The Young Women's Christian Association was formed as a result of a growing interest in the welfare of young women at work and the dangers to which they were exposed on leaving home, often to work long hours for very low pay in factories and workshops in the metropolis. The whole character of the work from the outset was essentially religious and there were two strands in its development: in 1855 Miss Emma Robarts, the youngest of five unmarried sisters living with their father in Barnet, formed a Prayer Union with 23 friends to help girls through intercessory prayer. Following the example of the Young Men's Christian Association, formed eleven years previously in 1844, they called themselves the Young Women's Christian Association, and made contact with the girls for whom they prayed. In 1859 this group took the name of the ‘Prayer Union’ and continued as a sort of inner circle of the Association for many years. As the movement spread in the 1860s and 1870s (there were 130 branches by 1872), the Unions met not only just for prayer, bible study and friendly social intercourse, but also to cater for the wider interests of the girls, aimed at developing body, mind and spirit. There were also boarding houses and some institutes or clubs.
Quite independently of this, also in 1855, the Hon. Mrs Arthur (Mary Jane) Kinnaird opened a home in London with a friendly Christian atmosphere where Florence Nightingale's nurses could stay both en route for and on their return from the Crimea. This home in Upper Charlotte Street also opened its doors to the many girls coming up to London to work. The first report of The United Association for the Christian and Domestic Improvement of Young Women in 1862, told of its interest in the well being of young women engaged in houses of business, ‘Many people have learnt to care for their souls, and to desire earnestly to remove the pressure of over-work, by which their bodily and mental health is so often impaired’. The Association's stated aim was to establish homes all over London, with a missionary in each to be a friend and teacher of all in that neighbourhood who would come to her for sympathy and counsel. Bible classes and meals were provided and there were a few boarders. The 1863 report stated that three London hostels had been opened with lodging costing 3s. 6d. on average, and that a fourth one was in prospect. Already there were auxiliary associations in Bristol and Liverpool, and other cities, including Paris, were interested in the movement. The report for 1865-66 refers to the group as The Christian Association for Young Women and by the time of the report for 1867-1868, there is a second title of Young Women's Christian Association in use. There were then two distinct branches of the Association, the Institutes, and the Boarding Houses or Homes. At the Central Institute, which opened in February 1866, young women could attend not only bible classes and religious meetings, but also a French class, and there was a good free library.
From the first the movement was enterprising: the 1870 report mentions the first convalescent home at Brighton. This association also aimed to provide young women with the same opportunities as those afforded to young men in the YMCA. The 1876 report refers to endeavours ‘to form one General Association, consisting of a London Union for prayer and Christian Work, in connection with a world-wide Prayer Union previously originated’. In January 1877 Miss Robarts and Mrs Kinnaird met and the union of the two associations in London was effected. Before the official announcement, however, Emma Robarts died on 1 May 1877. The report that year stated ‘The work of the Society has been further developed during the past year, by the completion of the Union begun during the previous year with the YWCA, formed co[n]temporaneously with our London Association, by the late Miss Robarts. ... And the United Association is called 'The London Young Women's Institute Union and Christian Association'. Its objects were ‘to combine in a Union for prayer and work on behalf of Young Women of all classes, Christians whose interest can be gained’, and ‘to establish Institutes combined occasionally with Boarding Houses for the benefit of those engaged in houses of business or employed by them’. The rest of the country was included, but London had its own separate Council until 1884. In this year too, the objects, expanded from an earlier form of 1877, also took definite shape. The organisation which developed comprised six centres (London; England and Wales; Scotland; Ireland; Foreign; Colonial and Missionary), each with its own president, secretary, heads of department and council.
In 1879 work had begun among girls employed in public bars, railway refreshment rooms, laundries, etc. This included inquiries and action for the improvement of homes and working conditions, as well as the distribution of Christian literature, meetings and personal visiting. The Flower Mission organised distribution of fresh flowers and texts. The following year visiting and missions among the girls and women of the Herring Fisheries in Scotland began. In 1884 the first women's restaurant was opened in Fitzroy Street, whilst on the administrative front the United Central Council, later the National Council, was established and 'Our Own Gazette' first published. 1886 saw the formation of the Factory Helpers' Union and Nurses's Union (as a result of the development of the College of Nursing this ceased to operate in 1917), and in 1889 the Teachers' Christian Union started. The greatest expansion of the era came in 1894 with the inauguration of the World's YWCA, formed by the YWCAs of Great Britain, the United States, Norway and Sweden. At its first conference in London in 1898 there were 300 representatives from twenty countries and all five continents.
The early 20th century saw the establishment of the YWCA Social Services Committee to deal with social and industrial problems and conditions needing reform. This took over the work of the formerly independent Industrial Law Committee in 1920, becoming the Industrial Law Bureau and continuing until 1938. From 1912 the YWCA was also involved in the Guiding Movement and papers relating tothis survive in the archive. During the first world war, the YWCA opened welfare centres for women serving in France, and its work in Britain included the Portsmouth Club for war workers.
