YMCA England & Wales

Date of foundation of the YMCA: 1844
Membership Status: Full
Full member of the World Alliance of YMCAs since: 1855

Brief YMCA History

In 1844 the first association to be called a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was formed in London by George Williams, a farmer’s son, and a small group of men.

From prayer meetings and bible study groups, the YMCA developed into public lectures and education classes to address the changing needs of its members. The YMCA reading rooms and refreshment areas also gave young men the opportunity to make friends and settle into urban life.

In the beginning, most people who joined the YMCA were active Christians who wanted to support its work. However, it welcomed non-Christians who were ‘of good moral character’.

In 1851, the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London proved to be a milestone in the YMCA’s history as publicity leaflets distributed at the time helped to develop links with other countries.

By 1894, the YMCA had become so significant that its 50th anniversary was marked with George Williams receiving a knighthood from Queen Victoria and the Freedom of the City of London. Sir George died in 1905 and was laid to rest in the crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral.

The American YMCA Movement, founded in 1851, led the way in addressing physical fitness with gym openings and a wide programme of activities. It went on to invent both basketball (1891) and volleyball (1895). The British YMCA Movement began a shift towards personal health and fitness, marked with the opening of a large gym at London Central Association in 1888.

As war swept across Western Europe in 1914, the British YMCA extended its work across the Channel to support the troops. YMCA huts provided soldiers with food, drink and free writing paper and envelopes.

In the years between the two World Wars the YMCA reacted to rising unemployment with two initiatives. In 1932, British Boys for British Farms was launched which placed unemployed young men as agricultural workers on farms. An Employment Department was also established, which found jobs for 38,000 ex-servicemen.

The YMCA recognised a need to change to meet community needs. Bible readings, gospel preaching, organ recitals and temperance societies made way for socials, dances, and camping holidays. The YMCA, which in 1894 handed out religious tracts to young men as they left theatres and music halls, now ran its own amateur dramatic groups and film shows.

During World War II the war work continued and YMCA mobile canteens were introduced to bring refreshments to the troops.

After the war, the YMCA continued to adapt its work to meet changing needs. In 1959 a government report was published on the need for better leisure facilities for teenagers. As a result, many YMCAs began youth clubs to help young people with their personal development through recreation, leisure and informal education.

A training programme for professional youth workers was also introduced. Its success led to the development of the YMCA George Williams College in 1970. It remains today as one of the leading training colleges for those working in informal education.

The YMCA’s work has increased for individuals in need. Training programmes have been set up, particularly for those with special needs, and housing work focuses on those who are homeless, vulnerable and disadvantaged.

In 2016, YMCAs in Wales joined YMCA England to form YMCA England & Wales. We now have 116 YMCAs delivering vital services to almost 740 communities, intensively supporting 630,000 people each and every year across England and Wales.

Our vision

YMCA’s vision in England and Wales is of an inclusive Christian movement transforming communities so that all young people can belong, contribute and thrive.

Our values

The way we act at YMCA is characterised by five strong and distinctive values that flow from our Christian ethos.

We seek out

We actively look for opportunities to make a transformative impact on young lives in the communities where we work, and believe that every person is of equal value.

We welcome

We offer people the space they need to feel secure, respected, heard and valued; and we always protect, trust, hope and persevere.

We inspire

We strive to inspire each person we meet to nurture their body, mind and spirit, and to realise their full potential in all they do.

We speak out

We stand up for young people, speak out on issues that affect their lives, and help them to find confidence in their own voice.

 Our Impact

The YMCA in England works within local communities with young people, particularly at times of need, through the provision of high quality activities. We do so in the following ways:


YMCA offers more than 9,100 beds every night, which includes everything from emergency accommodation through to supported longer-term housing and youth hostels.

Our philosophy of supporting young people holistically means that we provide not only a bed but also help a young person gain the training, skills and confidence to go on to lead independent lives.

We provides a home to more than 18,000 people experiencing homelessness each year, making us the largest voluntary sector provider of supported housing for young people in England and Wales.

Family Work

The right start in life is crucial for a person’s long-term development. It is for this reason that YMCA works with people from birth through to adulthood – supporting individuals and families to flourish.

We support more than 230,000 children, young people and parents every year through our family work.

Health & Wellbeing

We recognise health and wellbeing is the bedrock that enables people to develop in all areas of their life, from education and employment to relationships and social networks. We have more than 270 health and wellbeing facilities, including gyms, swimming pools, community halls, and outdoor activity centres. Engaging more than 125,000 people each year, YMCA is the largest voluntary sector provider of services promoting health and wellbeing in England and Wales.

Support & Advice

YMCA is there for every young person in the community, supporting them through good and difficult times with a wide range of services.

In each case, our aim is to enable the young person to grow and develop in every aspect of their life. YMCA provides support and advice to more than 105,000 people every year.

Training & Education

Helping young people gain the confidence to make decisions about their own lives is an important part of our work, as is providing an environment in which they can flourish.

Education is much more than formal schooling. This is why YMCA offers a range of education, skills-based training, placement and apprenticeship schemes that support young people in reaching their aspirations.

YMCA enables almost 68,000 people every year to engage in education and training.

Our Campaigns

As a national youth charity, we pride ourselves in giving young people a voice. Currently, we are spearheading two significant national campaigns. #IAMWHOLE and the Be Real Campaign. Over the past 12 months each have tackled head-on some of the most critical issues affecting young people today, sparking changes in conversation, and pushing our mission to the top of the public agenda.


Tackling mental health stigma

The #IAMWHOLE campaign, a partnership between YMCA and the NHS, launched on World Mental Health Day in 2016, with the aim of tackling damaging mental health stigma and encouraging children and young people to speak out and seek help. It gave a voice to the thousands of young people who had long suffered in silence.

In 2017 we built on the success from the previous year by launching the second phase in October, again on World Mental Health Day, with the band Nothing But Thieves fronting the campaign and recording an official charity single.

Resources were also developed for primary schools, with short story, Flo and the Funny Feelings, released along with a parent and carer guide. Secondary schools were provided with a simple exercise around challenging harmful language and a series of videos featuring young people talking about the most common words and stereotypes.

Be Real Campaign

Body confidence for everyone

Body image anxiety is causing young people to isolate themselves, consider drastic changes to their appearance and develop mental health difficulties. Be Real, a partnership between YMCA and Dove, is campaigning to change attitudes to body image and help all of us to put health above appearance and be confident in our bodies.

Over the past 12 months we have launched significant research lifting the lid on appearance-based bullying among young people and YMCAs have been working in schools to deliver body confidence sessions with pupils. Most recently, we launched the Be Real Campaign’s Body Image Pledge, which encourages people to take a stand against unrealistic beauty ideas and released new research on the expectations on young people face to look a certain way has been released.

NGS, Denise Hatton

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