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.

By 2008 the YMCA had grown to a movement working in 124 countries with some 140 independent associations in England. See here

Leicester Beginnings

The Leicester Association began with premises in Market Place in 1883 with Mr Thomas Howard Lloyd as president.

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, 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.

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, where Leicester YMCA 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. We believe that Iris Watson was the first woman to join the board of directors in 1975 and later became the president. Today equality and diversity are firm values of Leicester YMCA and we welcome all people regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race or religion.

The Modern Organisation

The East Street building 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. A theatre with a long history of drama societies, tea dances and shows, The Y re-launched as a professional theatre, music and comedy venue in 2002.

The Y Advice and Support Centre for homeless people was launched on Pocklington's Walk in 1995. In 2006 the service moved into the city council's purpose built Dawn Centre as the only voluntary sector partner involved in delivering homeless services in the city.

HRH the Duke of Edinburgh opened the Aylestone Centre in 1996, which offers purpose built accommodation alongside sports grounds (originally purchased in 1938). In 2005 the flagship Youth Offending and Bail Support Projects were launched.

In 2004 a new Education Project opened in Hinckley, for any young person not in education, employment or training.

In August 2004 the Michael John Henry House opened as 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. Each year education awards are presented to young people in his memory. In 2010 a second move-on property was purchased and named in recognition of the commitment of the Treasurer; Michael John Linnett House.

In 2008 a customer service training scheme was developed specifically for residents to give them work experience in a professional arts environment. This Places of Change project also enabled the modernisation of the bar and reception at East Street.

An exciting refurbishment project was completed at East Street in 2011, which transformed the supported accommodation areas 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.