The YMCA Movement

The Young Men’s Christian Association was founded in 1844 in London by George Williams. Appalled by the terrible conditions in London for young working men, he gathered a group of his fellow drapers to substitute life on the streets for prayer and bible study.

The YMCA was unusual because it was ecumenical, meaning it brought together Christians of different denominations. As the group expanded they recognised that they should serve not just Christians but all people who needed support. This principle remains central to the philosophy of YMCA work.

The American YMCA Movement, founded in 1851, led the development of physical fitness. It went on to invent both basketball and volleyball.

By its 50th anniversary the YMCA had become so significant that George Williams received a knighthood from Queen Victoria.

Leicester Beginnings

The Leicester Association began with premises in Market Place in 1883 with Mr Thomas Howard Lloyd as president. It soon became clear that “these premises were inadequate for the increasing number of young men employed in business houses in Leicester. Attractive facilities had to be made to counteract the temptations of life in a large town presented to men living away from home, with very few suitable places in which to spend their leisure hours, obtain recreation and form companionships”.

In 1896 Alderman Albert Sawday became president and began to design a new, Baroque style, home for the YMCA. The Association Hall was opened by The Marquis of Northampton on December 5th 1900. Originally built as a Christian lecture hall it is now known as The Y Theatre, Leicester’s oldest surviving theatre. Mr Sawday, an architect responsible for many buildings in early 20th century Leicester, became the Mayor of Leicester in 1903.

The Great War

It is estimated that more than 1 million service men used Leicester YMCA’s facilities across the city during the years of the First World War, and that more than 1,200 members of Leicester YMCA went on active service. Located close to the railway station the Leicester YMCA or “Hut” provided refreshments, beds, entertainment and activities, becoming a place of rest and recreation for thousands in transit. Distinctive YMCA writing materials were freely available to those wanting to connect with loved ones.

The Threat of Eviction

In 1918 Mayor Jonathan North, then Leicester YMCA’s Patron, launched an appeal to the people of Leicester to save the YMCA, as the mortgage of £20,000 had been called in, threatening eviction. Donations to the War Memorial Fund eventually secured the East Street building for future generations, where YMCA Leicestershire works to this day.


Mrs Sawday was president of Leicester YMCA’s women’s auxiliary from the early 1900’s, and the ladies went to great efforts to organise fundraisers and events. Over the years many events were planned with the local YWCA and by the 1950s the YMCA also had many female members.

Iris Watson was the first woman to join the board of directors in 1975 and later became the president. She was also part of the YMCA Musical Society for 40 years, which put on shows at The Y Theatre.

The Modern Organisation

The East Street building had become run down during the 70’s and was refurbished and opened by HRH Prince of Wales on the 10th February 1981, when Leicester YMCA became a housing association. It became a grade 2 listed building in 2001.

In 2011 the supported accommodation areas were transformed into modern clusters and single flats for young people aged 16 – 25. The project was officially opened by Tim Loughton, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families and Sir Peter Soulsby, First Elected City Mayor of Leicester.

The Y Advice and Support Centre (YASC) for homeless people was launched in 1995 and in 2006 the service moved into the city council’s purpose built Dawn Centre.

HRH the Duke of Edinburgh opened the Aylestone Centre in 1996, which offers purpose built accommodation alongside sports grounds currently on loan to Leicester City Football Club’s Training Academy (originally purchased in 1938).

In August 2004 the Michael John Henry House opened as the first move on accommodation for residents. The property was purchased thanks to the legacy of Michael John Henry and his family. Michael had experienced homelessness first hand and had gone on to dedicate his time to charity work. He tragically passed away in 2001 due to medical conditions, leaving funds to improve the lives of homeless people. Subsequent move-on properties include; Michael John Linnett House, Marc Wainwright House, Iris Watson House and Kenney House, opened between 2010 and 2018.

You can find out more about the history of The Y and the wider YMCA movement by visiting YMCA Heritage.

Visit YMCA Heritage