YMCA, Wellington

Why am I writing about the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association)? Because I came across this photo taken by the Crown Studios in Wellington, which has my father in it – so I’m guessing from his likely age that it was taken in about 1926 . In trying to identify the uniforms, the most likely is the YMCA, which had a red triangle as its logo. However, I still don’t know what the circles and dots mean – perhaps different levels of competence? And the sport? – probably gymnastics which was popular then.

dad as a boy (1)  YMCA uniform details

My father is the rather sulky-looking boy in the third row from the front, second on the right. But then, obviously, they weren’t supposed to smile as hardly anyone is.

Fred Morrell, c. 1926

YMCA 1930

Although this image isn’t of good quality (it’s from a newspaper) you can see the same symbol  on some of these men’s shirts. The caption is YMCA gymnasts at Trentham (the championship was won by Wellington).  Evening Post, 29 October 1930, p. 9.

Here is a testimonial for my father from the YMCA:


Formation of the YMCA

Wikipedia says this about the formation of the YMCA: “The YMCA was founded by George Williams, a London draper, who was typical of the young men drawn to the cities by the Industrial Revolution. He and his colleagues were concerned about the lack of healthy activities for young men in major cities. Williams’s idea grew out of meetings he held for prayer and Bible-reading among his fellow-workers in a business in the city of London, and on 6 June 1844, he founded the first YMCA in London with the purpose of “the improving of the spiritual condition of young men engaged in the drapery, embroidery, and other trades.” By 1851, there were YMCAs in the United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States.

The YMCA was very influential between the 1870s and 1930s, during which time they most successfully promoted evangelical Christianity in weekday and Sunday services, while promoting good sportsmanship in athletic contests in gyms (where basketball and volleyball were invented) and swimming pools.”[1]

Clearly athletics and healthy sports were important: This Association Men cover from June 1919  shows the red triangle. Photo from Wikipedia. (I would be interested to know what the Adventures in Chin Building article was about.)

YMCA magazineOf course, since the Village People’s 1978 song “YMCA” we know of its association with homosexual subculture; however I don’t think my father or his parents would have been too aware of this. Again, from Wikipedia: ‘The YMCA was associated with homosexual subculture through the middle part of the 20th century, with the athletic facilities providing cover for closeted individuals, although as early as 1896 O. Henry had written a short story about “the notorious Young Men’s Christian Association” where few knew “what scenes go on in places of this kind.”’

YMCA in New Zealand

The first YMCA appeared in New Zealand in March 1855 in Auckland.[2] And as early as 1 October 1856 a YMCA library and reading room opened in Durham Street. ‘Classes in science and literature would be established at the request of subscribers’. Ladies could also subscribe.[3] The advertisement also noted that ‘Tea, coffee and general refreshments provided on moderate terms’ but then added ‘the committee desire to add, the whole of the advantages enumerated are not yet available’.

The YMCA undertook fund-raising and provided other assistance during World War One.

YMCA 1917

This is an advertisement in the Presbyterian Church Outlook magazine for the interdenominational Young Men’s Christian Association ‘Red Triangle Day’, 1917. The YMCA undertook considerable work within New Zealand and especially overseas during the war, providing Christian-based home comforts, accommodation, social and recreational facilities and entertainment, convalescent facilities, and canteens: “Providing Christian based facilities and fellowship was seen as a necessary alternative to safeguard soldiers from often immoral and corrupting alternatives”. (From Presbyterian archives site.)

YMCA and YWCA in Wellington

YMCA building Willis St  YWCA Boulcott St

These photos show the YMCA building in Willis St, Wellington and the YWCA building in Boulcott St (late 1920s) – the YWCA is the lovely house (formerly the residence of Dr Collins) located between St Mary’s of the Angels church and (from 1930) Hotel St George; for many years the site has been a carpark, but is now being built on. (Both from National Library collection.)

Girls also took part in the YMCA sports during the 1920s, at least in Wellington. There was also a gymnasium in Kilbirnie, which may have been where my father went as he lived in the not-too-distant suburb of Berhampore.[4] YMCA Father and Son banquets became popular in the 1920s and then Mother and Son events[5]. This photo, which includes my father and his father Walter, may have been taken at such an event. I think the two in the front row (circled) are my father and grandfather.

Fred & Walter copy

I do have an association with the YWCA – I lived in the YWCA hostel in upper Willis Street for a year when I first came to Wellington as a 17 year old. It was probably the only way my parents would have let me come to Wellington on my own! And I joined their hockey team, thinking it would be a good way to meet ‘other girls’ at the hostel – except that, as I discovered, it had little to do with the hostel, or the YWCA, other than its name, and was usually the top team in Wellington women’s hockey at that time. One of my few hockey career highlights was as a member of the Wellington Under-23 Women’s team when I was 19, and we toured Victoria, Australia – this was my first trip overseas and I enjoyed the travel, but hated the hockey (for reasons I won’t go in to!) and gave up a year or so later.

This was the building I stayed in. I was on the fifth floor (second from top) about three rooms from the right end. Men weren’t allowed above the ground floor then! This building is now a hotel.

YWCA Willis St

Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) building on Willis Street, Wellington. 1967. Ref: DW-3075-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23010802


[1] From Wikipedia, YMCA: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/YMCA

[2] Colin Taylor, Body, Mind and Spirit: Celebrating 150 years of the YMCA in Auckland, 1855-2005, Reed, 2005

[3] Daily Southern Cross, 3 October 1856, Page 2. This was the first reference I found by searching Papers Past. An advert in April 1860 said they had been established for five years. Somewhat oddly this advertisement was in a Wellington newspaper (Wellington Independent, 24 April 1860, Page 2)

[4] Y.M.C.A. GYMNASTICS, Evening Post, 17 November 1926, Page 17

[5] Colin Taylor, p. 147


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