On this day in history : 11th October 1821 – The birth of English philanthropist and businessman Sir George Williams – who founded the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)….

Sir George Williams by John Collier

Williams was born on a farm in Dulverton, Somerset – the youngest of the seven sons of Amos Williams and Elizabeth Vickery…. He attended school in Tiverton until the age of 13 and then began to work on the family farm….

In 1837 he became the apprentice of draper Henry William Holmes in Bridgewater…. It was also around this time that he converted from Anglicanism to Congregationalism, becoming an involved member of the Zion Congregational Church….

In 1841 Williams moved to London and began working at the drapers store Hitchcock and Rogers – and in 1844, at the age of just 22, he had become a department manager….

As a young man himself Williams was appalled by the terrible living conditions of the many young working men drawn to the city by the Industrial Revolution…. He was concerned that there were few healthy activities for them to occupy themselves – many spent all of their free time in the taverns and brothels…. He gathered together eleven of his friends, all fellow young drapers and on the 6th of June 1844 the first meeting was held that led to the founding of the YMCA…. Its purpose : ‘To improve the spiritual condition of young men engaged in the drapery, embroidery and other trades’….

Between 1844 and 1849 the YMCA began to address other concerns of young, working city men…. Public lectures and classes were held and reading rooms were established…. By 1845 the organisation began to spread from London to other areas of the country…. In 1873 its first holiday centre opened on the Isle of Wight…. By 1879 it had reached the United States…. What started as a simple Bible study and prayer meeting group for young men now serves more than 65 million people in 120 countries….

World Alliance of YMCAs logo emblem 1881 – Fair use

As for Williams – he didn’t do too badly for himself…. In 1853 he married the daughter of the owner of Hitchcock and Rogers, Helen Jane Maunder Hitchcock and they had seven children…. He became a partner in the drapers and when his father-in-law died he became the sole owner…. In 1894 he received a Knighthood from Queen Victoria – and when he died in 1905 he was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral….

Central London YMCA, Great Russell Street

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