The history of the Association, including social and cultural aspects of the German-speaking community in London, based on our own archive, documents and publications from other sources, and the author's recollections. Not surprisingly, there were several occasions where the German YMCA in London could easily have disappeared…
The History of the German YMCA in London
Looking back 150 years, one can confidently say that the German Young Men’s Christian Association in London owes its origins to a few devout Christian men of their time. They came from different walks of life and were within their faith open-minded and forward-looking. Like many young German journeymen, Ernst Klemm came to London in 1859 to broaden his education in the world of commerce. Well prepared with letters of introduction, one of his first visits was to Pastor Theodor Kübler at St. Paul’s, the German Reformed Church in Hoopers Square. Kübler, acting in true ecumenical spirit and in the best interest of his young guest, recommended to Klemm the Young Men’s Christian Association in Aldersgate Street. There, Klemm met the many young men, mostly commercial clerks like himself, who attended Secretary Edwin Shipton’s popular “Conversational Bible Class”; amongst them were several Germans and Swiss. Friendships were soon formed, and it was Shipton’s encouragement that led in the spring of 1860 to the founding of a German Jünglingsverein as a branch of the Aldersgate YMCA. The small group of initially seven members was given a basement room for their own meetings and they had the benefit of all services the Aldersgate Association had to offer. They held their own Bible classes on Friday evenings. The very long working hours included especially late Saturdays. This left only the Sunday for socialising, worship and Christian fellowship. They met for their own edification and support for each other. In short, the German Branch was initially an effective spiritual and practical self-help group. And although the coming and going was no different than in later decades, a core group grew steadily, with several members remaining in membership throughout their life. The excellent facilities and the strong support at the Aldersgate YMCA helped greatly in the development of the German Jünglingsverein in London.
It did not take long before the need for their own premises emerged, and to this end thirteen members pledged in 1868 the sum of £100. Everything seemed, however, to end with the Franco-German War of 1870/71, when many young Germans followed the mobilisation order and there were many farewells. But the Verein recovered and the need to have its own centre re-emerged. By March 1872 a project was publicised and a collection started in the City. George Williams (founder of the YMCA Movement in 1844) was the first to sign a generous donation of £25 in the collection book.
It was planned to lease premises which could serve as a Herberge and home for the Jünglingsverein. In this they followed the practice of Jünglingsvereine in Germany, where activities were often successfully combined with a hostel. Because of the social and economic circumstances of its members, the London Jünglingsverein was not able to rent and maintain a house big enough for this dual purpose. Prominent Germans, willing to help the Verein, formed an independent nine strong Herbergskomitee, which existed unchanged for the next 16 years. In September 1872, the Deutsche Herberge, also known as the “German Home” was opened at 28 Finsbury Square, E.C. The Jünglingsverein rented for its meetings a hall on the first floor. Full of expectations, the Verein moved into its new home.
But, it was soon recognised that the Verein had to step out of its narrow routine and needed to become receptive to the urgent needs of the less fortunate fellow Germans in London. Practical and effective results emerged only later. The “German Branch” in its new centre kept the links to its parent Association at Aldersgate Street. Within the English YMCA, the Germans continued to enjoy many privileges and were fully integrated as one of the Branch Associations in the Metropolis.
At this time, a translation of “Young Men’s Christian Association” did not exist in Germany, and for this reason the German Association in London also used the name Jünglingsverein, even when referring to the English Associations. This changed in 1883, when Pastor Friedrich von Schlümbach, Secretary of the German YMCAs in America, visited Berlin and on his initiative the first Christliche Verein Junger Männer (CVJM) was founded, not replacing or in conjunction with Berlin’s Jünglingsvereine, but as Germany’s first City YMCA. Its German name was a literal translation of Young Men’s Christian Association. During Schlümbach’s visit to London in 1885, a meeting for Christian Fellowship was held on 7th March. It was attended by 25 members of the Jünglingsverein. Inspired by Schlümbach, they agreed to work in future as the German Young Men’s Christian Association in London. The Deutsche CVJM zu London was constituted there and then and the motto was chosen:
We will serve the Lord for he is our God. (Joshua 24,18)
Thus, on the 25th Anniversary of the Jünglingsverein on 24th April 1885, it changed into the new Verein, with its wider aims and purposes. The German Association in London became the first Jünglingsverein anywhere to change its name to YMCA. Other City Associations in Germany followed later.
For the first 25 years the Verein in London had relied entirely on the voluntary input from its members and officers. Now there was need for a paid, full-time secretary and the Association had in its first year already an expenditure as high as the former Jünglingsverein in the previous ten years. But with very little outside help, the cost of Association work was still mainly borne by the members. Most of them had a modest income and gave as much as they could from the little they had.
Now, in addition to the long-established work amongst the merchant clerks, the Association started work for other specific groups like bakers, butchers, barbers, tailors, and artisans in general. The “Christian Home for German Artisans and Bakers” was opened in 1887 at 90 Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch, E.C. In relation to the large number of unemployed, the 14 beds available could only be seen as a beginning and the hostel was transferred in 1889 to 88/90 Leman Street, Whitechapel, E. There was initially room for 36 beds, increased in 1892 to 63 beds, with dining facilities and a meeting room.
The house at 28 Finsbury Square came under the Association’s direct management in 1888 and was re-opened in 1889 as Association Centre and Hotel. For the upkeep of the house the Hotel continued to rely on the rent charged to the Association.