The years following the war saw the movement in crisis: at the Biennial Conference in Ilkley in June 1920 there was full discussion of matters engaging the Association, the two principal being the interpretation of the Bible and the forms of recreation in local centres. Were they to allow smoking and dancing, for example? The Association as a whole favoured a more liberal interpretation of the main Christian aim and subsequently some 60 branches, who wished to confine the work within stricter limits, seceded to form the Christian Alliance of Women and Girls: the records bear ample witness to this event and the pain it caused. 1924 saw the secession of part of the Scottish Council and the formation of the YWCA of Scotland. Other happier events during the inter-war years were the creation of the Blue Triangle Home Service Corps to help with domestic service problems and improve standards of training in 1919, and the establishment of the Working Women's College at Beckenham in Kent, which later became independent, in 1920, whilst in 1926 the YWCA College at Selly Oak opened for the training of leaders.
The 1930 Review reported a growing and changing membership: whereas from 1918-1925, members had been drawn mainly from the industrial and domestic workers, now there was a large and growing element from business and the professions, and a small but keen number of leisured women and girls. Membership flourished where centres had varied and educational activities and where they were more a women's centre than a girls' club. In 1932 came the opening of the YWCA Central Building in London by H.R.H. the Duchess of York, the architect being Sir Edward Lutyens.
As always the YWCA was alert to the social needs of the time. In 1933 it co-operated with the National Council of Social Service in help for the unemployed. The China Relief Fund was set up to raise funds in England for the YWCA's work in China following the war in the Far East, and there are records for 1937-1939. In 1938 The Domestic Training Centre for Czech refugee girls started at Richmond, later moving to Phillips House, Dinton, Salisbury. The war saw a whole hearted YWCA response: many service stations in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and as far as Malaya were set up. In Great Britain hostels for War and Munition Workers were established in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Supply; there were also 294 Land Army hostels, service centres, mobile clubs, and railway rest rooms.
In the post-war period the YWCA was concerned to help war workers find a place in the home community. As usual the issues were faced squarely. The need to extend and modernise their buildings and acquire new ones was recognised. Education, training and international service remained challenges and the YWCA would work to ‘emphasise our Christian world outlook and to foster a stable peace by promoting intelligent support of the Charter of the United Nations’. Public sympathy and financial support would be a necessity. The early 1950s saw a survey of hostels to monitor their success in their respective communities and their modernisation and viability. As a result some 27 hostels were closed. But the 1950s was also a successful forward looking decade. In 1953 following reconstruction, Bedford House was opened as the National Headquarters and Hostel by Lady Churchill. The Centenary celebrations in 1955 are well recorded in the archives and included a pageant, broadcasts and centenary publications. In 1957 a new constitution and bye laws were adopted. This was followed at the 1969 Triennial Conference by opening the membership to all over the age of 11: men and women, girls and boys, irrespective of race or religion.
The continuing vitality and enterprise of the YWCA post war is also illustrated by its acceptance of other new challenges at this time: in 1953 the Tropical Community Development Centre opened, to provide a training course for those volunteering to serve in a tropical community, and after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 the YWCA acted as a clearing house for refugees coming into the country. In 1954 the first nearly new shop opened in Wolverhampton . The 1960s and 1970s were to see the extension of Young Wives' Clubs, the introduction of the Day Release Scheme at Bedford House and the opening of Alexandra Residential Clubs and of residential flats. Blue Triangle further education courses began and new community projects started at Bradford and Bristol. The YWCA material on deposit here includes very little for the time after 1960, but issues of 'Update' the magazine of the YWCA of GB in 1990-1993, make clear the relevance of the Association in the lives of many women today. Unemployment, homelessness, independent living, the needs of refugees and migrants are all issues being met by the YWCA, often in partnership with other welfare bodies. Hostel life still goes on, with support for the young homeless often having to be much more than just providing accommodation, but there are now also some self-catering units, houses for young mothers and their babies and flats for people on low incomes. In schools, the YWCA has concerned itself with tackling bullying, whilst the Maze Project is a YWCA drug education and prevention service. The Association's statistics in 1993 are impressive: as part of world wide movement flourishing in almost 90 countries, the YWCA of Great Britain proclaimed itself to be a nationwide Christian movement, which was open to all, irrespective of ethnic origin, political or religious belief. It had a national network of 75 houses which provided safe affordable accommodation for some 10,000 people, mainly women, each year. It provided services to about 60,000 people through its local projects and involved over 3,000 volunteers in the running of the Association at local, national and international level. It employed 220 full-time and 360 part-time staff and currently spent £8 million a year, of which around 77% went on housing and 23% towards youth and community projects. Of this expenditure, 20% was funded by grants and subsidies from central and local government, and 55% from voluntary income and trading activities.
As these figures and the records at the Modern Records Centre clearly demonstrate, the continuing success of the movement has lain in its ability to adapt to the needs of young women, whose welfare has always been the paramount consideration, by empowering them to change their own lives through workshops, education, youth clubs and women's centres, whilst still holding to the Christian principles of its founders. As such the YWCA has a future and an important role to play in a new millennium.
The YWCA changed its name to YWCA England & Wales in 2002 and its operating name to Platform 51 in 2010 and extended its purpose to include all girls and women who are vulnerable and isolated. It finally became the Young Women's Trust (YWT) in 2013. The YWCA of Great Britain continues.