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Our History

From very humble beginnings in the City of London in 1844, YMCA has grown to become a worldwide organisation with 45 million members.

YMCA is the largest and the oldest charity working with young people in the world. Across England there are 114 YMCAs, each are independent organisations affilliated to YMCA England and the world wide YMCA movement. The YMCA in Norfolk was founded in 1856.

The beginning – 1844 

YMCA was founded by George Williams a worker in the drapery trade in London. Concerned about the welfare of his fellow workers, he started a prayer and bible study group. This soon grew and attracted men from across London.

1844 – 1849

YMCA begins to address other concerns of young men working in the cities. Public lectures and education classes are developed. Reading rooms and refreshment areas help young men to adjust to urban life.


YMCA spreads outside London and branches are set up in Manchester and Leeds.


Following links made at The Great Exhibition in London,  YMCA spreads across the globe and YMCAs are established in the USA and Canada. Seven years after it was established, a YMCA is formed in Boston, USA.

Eiffel tower1855: The idea of creating a global organisation is pioneered by Henry Dunant, who would later go on to found the International Committee of the Red Cross. He convinced YMCA Paris to organise the first YMCA ‘World Conference’.

The conference produces the ‘Paris Basis’ – an agreement about the aims of YMCA. It also sees the launch of an international committee and headquarters, which would become the World Alliance of YMCAs.

1856: Norwich Young Men’s Christian Association was founded by a group of young men, largely Nonconformists, to help apprentices and shop workers in Norwich and to improving the moral and religious life of the City.

1886: 48 St Giles in Norwich was bought with the help of Jeremiah James Colman, of mustard fame. The extra space enabled the Association to open a junior centre for boys just apprenticed and for the senior Sunday School for scholars.basketball equipment green

1888: A gymnasium was built at the rear of 48 St Giles.

1891: The American YMCA invents basketball and goes on to invent Volleyball in 1895.

Early 1900s


The World Alliance of YMCAs celebrates its 50th anniversary. There are now YMCAs in 45 countries with a global membership of over 707,000.

George Williams dies at the age of 83 and is laid to rest in the crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral.


YMCA was an early influence on Scouting and the first Scout troops meet in the Birkenhead and Nottingham YMCA buildings.


During the Great Flood in Norfolk the YMCA took in 280 people who had been evacuated from their homes.


Norwich YMCA launched an appeal to provide hostel accommodation primarily to cater for young men coming as strangers to Norwich.


During the First World War the YMCA provided places for soldiers to eat, rest and write home.

The Red Poppy is introduced by an American YMCA worker and goes on to become a worldwide symbol of remembrance for those lost in the world wars.

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After the war, the YMCA concentrated on helping the country recover by providing youth work,  and physical fitness, including three centres in Norwich catering for 400 boys.


During the recession, the YMCA worked with unemployed men and boys by providing debates, concerts and plays, lantern lectures, wireless talks and painting groups.


During the Second World War the whole premises and organization was turned over to accommodating and feeding the troops and providing for their leisure. They also provided mobile canteens for daily visits to isolated troops in the Norfolk countryside providing tea, doughnuts, woodbines and shoe laces.

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A second hostel was opened at 56 Bethel Street including a reading room and small chapel


There were 32 YMCA centres in Norfolk and 20 mobile vans including tea cars, mobile cinema vans and other for gramophone recitals.

The post-war period to today


Was the era of the hostel being occupied by middle-class and overseas students and young men in white collar jobs. The summer camps were proving very popular giving the young boys a taste of adventure.


A matron was appointed when general secretary Mr Cody said: “we are anxious that the YMCA be something more than a place in which to sleep and eat. We are anxious that it should be a home from home.”

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The first YMCA summer day camps were pioneered by Norwich YMCA. They included a treasure hunt, first aid, camping instruction, gym, rafting, canoeing, archery, carpentry and athletics. Since then more than 10,000 Norfolk youngsters have taken part in the holiday schemes. One youngster, after a week’s camping, said: “This is the best thirty bob my father has ever spent on me.”



