The YMCA Building In Llanelli
On 17th February, 1909 it was reported in the South Wales Press that plans had been deposited with the Surveyor of Llanelly Urban Council and were to be considered at a meeting of the Health Committee that evening. The reporter noted that the fact that the building was expected to cost between £6000 and £7000 (£645,00 and £752,500) proved that it would be a substantial one, and that a “fine swimming bath” was to be included. The architect was Mr. William Griffiths of Falcon Chambers, Llanelly. The contractor was Mr. T.P. Jones, South Wales Stores, Llanelly.By May of 1909 a committee had been formed and a meeting convened for 13th May at 7.15 pm. presided over by Mr. J. Wesley Jones, in response to a notice circulated in the town. “The time has now arrived ... when a final effort will have to be made to secure additional subscriptions of £500 (£53,754) if the proposal to build a Young Men’s Christian Association Hall in this town is to be carried to a successful issue,” he said. “It has been decided not to commence building until the sum of £3,500 (£376,245) is promised in subscriptions. The amount now promised is £3,000 leaving £500 still to be obtained.”
The contract was to be divided into two sections, the first to include three lock-up shops, lounge and reception hall, billiard room, parlour and hall accommodating 350, rooms for holding friendly society meetings, rooms for Bible study and Gospel meetings, rooms for strangers and visitors, caretaker’s apartments, and a gymnasium. The second part of the contract would comprise a swimming bath which could be used as a large hall in the winter and one more shop.
Mr. W.W. Brodie, chairman of the Finance Committee, said the cost of the first part of the scheme was estimated at £4,000 (£430,000). Subscriptions of £3,000, included £1,500 from general subscribers, £1000 from employees and £500 from Messrs. Cory. Since funds were short by £500, a decision had to be made as to whether or not the committee were “justified in proceeding” before the previously agreed figure of £3,500 had been promised. A number of ideas for raising the sum were put forward. Mr. Brodie thought it should be possible “to get a considerable number of young people to undertake to find £1 (£107.50) each.” The Secretary suggested issuing collecting cards at £1 each. He had 150 names of people who hadn’t yet promised. Mr. Evan Roberts asked if the shop assistants had contributed — they had, their union had given 5 guineas (£564). The clerks at the South Wales Works gave 2 guineas (£225) and many had sent individual subscriptions.
Mr. Brodie said that there was nothing to prevent their proceeding with the scheme even though the £3,500 had not yet been promised; Mr. Bevan said he would second that if Mr. Brodie would propose . Mr. Brodie said he would not, because “he did not agree with the idea” (!)
Mr. J. Clement moved that they go ahead because “people liked to see what they were going to get for their money.” Mr. Jenkins was of the opinion that “hundreds of young men would contribute once the building was in hand.” Mr. Willis Walker suggested sending out circulars with a special appeal for funds. Mr. Brodie said that would only mean a bill for postage. (!)
Mr. Brodie favoured the Secretary’s proposal to issue collecting cards for the sum of £1 and over, and “expressed the hope that publicity would be given to the suggestion that the young men of the town who had not already given should come forward and make a special donation for the final effort.”
Another meeting was scheduled for a week later, 20th May, 1909.
Clearly, the “final effort” was made because by November, 1909 with groundworks well advanced they were ready to lay the foundation stones – five of them. The ceremony was scheduled for Saturday, 6th November and looked forward to with enthusiasm.
On the preceding Monday night, 1st November, a Carnival was held involving a torchlight procession through the town and a “smoker” or smoking concert in the “Market Pavilion – a more unsuitable place ... it would be difficult to find” according to one reporter. The procession of floats and individuals in various categories including Decorated Vehicle, Decorated Tradesman’s Vehicle, Decorated Cycle, Pedestrians and Specials also failed to please the reporter who accused them of “lacking originality”. He said that the organisers had arranged the event “somewhat badly” particularly in relation to the collection of funds. He admitted that “a substantial sum (was) realised, but it would probably have been considerably more had most of the collectors been a trifle less hasty”.
On Tuesday night, 2nd November, the money was counted. Total receipts: £23. 3s. 4d. plus £2 7s. 3d. collected at the “smoker”, making a grand total of £25 10s. 7d. (£2,744.64). A Miss Lizzie Jenkins did especially well: she brought in the fine sum of £3 6s. 3½ d. (three pounds, six shillings and threepence-halfpenny in 1909: £356.13p. in 2015)
On Saturday the stone-laying was to take place at 3.30 p.m. but not before a formal reception and luncheon for “an influential gathering” were held at the Higher Elementary School in Coleshill Terrace, speeches made, and a further £126.6s. 1d. had been collected.
The Chairman of the Building Committee, Mr. J. Wesley Jones said that the number of guests “proved ... more than their words that they were in hearty sympathy with the movement”.
Mr. Brodie, Chairman of the Finance Committee informed his audience of the financial position saying, “I feel that in a small way my duty amounts to propounding a Budget ... and I shall have to adopt the traditions of that high office by announcing a deficit and suggesting fresh taxation (laughter). One can follow these traditions without showing the slightest party spirit because it does not matter what party is in power, there is always a deficit, and invariably fresh taxation (laughter and applause). It would appear to be a painful necessity of our advancing civilisation.”
He went on to say that they would proceed first with Section l estimated at £4000 but, “estimates, however carefully framed have, as you know, a way of attracting to themselves extras (laughter). And we shall doubtless have to face some addition to this amount.”
