Tonight’s object is a rare survivor from a fundraising campaign in the Great War. The YMCA, or Young men’s Christian Association, ran recreation huts for soldiers of all nations serving with the allies. Many of these huts were located near the front, whilst others were in towns up and down the country. They offered somewhere a man could get a hot drink and meal and relax for a few hours. Pen and paper were available to write to loved ones, beds at some huts for servicemen to snatch sleep and books to read. These huts obviously cost money to provide so various fund raising activities were set up. Tonight we have a small piece of printed silk bearing the logo of the YMCA and the description ‘Hut Day’:Now very fragile, this little piece of silk would have been sold to the general public as a fund raising gimmick, a penny or sixpence being donated in exchange for this little memento. These sort of ‘flag days’ were common ways for charities to raise money during the Great War.
The role of the YMCA hut was rarely in question, and this report comes form the Times newspaper on 21st December 1915 describing the scene in a London hut:
The hut was at its busiest on the evening when I saw it first, for a fog had come down outside and slime squelched away from the omnibus wheels and splashed my skirt as I groped my way to it out of the untempting street. Moreover, the day boat train was in, and the night one had not yet drawn out from the railway station opposite, so there were men with Flanders mud still on their clothes and others with the reflection of farewells still upon their faces, as well as the crowd of those who were on their way to or from some camp at home.
The air smelt of wet cloth and leather and food. The tap of billiard cues came from the far end, and the blows of a finger striking “Tipperary” out of a piano. The smoke of Woodbines was so thick that this made a background of sound rather than sight for the groups round the stoves half way up the room. The centre of one of these was a man wrapped up to the ears in his trench coat of goat-skin, which was steaming from the heat. He looked in it like a being from another age and country. By the opposite fire only one man sat, so still that you would have thought he was asleep if his eyes had not been open, staring on the ground. When he had been there perhaps an hour without stirring someone went down to him from behind the canteen counter (there are a good many jobs for a woman to do in a YMCA hut besides ladling out “sausage and mashed”). She asked him if there was anything he wanted. “no,” he said, and then, since she did not go away, “I only got home tonight. I got a chap to write that I was comin’, but there weren’t nobody at the station.”
“And you’ve had nothing to eat?”
“Don’t fancy anythin’ thank you Miss.”
“Oh, nonsense. I expect they never got your letter. I’ll fetch you some coffee.”
It was something to get him to shift his eyes off his boots anyhow, and when the coffee had gone down he tugged a post-card out of his pocket.
“She must’a’ got my letter, miss. It went to the address all right.”
Hurried reading of post-card, though with very faint hope that it could turn this tragedy into comedy. It did, however.
“But she says here she is moving-going down to the country, look- to this address.”
“Lor’ bless yer, Miss. Yer don’t tell me! I never was much of a reader and I didn’t get that bit spelt out.”The same level of care was administered nearer the front, the Chaplain of the 21st Division recalls the coming of the YMCA in 1915:
the Division of which I am in charge marched into camp about 17,000 strong, and with the exception of the canteens there was not a single place for a man to spend his leisure. The nearest town […] kindly offered all it had – a parish room and two Sunday schools. Things looked very ugly until about five days later, when Mr Johnson arrived with his big tents and corps of assistants. There was an immediate rush, and the first Sunday saw nearly 5,000 postcards, letters, and parcels dispatched, and from that day forward the huge tents […] were filled to overflowing with Kitchener’s men in their thousands. The little band of YMCA helpers wrestled with the multifarious needs of the British soldiers. Tobacco – piles of it – hundredweights of cake, buckets of coffee, lemon-squash and all sorts of popular eatable and drinkables at the counter; then the post office counter with its money order department, savings bank, library, postcard and general arrangements. At the other end of the tent a sing-song would be in progress; every square inch of space was alive with humanity’.