him until January 1926 when he features in a newspaper article, named as the Divisional Secretary for South Western and South Midland Division of the YMCA. In August of the following year, Devon and Cornwall newspapers report Lloyd heading out to Shanghai to set up a YMCA for troops stationed there. He returned to the UK in December 1929 on a ship to Liverpool via New York. The much-travelled Mr Lloyd re-appeared in an article in a Bristol newspaper in 1932, which explained that the former divisional secretary, Ernest Lloyd, would be taking over the South West area. On 29 July he was photographed attending a Garden Party with members of the YMCA War Committee.

Lloyd remained in the West Country in various roles, some of which involved working with the Women’s Auxiliary, until 1936. He returned to the north of England, and was appointed to the post of General Secretary of Leeds YMCA in 1937, a post he held until 1941. Several newspaper articles about his time in Leeds show Lloyd actively seeking new opportunities, for example, developing a lecture series in partnership with the University of Leeds for men working in the new Anti-aircraft Unit. In November 1939, in an echo of the work he first undertook in Grimsby in 1914, he set up a Stranded Soldiers and Sailors canteen and hostel at Leeds railway station. A newspaper article in December 1941 noted that Lloyd had received a thank you letter from a soldier who had stayed at the YMCA Leeds Train Station Hostel, the letter included a pound note.

YMCA postcard from Weelsby Camp

After a short period of time in London, Lloyd returned to the West Country, taking up the post of divisional secretary in Devon and Cornwall in 1943, where he remained until 1947 and his last-known posting which saw him leaving Plymouth YMCA ‘to take up position in Eastern Counties YMCA – Headquarters Ipswich’. It is likely this was Lloyd’s final post – he would have been 59 years old – and may well have settled, after a long and varied career of service, into a quiet retirement.

Captain Charles Bellamy, Lincolnshire Regiment

Charles Henry Bellamy had been a volunteer at the original YMCA in Heneage Road. A member of the local YMCA council, he was one of the first 100 to answer Lord Kitchener’s call to arms in 1915 and was commissioned as a Captain in the Lincolnshire Regiment. Bellamy encouraged other volunteers and residents from the YMCA to enlist with the Army – many joining the Grimsby Chums, one of the Pals battalions which, like so many others across Britain, saw friends, neighbours, work-mates and family members sign-up and serve together. The Grimsby Chums suffered heavy losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, compounded by further losses in unsuccessful attacks on the second and third day. When they were finally withdrawn and when the roll was called, 15 Officers and 487 men (out of 1000) were killed, missing or wounded. Bellamy, leading men from the Lincolnshire Regiment, was killed in action on 23 July 1916. He was buried at the St. Sever Cemetery, Rouen, alongside 26 other members of his regiment.

In January 1916, before leaving for France, Bellamy had written a letter home containing his Last Will and Testament, in which he bequeathed £50 to the YMCA in Grimsby in the event of his death. The YMCA put his donation to good use – though perhaps not exactly as Bellamy had intended – by paying off a lump sum of the mortgage on the Heneage Road site. His gift was well-timed, helping to securing the Association’s future.
Many other members, residents and volunteers with the YMCA were killed in 1916. Jack Baxter Coulson of Abbey Park Drive, Grimsby, a former pupil of Matthew Humberston School had signed up in 1914. A 2nd Lieutenant in the 5th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment, he and his men were holding the village of Bienvillers on Sunday, 4 June 1916. Alan McDonald’s book, ‘A Lack of Offensive Spirit?’ – A History of the 46th North Midland Division, describes how the German gunners turned their ‘heavy Howitzers’ onto Bienvillers that morning:

‘150mm shells crashed into the village, sending men scurrying for safety as the houses and barns shuddered under the impact of massive explosions. The 5th Lincolnshires were the current occupants of the village and it was this battalion that suffered. When the bombardment finished and the dust began to settle, the cry for stretcher bearers went out. 2nd Lt. J B Coulson was so seriously wounded he would die nearly three weeks later.

Jack Coulson died of wounds on 20 June 1916. His grave can be found in Scartho Road Cemetery. There are many such stories of YMCA men: Max William Pailthorpe Emerson, 2nd Lieutenant in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, 5th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment, was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. The list goes on: Harold Cammack, killed in action; Ernest Powell, killed in action; George Robinson, killed in action; George Shaw, killed in action. Edgar Witton was born in 1894 and enlisted at the age of 20 in 1914. He was also in the Lincolnshire Regiment, 10th Battalion. His regimental number – 92, marks him out as a Grimsby Chum. The minutes of the Grimsby YMCA meeting on 9 August 1916 record his death at the Somme, also on 1 July. Born in Philadelphia, USA, Francis Sydney White lived in Hilda Street, Grimsby. He too is listed in the minutes of the YMCA meeting of 9 August 1916 as one of the YMCA men from the 10th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment, another Grimsby Chum killed in action. White died in Flanders on 5 July 1916. George Shaw who, before the war, had been the Grimsby Association’s Hon. Secretary was killed by a direct hit from a shell which failed to explode in June 1918.

There were, of course, those who came home. The YMCA minutes list George Barker, George Doughty, A Stockhill, HW Nash, James W Haddock, Frank Coulson, Harry Falconer, H Robinson, Sid Fisher, F Winn and F Naylor. But in the final analysis, Grimsby YMCA paid a heavy price in lives for the First World War. The Association gave a great deal, too. Ernest Lloyd and the men and women of Grimsby’s YMCA and the Women’s Auxiliary worked hard to ensure troops stationed nearby were well looked-after, that their spiritual comforts were attended to. Perhaps it had little meaning seen against the backdrop of death and sacrifice on the Western Front, but it might have been a reminder of home, of kindness and solace in the worst of times.

There was one final contribution for the YMCA to make. Along the fighting fronts of Northern France and Belgium – the area known as ‘Flanders’ – the ground was repeatedly churned up by shell fire. One of the first plants to re-establish itself was the poppy, its vivid red flowers seeming to call to mind the bloodshed of battle. The poppies inspired John McCrae, a doctor from Toronto, who served in France as a medical officer. McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields based on his experiences.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

The poem, first published in December 1915, was seen by Miss Moina Michael, then working for the YMCA in New York. Indeed, she was so moved by the poem that she wrote a response. We Shall Keep the Faith was published in November 1918.

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

Towards the end of the war, when Moina Michael was due to leave the YMCA, her grateful colleagues made her a gift of a small amount of money, some of which she used to buy poppies which she gave to her colleagues at her last meeting, telling them of the John McCrae poem and her response. She suggested they wear poppies as a remembrance of those who had lost their lives in the war. The official history of the Royal British Legion picks up the story:

McCrae’s poem inspired an American academic, Moina Michael, to make and sell red silk poppies which were brought to England by a French woman, Anna Guérin. The (Royal) British Legion, formed in 1921, ordered 9 million of these poppies and sold them on 11 November that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately and that first ever ‘Poppy Appeal’ raised over £106,000; a considerable amount of money at the time. This was used to help WW1 veterans.