He said that £3000 had already been subscribed, and “The fact of the working men having joined in the scheme ... gave us confidence in asking the employers of labour to subscribe to the funds. It is not necessary go into the question ... of the moral responsibilities of employer and employed. Suffice it to say that for our present purposes ... whatever tends to promote the physical and moral well-being, comfort and happiness of the employed must infallibly tend to the benefit of the employer (applause) .... there is a duty cast upon the community to provide places where young men of all classes and religious denominations can meet under healthy and elevating conditions. It is only natural that they should desire to meet together. It is doubtless a persistent survival of the tribal instincts of the race and requires to be properly provided for. It is true that there are houses now licensed by law for the ... sale of certain beverages therein. But many people are of the opinion that some of them should be closed. I desire to express no opinion on it (laughter).”
Mr. Evan Roberts, chairman of the Employees’ Finance Committee said that “the labouring section felt – for which they were thankful – that practical Providence had smiled upon them in the midst of the rain and storm of the past.” His announcement that they had given the Secretary £380 (£40,853.75) and that visits from door-to-door, (two thousand of them!) had produced £423.13s. (£45,546.56) was greeted with applause.
Mr. Howard Williams, chairman of the British and Colonial Committee of the YMCA and son of George Williams, the founder of the movement, said that the YMCA ”offered welcome to every young man, and ... a home to those who were unfortunate in not having a home for themselves” They gave “every man an opportunity of living a clean, healthy life, and to be a God-fearing and loyal citizen of our Empire.” They were “first and foremost a Christian Association”. The YMCA endeavoured to “inspire their members with the higher aims of life, and to make them good members, sterling friends, and dutiful sons.”
After these uplifting thoughts, the party proceeded to the building’s site, a few hundred yards away.
The ceremony began with a hymn “Oh, God Our Help in Ages Past” to the accompaniment of music from the Territorial Band, followed by a reading from scripture by Dr. David Davies of St. Paul’s church, and a “fervent prayer” by Dr. Thomas Johns, president of the Llanelly Free Church Council. The five foundation stones were laid inscribed with the names of Lady Stepney, Mrs. Joseph Maybery, Mr. Howard Williams, Mr. John Cory, and Mr. W. Llewelyn Williams MP on behalf of the working-men of Llanelly. In the “unavoidable absence” of Mrs. Maybery and Mr. Cory, their stones were laid by Miss Brodie and Mr. W. Pratt of Newport. It appears that Miss Stepney laid the stone for her mother, Lady Stepney, who was also absent. The Llanelly Mercury reported that this was the first public event for Miss Stepney since inheriting her father, Sir Arthur’s, estate. He had died suddenly just four months earlier. It is probable that Lady Stepney was in mourning.
Miss Stepney said “she only wished her father could have performed the ceremony. She hoped to do many things instead of him - not so well as he would have himself – but she would endeavour to follow in his footsteps.” Bouquets were presented to the ladies.
The opening ceremony took place on Saturday, 18th March, some eight months later than originally hoped for, and was performed by Mrs. Beaumont Thomas who was presented with a golden key. Dr. David Davies’s reading from the Scripture was followed by a prayer from the Dr. Thomas Johns.
The Llanelly Mercury said, “It was a red-letter day in the annals of the YMCA movement inasmuch as” the building was “the first of its kind to which the working-men have contributed weekly through their pay offices. The working-men readily agreed to contribute £1000, at the rate of a halfpenny (0.44p.) per head per week for a period of two years, provided they were represented on the management committee. As the result of the combined efforts of all classes of the community a building with all the modern equipments (sic) has been erected at a cost of £4000, the cost of the furniture amounting to £500.” There was a deficit of £1500, but when that was liquidated the swimming bath and gymnasium were to be added.
The Inaugural Meeting held after the formal opening ceremony was chaired by Mr. W.Y. Nevill, the first president of Llanelly YMCA. He said that they now “had a building worthy of the name and he hoped it would be the means of bringing together men of all classes ... to form a united brotherhood (hear, hear)”. Their progress so far had been due to “much hard work and perseverance”, and Mr. Wesley Jones said that it was “only through united action that the building had been erected. They were determined to have something to “counteract the degrading clubs in this and other towns.” Dr. Johns referred to the leisure hours of the young men. “That was the danger,” he said, “for the devil found some mischief still for idle hands to do.”
The YMCA provided a valuable service to the young men of Llanelli for most of the twentieth century. It did not accept women as members until the 1960s. The fine brick-built building on the green opposite the town hall is now in urgent need of repair and maintenance.
Notes and Citations
- George Williams, 1821-1905. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1895 and buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. He founded the YMCA in London, 1844. After his meeting with like-minded men at the Great Exhibition of 1851 the movement spread internationally. By the time of its fiftieth anniversary in 1905 there were 707,000 members in 45 countries. It now operates in 119 countries, reaches 58 million people, and is based in Geneva Switzerland. www.ymca.int
- Sir Arthur Cowell-Stepney died on 2nd July, 1909. His death had been reported in the Llanelly Mercury (8th July) four months earlier. Lady Stepney (formerly the Hon. Margaret Warren) may have been in mourning. He had apparently died from the effects of extreme heat and a weak heart on the platform of the railroad station at Yuma, Arizona. He was said to have been on a beetle-hunting expedition.
- Mrs. Beaumont Thomas was the wife of Llanelly industrialist, Richard Beaumont Thomas, owner of the Burry Extension Works at Machynys.
- Sources: South Wales Press 17th February 1909, 19th May 1909, 11th September 1909, 27th October 1909, 3rd November 1909.
- Llanelly Mercury 20th May 1909, 28th October 1909, 11th November 1909, 23rd March 1911.
- Black and white photographs by kind permission of Llanelli Library