Our History

The first YMCA was created in 1844 by a young draper’s apprentice from Somerset called George Williams (1821 – 1905). When he was 22 years old, George travelled to London hoping to find work – at that time London was the largest city in the world and the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution. However, when he arrived, George was shocked by what he saw. Taverns and gambling dens filled the city’s streets and there were few opportunities for young arrivals like him to socialise in safety.

George and a group of ten fellow drapers decided to create the first Young Men’s Christian Association where young Christian men from all social classes could meet for prayer and bible study:
“Our object is the improvement of the spiritual condition of the young men engaged in houses of business, by the formation of Bible classes, family and social prayer meetings, mutual improvement societies, or any other spiritual agency.”

Today the YMCA has grown to become a worldwide organisation with 65 million members – each YMCA adapting to the needs of its own local community.

Williams was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1894, and after his death was commemorated with a stained-glass window in the nave of Westminster Abbey. Sir George Williams is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

YMCA Timeline

1844 – YMCA founded in London by George Williams.

1845 – YMCAs created in Manchester and Leeds.

1849 – Non-Christians welcomed to join YMCA. YMCA public lectures & education classes begin. 

1851YMCAs created in USA and Canada.

1853 First YMCA for African Americans founded in Washington, D.C. by Anthony Bowen, a freed slave.

1869 YMCA gymnasiums were opened to provide fitness activities.

1877 – YMCA Cornwall founded, originally known as Penzance YMCA, situated in what was then Morrab Library. A three storey building in Market Jew Street, Penzance was gifted to YMCA Cornwall; in later years this became Woolworths. YMCA used one room and other organisations based in the building included a butcher, hairdresser, hardware shop and Toc H.

1881 YMCA in Boston developed exercise classes that became known as body building.

1891 YMCA in Massachusetts invented basketball and volleyball.

1894 – George Williams receives a Knighthood from Queen Victoria on the 50th Anniversary of YMCA.

1911 – YMCA opened first purpose-built home in London.

1914 – World War I: YMCAs provided soldiers with food, drink, paper and envelopes so they could write home. The red poppy was introduced by an American YMCA worker which is now a worldwide symbol of remembrance for those lost in the World Wars.

1932 to 1968 – YMCA set up the “British Boys for British Farms” training scheme and delivered farm training to over 20,000 young people. 14 BBBF Centres trained boys aged 14 to 17 from varying backgrounds to work on local farms for 8 to 12 weeks before moving on to another farm. The boys lived in YMCA hostels and were assisted by a YMCA Field Officer for a year.

1939 to 1945 – During World War II YMCA introduced mobile canteens to bring refreshments to the troops. It also supported displaced people, refugees and prisoners of war.

1940s – The Orchard, Penzance was an upmarket B&B run by Mrs D Pott.

1951 – The building and land known as The Orchard was purchased by YMCA Cornwall for £6,500. The orchard with two large conservatories was sold. The building was greatly extended by YMCA to provide youth accommodation. Fitness activities and dances were well attended by the local community for many years.

1980s – YMCA Cornwall’s lower ground floor dining room and rooms above were created.

1990s – YMCA Cornwall’s Appletree House and Cherrytree House buildings constructed in Penzance, providing 22 self-contained flats for vulnerable young people.

2000 to 2010 – YMCA Cornwall delivered youth work activities to young people living in YMCA accommodation and in the local community.

2010s – YMCA Cornwall nursery set up in Mullion to provide professional childcare facilities for local families living in rural isolated area.

2015 to 2021 – YMCA Cornwall’s in-house maintenance team created 20 new flats in “Morris House”, converting obsolete sports hall and backpackers accommodation into much needed supported accommodation for vulnerable young people.