During the 1840s, England was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. This period marked a painful time for many workers. Wealth, power and corruption were rife, and factory owners were able to exploit needy workers due to massive levels of unemployment. There was a huge divide between the rich and poor and living conditions were notoriously low. Working conditions, especially for young boys and girls, were inhumanly bad.
George Williams, a 22 year old drapery merchant, made up his mind that something had to be done. He gathered together a few friends to form a society that met regularly to support each other and gain renewed strength in body, mind and spirit. The Group called itself the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).
The idea of a YMCA caught on quickly. Within 10 years, 38 Associations had formed across 8 countries in Europe.
From its inception, through to the early 1900s, the focus was on the welfare of young men, and related social concerns. The structure was loose and informal, based on small associations of people. All the work was carried out by committed volunteers. There was a strong sense of fellowship and common bond between associations - and this eventually led to the development of the World Alliance of YMCAs in 1855.
Along with the economic boom of the late 1800s, the YMCA began to attract significant philanthropists and leading business people to support its works. Associations began to develop a corporate structure, replacing the informal structures of the past. In the 1890s, the YMCA employed its first professional staff.
In 1851, the Movement arrived in America. Also in 1851, on the back of the gold rush, the YMCA arrived in Adelaide Australia.
The "Adelaide branch of the London YMCA" opened on the 15th March 1851; in 1853 Melbourne and Sydney YMCAs appeared; in 1854 Hobart opened. Brisbane started in 1875. In 1876, the first 'Inter-Association Conference of the Australian YMCA' was conducted and in 1877 the 'Inter-Colonial Convention of the Australian and New Zealand YMCA' was formed. 1908 saw the Y start in Perth.
1920 saw the separation of Australia and New Zealand Associations and the 'National Committee of the YMCAs of Australia' came into being.
From the mid 1930s to the early 1960s, YMCAs were forced by depression and world war to revert to their original foundations of social and community concern, with emphasis on youth work, youth clubs, physical development, leadership training, education and welfare. A more ecumenical flavour began to take over from the evangelistic leanings of the past.
During the war era, the YMCA played an important role in caring for the troops - both prior to departure, and on the battlefields. YMCA staff serviced the digger's needs for recreation, postal services, and small comforts from home.
As Australia moved into the latter part of the 1900s, all levels of Government began to take more responsibility for areas which had traditionally been the domain of organisations such as the Y. Increasingly, YMCAs became more involved in the task of delivery of community services for all sectors of the community, as a valued and trusted partner. At the same time, the 'for profit' sector began to move in on areas traditionally recognised as community services - such as community health and wellbeing, child care and education.
Today, the YMCA has seven core service areas:
- Health & Wellbeing
- Sport & Recreation
- Youth Services
- Children's Services
- Camping & Outdoor Education
Would George Williams recognise the YMCA of today?
Possibly not! Much has changed - especially in the shift away from the Y's theological foundations, our more formal organisational structure, and the increased reliance on paid staff. To be part of the YMCA, you no longer need to be young, you no longer need to be male, and you no longer need to be a Christian!
But he would certainly recognise a few things:
- We are still committed to providing opportunities for all people to grow in body, mind and spirit.
- The Y has retained a structure whereby local people decide what programs and services their local Y offers, based on local need
- We are still committed to the provision of volunteering opportunities