Waiters, a much neglected class in society, came to the Association’s special attention. A Kellnerheim (Christian Home for Waiters), the first of its kind, was opened in 1892 by George Williams at 44 Clipstone Street, W. It had limited accommodation, but offered a very important employment service. The waiters who met at the Kellnerheim founded in 1895 a Christian Association for Foreign Waiters.
Towards the end of the 19th century the work of the Association is summarised in a report of the English National Council: “It would be impossible to speak too highly of the work carried on by our German brethren. Their work is thoroughly well organized, their members are keenly interested in the welfare of their compatriots, their meetings are attractive and well attended, while the value of the effort put forth to benefit young Germans employed as waiters, bakers, etc. cannot be over estimated”.
In 1904, the Association opened a new “Christian Home for Waiters” at 48 Charlotte Street, W. The Kellnerheim was unique, because it was designed to serve as a waiter’s home with hotel facilities and as an Association Centre.
In all aspects of German YMCA work in the early years of the 20th century there is proof that, although guided by the secretaries, the lay membership emerged as the driving force of all Christian endeavours within the Association. The commitment to missionary and social welfare work, measured in financial terms alone, was exemplary and total. The membership itself did not draw on the welfare services of the Association; it did not expect to be served by others; the members built and served the Association, so that not only the Christian centres could be maintained, but also so that a concerted Christian outreach could be achieved.
When, in 1909, the lease of the house in Finsbury Square expired, plans for a new, purpose-built house in City Road, E.C. were well in hand. The impressive new Centre and City House Hotel was built for £32,000. The Association’s President and its Treasurer, both members of the Association for 40 years, had a wealth of experience and were determined to provide, in a lasting manner, a home for the young Germans coming to London. The house was opened in May 1910 at the Association’s Jubilee, and a commemorative plaque outside the building read: “To the Glory of God and for the good of young men this house was erected by the German Young Men’s Christian Association of London”. After fifty years of development, no one could envisage the challenges ahead.
During the First World War, City House and Waiters Home had to be closed and were commandeered by the War Office in February 1917. The Association had rented, especially for its work in the internment camps, an office in Brunhill Row. Also, everything possible was done for the welfare of the interned Association staff.
Enormous efforts were made after the war to hold on to City House for the Association. Help was enlisted from pre-war friends in the English YMCA, whose honest response was: “It cannot be”. Both houses had to be sold and a small hostel, the “Hermitage” was bought in Green Lanes, N.16. There, the Association was able to resume its meetings, but were advised not to draw attention to themselves. The pattern of meetings in the ensuing years was very much like those of the original Jünglingsverein in the 1860s. It took nearly 10 years before a new, confident generation of German young men approached the few remaining members who managed the Association. They applied for membership and expected a suitable place for their meetings. As a temporary measure a meeting room was hired in a hotel at 123 Gower Street, W.C.1 in May 1929. In 1932, the Hermitage and the rooms in Gower Street were given up and a new Centre and Hotel was opened at Westgate House, 28 Bedford Place, W.C.1. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the hotel was closed straight away. But, members’ meetings continued until spring 1940, when both Manager and Secretary were interned. How was the German YMCA to survive again? The now empty house was locked up and by December requisitioned by the Military Authorities. The Association did not return to Bedford Place after the war. The remaining Board members looked after the Association’s interests and helped their interned former staff. As soon as members were able and allowed to visit internment and prisoner of war camps, their visits were financially supported from Association funds. In 1946 the Association became directly involved in POW welfare work.
Already in 1943, the Board considered post-war activities and plans for a new home for the Association.
In December 1945, the Association Programme was resumed from St. George’s Church in Alie Street, E.1, with regular monthly meetings. In the following years officers from the YMCA National Council in Germany came to visit in London and made contact with the German Association. Promises of help with human resources and financial support were made, although not honoured. But the Association was used to managing its own destiny and the search for a suitable Association home was energetically pursued. In October 1949 a new Centre and Hostel was opened at “Lyndale Hall”, 368 Finchley Road, N.W.3. Key staff positions could be filled from within the existing membership. Association activities were built up again with support from the Pastors who served the German Congregations, young German voluntary leaders, members of the North London Anglo-German Circle, and also from personalities in the community of Jewish Refugees. The Association opened its doors to the many German women and girls now coming to London as domestic staff; their need came first and the concept of traditional YMCA work had to adapt.
The Association could once again develop and change by addressing the needs of the time.
In the early 1950s, support for the emerging international youth travel issue became a priority and in 1952 a Youth and Student Hostel was opened at 27 Ferncroft Avenue, N.W.3. The Association became the first organisation in London to meet the growing demand for youth accommodation. Summer School hostels were run from 1956 for 14 years and the Association served young people annually in their thousands.
In 1959 the Association moved to a more central location in Craven Terrace, W.2.; “Lancaster Hall”, consisting of several Victorian buildings and a disused chapel, became its main centre. When, after a long struggle, the new Lancaster Hall Hotel and Centre could be built and opened in October 1973, the General Secretary, Cyril Losse wrote: “The German YMCA in London has always had to stand on its own feet, but with faith and the courage of those who represent our YMCA we should be able to manage the future.”
Over the last thirty years the Association has indeed been able to reach out, not only by providing services in its own centre, but also in taking on a significant role through financial and practical support to other organisations.