YMCA was established in the 1840’s by a man called George Williams. Born in nearby Dulverton, Williams’ went to school in Tiverton and began his drapery career in Bridgwater. George then moved to London in 1841 where he began working for a man called George Hitchcock, who would later become his father-in-law.
Interestingly, Hitchcock too was a local man. He was born in South Molton in 1804 and began as a draper’s apprentice in Exeter. Following this, George Hitchcock founded several businesses in South Molton and elsewhere in North Devon, before swapping the country for the city in 1831.
Yet working conditions for drapers were miserable in those times and Hitchcock was a leading influence in the Early Closing Movement, which sought to regulate the number of hours employees had to work. Impressed by his bosses’ commitment to the cause, George Williams subsequently founded the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), to provide young men with personal and spiritual fulfilment amidst a brutal working environment.
After the movement exploded around the world and enjoyed great success following the Great Exhibition of 1851, the local expression of YMCA in South Molton first met in 1890.
We first had temporary premises in the Temperance Hall and then more permanent meeting space in Island House in East Street. It was here that we had a reading room with papers and periodicals, a recreation room for games like chess, and a committee room where we held Bible classes and prayer meetings. Earl Fortescue, of Castle Hill in nearby Filleigh, was our first President and influential in the early days of our local story.
The strong links between George Williams and George Hitchcock were regularly cited, as was their connection with South Molton. In commenting on George Williams’ death in 1905, the North Devon Journal wrote:
The late Sir George Williams, the founder of the Y.M.C.A. movement had close associations with North Devon, his wife (whom he married in 1853) being the third daughter of the late Mr George Hitchcock, a native of South Molton. Mr. George Hitchcock was a first cousin of the late Messrs Francis and William Hitchcock, wool staplers, of South Molton, whose only sister still resides at Park House in that town. A younger son of Sir George Williams (the Revd Charles Hitchcock Williams) was formerly curate of Northam. Three of the sisters of the late Mr George Hitchcock, Lady William’s father, married missionaries & one of them (Mrs Sewell) resided for some time in Victoria Road, Barnstaple (9.11.1905).
Our story has evolved over the years but we are fundamentally still a Christian organisation committed to developing young people in body, mind and spirit.