Wearside Echoes: Fun at the YMCA

OLD SCENE: The Sunderland YMCA buildingin Borough Road
OLD SCENE: The Sunderland YMCA buildingin Borough Road
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WEARSIDERS who found it “fun to stay at the YMCA” during the dark days of World War Two have held their final reunion – almost 70 after first meeting at the club.

The lyrics of the 1979 global hit by the Village People urged people who were down on their luck or needed help getting back on their feet to change their lives at the YMCA.

But one group of teenagers who joined Sunderland’s YMCA in the latter years of the war gained much more than a helping hand – they found friendships spanning the decades.

“The YMCA was a very important part of our lives,” said retired council housing manager Alan Smith, 81. “It was full of nice people, and they are still nice people 67 years on.

“We grew up together at the YMCA. We played sport, went to dances and had great times on trips. Our reunions are just the same – people going from table to table, chatting about the good times.”

It was in November 1871 that plans to open a YMCA in Sunderland were first agreed, but it wasn’t until February 1872 that the fledgling association opened its first meeting place in Borough Road.

Formed with the aim of helping young Wearsiders develop “healthy spirits, minds and bodies,” the first members to flock through the doors were offered a mix of sporting and religious activities.

“It was religion of the evangelical kind,” the Echo reported in 1942 “There were bible classes and devotional meetings. A reading room with religious magazines and periodicals was also provided.

“But there were no newspapers or games. These were not allowed until some years later, and then only after controversy resulting in the resignation of some of the die-hard evangelicals.”

Such was the popularity of Sunderland’s YMCA that it was forced to move to larger premises several times between 1872 to 1928. The outbreak of war in 1939 also led to major changes.

A YMCA canteen for Forces personnel was set up in Fawcett Street, based in the old Subscription Library, where visiting servicemen and women could buy cheap and nourishing meals.

The YMCA’s base in Park Terrace became home to a youth club during the war years too, and a YMCA hostel was set up to provide bed and board for up to 70 servicemen a night.

“By the end of the war, the Sunderland branch of the Association had served 3,000,000 cups of tea, 1,500,000 meals and provided 75,000 beds to visiting Forces personnel,” reported the Echo in 1949.

It was during the latter years of the war that 14-year-old Alan, who had just left school, first signed up with the YMCA youth club. There he was to make friendships which would last a lifetime.

“We were all wartime children, many of us had been bombed out, and we had a lot in common,” he recalls. “Many of us had grown up together too, as a good percentage were from Hendon.”

Another new member was Hendon girl Mary Flanagan, also 81, who was inspired to join in 1944 after being told about the new YMCA youth club during a talk at her school.

“The day I joined was the day my life really began. The YM experience helped to form the type of people we have since become. It has been a hugely important part of my life,” she said.

“Although the YMCA was originally for boys, it also had a section for girls by the time I joined. I was never interested in joining the all-women YWCA, I just thought the YMCA was more fun!”

A brochure from the 1940s shows members of Sunderland’s YMCA could take part in a packed programme of activities – from film nights to table tennis contests and keep fit classes.

Drama, badminton and basketball groups flourished within the organisation too, and there was also the much-anticipated weekly dance each Saturday night in gym of the Luxdon Hall.

“Arthur Fenton and his band would play at our dances, which was marvellous. The gymnasium floor was properly sprung as well, which meant it was great for dancing,” recalls Mary.

“The girls and boys didn’t really mix during other activities, but we got together for the dances – as well as in the canteen. No-one had any money, so it was always one orange squash and six straws!

“We also used to put on pantomimes, and I played the part of Dick in Dick Whittington one year. There were summer camping trips to Maske, near Saltburn, too – all strictly segregated of course.”

Alan has particularly fond memories of basketball sessions at the YMCA, when expert tuition was provided by visiting Mormons, as well as camping trips to Croxdale with his pals.

“The camp site was used by the lads almost every weekend, and not just in the summer. If a Bank Holiday Monday followed the weekend, the girls would often come by bus to collect us,” he said.

The carefree days of the YMCA youth club were, however, strictly limited for Alan and his friends. Within just a few years, most of the teenagers were called up for National Service.

“A lot of us returned to the YMCA once we had finished at about 21, but we went to the centre in Fawcett Street rather than the youth club – as it was more or less for adults,” he said.

“We played table tennis and football there, and quite a few people met their future spouses at the YM after finishing their National Service.”

The ‘Class of 1944/45’ eventually drifted away from the YMCA, however, as jobs, marriage and families took centre stage in their lives. It took the funeral of a YM pal to bring them back together.

“When we met up at the service, we realised how nice it would be to have a proper reunion. That was 12 or 13 years ago, and we’ve had several gatherings over the years since then,” said Mary.

And Alan added: “What I find quite outstanding is how many people from the old days are still with us – and want to keep meeting up. The YMCA was a very important part in all our lives. It gave us something money can never buy – friendships that have lasted our lifetimes.”

Sidebar: History of Sunderland’s YMCA

THE Young Men’s Christian Association was founded in London on June 6, 1844, with the aim of putting Christian principles into practice by developing “healthy spirits, minds and bodies.”

Sunderland’s YMCA formed almost 30 years later - when a group of young men met at the Athenaeum on November 13, 1871, and agreed to develop a local branch of the global organisation.

“Mr Frederick Taylor presided, and it was unanimously decided that a YMCA of a non-sectarian character was necessary for Sunderland,” an article in the Echo on June 6, 1944, revealed.

“By December 14, a general meeting of members of the Association was held. Rules were adopted and a subscription of five shillings a year was fixed.”

The fledgling group rented part of a house in Borough Road Terrace for their opening meeting on February 15, 1872. Captain Joseph Wiggins, a famous Arctic explorer, took the chair for the event.

“He was to maintain an interest in the branch until he left Sunderland in 1874. The Captain made his parting gift a rowing boat, so that the Association could start a boating club,” reported the Echo.

The activities obviously proved popular. As dozens flocked to join, organisers were forced to move their headquarters within a year - to a larger base at the corner of Foyle Street and Borough Road.

Five years later, in 1878, a building at the corner of John Street and Borough Road was snapped up for £3,400 - around £250,000 today. It was to remain the Association’s home for the next 50 years.

The new premises was opened in February 1879 and among the well-known local figures present were MPs Mr E.T. Gourley and Sir Henry Havelock, as well as Echo proprietor Samuel Storey.

“There was a garden entrance to these premises, which were rebuilt in 1894 - a fitting celebration of the Jubilee of the founding of the YMCA in London.,” reported the Echo.

The YMCA later moved from Borough Road to Park Terrace, with the opening ceremony performed by Her Royal Highness Princess Marie Louise on December 5, 1928.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, it became home to the YMCA youth club, and a canteen for servicemen was set up by the YMCA in Fawcett Street.

Once peace was declared, the old library was turned it into “a second home for the youth of Sunderland” and the YMCA continued to expand and develop.

Premises in Toward Road became the new HQ in the 1950s, an 80-bed hall of residence was opened in Gray Road in the 1960s and an outdoor adventure centre was developed in the 1990s.

Today the Toward Road base of the YMCA has been transformed into a home and training centre for 50 young homeless people, with the aim of helping them “to move on in life.”

The motto for 2011 has also moved on - “Young people are not changed by Sunderland YMCA – they change themselves.”