During both world wars, the YMCA provided a warm welcome and recreational activities for forces and civilians alike. Within ten days of the declaration of World War, one 250 huts sprang up all over the United Kingdom for this purpose and went on to establish temporary huts all over Europe, all run by volunteers.
In the Second World War, it supported millions of prisoners of war, refugees, and displaced Jews while continuing its work for the local population. Many a letter home might have been written on YMCA notepaper featuring the familiar red triangle.
Founded in London by George Williams on 6 June 1844 it was born from the need to provide distractions other than the taverns and brothels for the young men drawn to the cities in the industrial revolution. It has grown to become a worldwide youth organisation providing athletic facilities, as well as opportunities to learn skills and uphold Christian values.
One of the scenes in A New Year for the Seaside Girls takes place at the YMCA on Heneage Road in Grimsby.
That particular YMCA building was familiar to me, as it was to my parents who met there when they were both 15. Dad joined in everything going on – the Boys Brigade, the Navy cadets, making the most of every opportunity available to him. He swam and played the bugle in the Boys Brigade. He played cricket and football and table tennis at the YMCA. His parents didn’t have much money but that didn’t stop him from finding things to take part in.
Mum was doing a secretarial college and while a new building was being constructed some of the classes were held at the YMCA. And it was Dad’s good fortune to be there at the time when mum turned up. ‘I’m going to marry that girl,’ he told his friend.
And he did!
My memories are of the mid-1960s when I attended St Francis Xavier’s school in the building next door. Our school dinners were taken in the canteen there, along with our PE classes and school plays – so I’ve appeared on the stage that Jessie and Frances tread to entertain the troops.
On one occasion I played one of Santa’s’ elves who had fallen asleep and while they were doing so, someone stole all the toys they had worked so hard to make. In a bout of vigorous stretching and yawning, as we awoke, I received an eye-watering whack on the nose.
In another, I played a little girl who fell asleep and woke up in the stable of the nativity. (Seems I liked sleeping on stage). As I lay down there was a huge burst of laughter, and I realised it was my exposed knickers and not my acting that received such a reaction.
The building in Heneage Road no longer exists but the memories do – and I’m glad that they are happy ones.