A branch of the Young Mens’ Christian Association (YMCA) has had a presence in High Wycombe for many years. They now have substantial premises in Crest Road, which is the largest YMCA hostel in the region. It has not always been so, as we shall see in this account of the early history of the branch.

The origins of the YMCA

Now a worldwide organisation, the YMCA founded by George Williams, a draper in London, and 11 friends. They were concerned about the lack of healthy activities for young men in major cities, particularly those who had been drawn there from rural areas by the Industrial revolution.

Williams’ idea grew out of meetings he held for prayer and Bible-reading among his fellow workers in a business in London. On June 6 1844, he held the first meeting that led to the founding of the YMCA, with the purpose of “ improving the spiritual condition of young men engaged in the drapery, embroidery, and other trades”.

The meetings, lectures and other activities that were provided grew in popularity and the YMCA gained the reputation as “places for wholesome recreation that would preserve youth from the temptations of alcohol, gambling, and other vices, and that would promote good citizenship”.

The concept of the YMCA spread to other countries, significantly assisted by the influx of visitors from around the world attracted by the Great Exhibition in 1851. By the end of that year there were YMCA branches in a total of ten countries, including other European countries and Australia, Canada, the United States and Hong Kong.

The idea of creating a truly global movement with an international headquarters was led by Henry Dunant, Secretary of YMCA Geneva (he later went on to found the International Committee of the Red Cross and win the first Nobel Peace Prize). Dunant successfully convinced YMCA Paris to organise the first YMCA World Conference. The Conference took place in August 1855, bringing together 99 young delegates. They discussed joining together in a federation to enhance cooperation amongst individual YMCA societies. This marked the beginning of the World Alliance of YMCAs.

A branch in High Wycombe

This was formed in March 1892 after a public meeting held in the Town Hall and attended by about 120 young people. This included many young ladies who it was said “ were evidently anxious to lend their male friends a helping hand”! The meeting was preceded by a tea, when arrangements were made for “social flow” which proved to be “of a most satisfactory nature”.

The first speaker was the Mayor Alderman A Vernon. He took some time in his remarks to counter a concern that had been expressed locally that the formation of the YMCA branch would deprive other local organisations, particularly those associated with the 2 churches and numerous chapels in the town, of the young people who worked to support them. He also said that at that time there were worldwide 4,500 branches of the YMCA, having a total of nearly 400,000 members.

The Wycombe Association had its own reading room at No. 15 Church St and in that first year they played at least two cricket matches, both on the Rye. The first was against a team from the ironmongers business of R Davenport Vernon, which was drawn, and the second against All Saints Parish Church which the YMCA lost by seventy runs.

By February 1894 the branch rooms had moved to Crendon St, where nearly 100 members and friends gathered for a tea and musical interlude. The following year the Association Branch moved again, to larger premises in Frogmoor Gardens, where it continued to thrive through the late 1890s. However by the turn of the century lack of funds became an over-riding issue, apparently caused by the expense of the Frogmoor premises and a declining membership.

During the year 1900 the Branch seems to have moved back to its old Crendon St premises and the following year a Chess Club was formed. On November 20 1901 a fund-raising event was held at the Town Hall. This consisted of a “Bazaar and a series of living pictures” (called Tableaux), which “were exhibited to overflowing audiences twice during the evening”. These had been arranged by the photographer Edward Sweetland. After expenses this event raised £40 (equivalent to over £4,000 today).

In 1902 a Coronation River Trip was held, which was enjoyed by 80 people. The Association Branch then seems to have been disbanded c.1903, except for the cricket team which carried playing for another year or two.

On January 13 1913 an appeal was made through the Bucks Free Press for the Association to be re-formed, but this appears to have fallen on deaf ears. This meant that throughout WW1 there was no YMCA active in the town, which is surprising because the Association did make a major contribution throughout that war in many towns, Slough being a local example.

To be continued.