The story of George Williams and how YMCA empowers young people

Blog Written by Ken Montgomery 

George Williams is credited as the founder of YMCA. The first meeting of our organisation took place in a drapers shop in St Paul’s Yard, in central London, on 6 June 1844 (172 years ago today).

George was the seventh of eight children born into a ‘well to do’ devout Christian family in Dulverton, Somerset. Alongside helping out on the farm, George had decided to pursue a trade in drapery, the making of clothes. George was believed to be the slightest of all the siblings and the one least likely to carry on responsibility for the ongoing running of the farm, so when their father passed away, it was the eldest male sibling who took over the farm.

George, although he had begun to further his drapery skills in nearby Bridgwater, then made what must have been a momentous decision to move to London.

To put this in context, this was in 1842, just 16 years after the first passenger train service had started and most travels were done by horse-drawn carriages. The were no cars, no telephones and certainly no aeroplanes. TV and radio also didn’t exist.

George arrived in London and took up a position in drapers that specialised in clothing for gentlemen in the City of London. Conditions were hard and after work had finished there was very little for the young apprentices in the various businesses to do to occupy their time.

As mentioned earlier, George came from a devout family and continued in his faith by attending a Chapel nearby his workplace. George was troubled by the things that were deemed as ‘unhealthy’ for the young men to engage with and decided to do something about this. He gathered some of his likeminded friends around him and began to put together some activities, which enabled the young people in his area to start to address their needs and to build better lives for themselves. In today’s language, this is what we would callYouth Empowerment. George’s work grew into the largest youth charity on the planet. He is surely the role model to beat all.

He was too slight to be able to take on the responsibility for running the family farm, yet he created an organisation that is empowering millions of young people across the work even to this very day.

While YMCA was in its infancy, George was not content to let everything else in society remain as it was and he engaged in a campaign around closing businesses early on a Saturday to enable families to have more time together. He was also a strong supporter of the Sunday School movement.

The programmes that followed on from here were very much about people’s empowerment, and when they began to share their ideas during the Great Exhibition of 1851, a flame was stoked that would burst into a fire that would touch the souls of people across the world.

Today, on 6 June 2016, thousands of young people are exercising and using their voice to make a better world for themselves and those around them. All this as a result of the efforts of a farmer’s son from Somerset.