Was a period of expansion for the YMCA, a large new sports hall combined with a new Boys Club.


A grant from the British Council helped enable a further growth in accommodation with the purchase of 46 St Giles Street.


In October, newly-married Mr and Mrs Roger Chandler made history as the first couple to spend their honeymoon at Norwich YMCA.

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YMCA George Williams College is established in London, providing training programmes for professional youth workers.


Saw demand for accommodation for overseas students and young workers fall as other accommodation was built around the city and the YMCA turned towards meeting the needs of the homeless, unemployed and disadvantaged young people.


In January, John Drake was appointed general secretary and brought a fundamental change to the operation of the Association. His priorities were financial stability and mission development.


By now, the YMCA Camps department was advertising an impressive range of holidays for young people: water activities in North Walsham, pioneering in Wales and archery, abseiling, map work and sports in the Lake District. Other activities provided by the YMCA included orienteering, assault courses, computing, sailing, film-making, football, rowing and art and crafts.


A growing work was developing with schools to help pupils deal with personal and family problems that were affecting their schoolwork.


A combination of social changes and Government grants led to a shift in emphasis towards the hostel catering for young people with special needs, particularly those with drugs or alcohol dependency or other forms of disadvantage.


Norwich YMCA launched the pioneering Foyer concept and also in that year Prince Charles visited St Giles Street on a fact-finding tour (pictured right courtesy of Archant) and a BBC TV documentary on the YMCA featured Norwich.1994 Prince Charles


The summer camps for children were attracting 400 young people, there was increasing contact with schools and prison work and asylum resettlement was being developed.


Norwich YMCA offered support to British troops in the Balkans by providing a tented outpost serving hot food and drink as well as contact with their homes for thousands of the soldiers drafted to help refugees fleeing Kosovo.


With the new millennium, YMCA Norfolk looked to the future and CEO John Drake outlined his vision for a new purpose-built building to offer vulnerable young people a full range of services and programmes.


In May, John Drake received the Pioneer of the City Award from the Norwich Evening News for his leading role in developing the SOS Bus Project.


The name YMCA Norfolk was adopted to reflect the YMCA’s work across the county.


YMCA Norfolk announces the appointment of a new Chief Executive Officer to take over from John Drake who stepped down after completing 30 years of distinguished service.

Tim said: “I am really excited by the opportunity to lead YMCA Norfolk forward and build on the great work John has done. I am passionate about delivering the highest quality outcomes for young people and I eagerly anticipate working with the trustees, staff and key stakeholders to achieve this in a way that retains YMCA distinctiveness.”


The YMCA opens the Norwich Central YMCA, containing 34 purpose-built accommodation units at the Norwich Bus Station site and a second 40-unit development is announced.529373


Launch of Stepping Stones Cafe, a training and skills social enterprise opposite Norwich Bus Station.


Norwich-based supported housing group Umbrella Housing transferred its housing stock and operations to YMCA Norfolk. Umbrella had 35 units of accommodation in Norwich supporting lone-parent families with their dependent children.


HRH The Princess Royal gives the royal seal of approval for YMCA Norfolk’s MyPlace move on accommodation, a development of 40 self-contained flats for young homeless people on Bethel Street in Norwich city centre.

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YMCA Norfolk starts new work supporting families to lead more fulfilling lives.


YMCA Norfolk celebrates 160 years of service to Norwich and Norfolk with a heritage project and Challenge 160 fund-raising campaign.


Students Walking Talking turquoiseYMCA Norfolk provides support and advice for children, young people and their families, as well as accommodation, health and wellbeing activities and training and education opportunities.

Today the YMCA reaches 58 million people in 119 countries worldwide.

YMCA Norfolk has an impressive story to tell and a heritage to treasure, but more importantly it has new generations to serve.


A History of the YMCA in Norfolk and Lowestoft covers 150 years of service across the region. A limited number of copies are available while stocks last please contact info@ymcanorfolk.org. A suggested donation of £5 would be welcome to cover printing and postage costs.

Click here to read about the book’s launch