The YMCA first started providing recreation tents to our Armed Forces in the summer of 1901, for the muster of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers at Conway, North Wales. In the beginning they were mostly tented canteens for annual manoeuvres of the Territorial Army.
At the outbreak of WW1, the YMCA was asked to provide recreation centres, known as huts, 370 alone in France and Belgium and very many more all over the UK and the Commonwealth. Servicemen could buy cigarettes, coffe, cocoa and cakes. The larger versions usually had a reading room for books and the latest newspapers and magazines. And all kinds of games. The YMCA also supplied notepaper, envelopes and postcards for letters home. By August 1918, British and Allied soldiers had written some 200 million letters or cards home.
What we know about the Camberwell Green YMCA is taken from a report written by Mr AT Dyer, Hon secretary of YMCA Camberwell for his bosses and a description of the Hut by Mr Alfred Weeks. Mr Dyer had started as a voluntary worker working through the night three times a week guiding soldiers from station to station through the blackout. In 1915 he was involved in raising funds for new huts in France. Despite the refusal of the Borough of Camberwell to co-operate – by a vote of 18 out of 20 – in the beginning and after an appeal to local churches and the community in 15 weeks they raised sufficient funds for a Camberwell hut in France. He also organised collections for funds to provide watercress for brewing tea and supplied to all the Camberwell military hospitals with over 3000 patients served weekly. He also oragnised for convalescent patients to be taken out on trips to exhibitions, theatres and to local parks.
Kings College Hospital
And St Gabriels College on Cormont Road
In 1917, he finally was able to build a hut on Camberwell Green, not without some opposition from locals who feared damage to the Green. Fund raising was started in December 1916 and over £6,000 was raised from the local community. The hut was opened on Empire Day , 24 May 1917. It was built by J McManus Ltd and it was managed by Miss Majorie Butter. The number of men who slept or passed through during this time was over 10,000 per week.
Here are some postcard photos of the YMCA exterior.
This 1st postcard showing the official opening. In the 2nd and 3rd and 4th postcards you can see the upper part of the Father Red Cap pub still standing today.
Alfred Weeks, a representative of the Metropolitan Sunday Schools offers us the following descriptions of the YMCA hut. He described it as a “long rambling building, like a golfing pavilion, confronted by a fresh grass lawn, studded with trees and geranium beds, and backed by a clear blue sky…” The entrance was right on the street. He described the inside as “some old baronial banqueting hall”
“…At one end a counter spread with multitudinous plates and light refreshments. The hall is rectangular in form, the further end being cut off to form a billiard room… The billiard rooms consisted of four tables with two large windows. One window had the YMCA emblem embossed on it and the other the arms of Camberwell.
The next two postcards show the reading and writing “quiet” sections. The pictures were mostly scenes of country life though there was a copy of Raphael’s Madonna di San Sisto.
There was also a kit room for storage of soldiers gear and and a rifle rack, with tickets issued for later collection.
Finally at one end the dormitary with beds for 130 , and next to that staff bedrooms and a seperate space to accomodate 20 NCO’s. The building was heated by three stoves.
A YMCA fundraising postcard, one of a series of 312 postcards.
In 1923, Russell Reeve painted this water-colour of the YMCA Hut, Camberwell Green, now part of the Southwark Council Art collection (ref GA0079).
After 1920 the hut was used by the Minstry of Labour until 1921 as a Labour exchange when it was burnt down in January 1921 in a suspicous fire.
Newspaper report from The Globe January 15, 1921
Southwark Archives for their help with tracking down relevant documents.
The YMCA in the First World War by Sue McGeever and Andrew Gill.
British Newspaper Achive