In December 1915 the Rhondda Leader published the following appeal:
The YMCA and the Troops
By kind permission of the Rhondda Council the school-children throughout the district are this week selling stamps for the YMCA. It is hoped that by their efforts the sum of £300 will be made up for the purpose of purchasing a YMCA Hut, to be known as the “Rhondda hut”. The YMCA deserve very support. They have over 1000 centres with the troops. The YMCA spend over £1,000 weekly for free stationery for the boys in khaki, and the daily cost of carrying on the work is over £500. The Rhondda people will doubtless support the YMCA in the same generous spirit that they always patronise deserving causes. This will be the Rhondda children’s gift to our brave boys in khaki [Rhondda Leader, 4 Dec 1915].
During the course of the First World War the YMCA undertook a range of work to support the war effort. One of the Association’s best known and most successful contributions was the provision of YMCA Huts, initially in Britain and, as the war progressed, near the front line in France and Belgium. The Huts provided shelter for troops with access to hot drinks, food, newspapers and writing materials. In Britain the Huts were to be found in major cities, often close to railway stations, for use by troops as they travelled across the country. In some centres this included the provision of overnight accommodation. In France and Belgium they were situated behind the front line so that troops moving up to and away from the front could have a brief respite from the fighting.
The Rhondda Hut was to be situated at the main station in Cardiff to cater for the thousands of troops passing through the city. Raising the money for the Hut was no easy matter. Although the initial appeal by the YMCA was made in 1915 it was another 18 months before the money was secured and the Hut opened. The campaign had a less than auspicious start. At a meeting in November 1915 the Rhondda Urban District Council declined the YMCA’s suggestion that the Council ask schools to raise money for the Hut. There was clearly a feeling that teachers and pupils were already overburdened with raising money for good causes. However, as a compromise it was eventually decided that the matter be referred to ward members and teachers [Rhondda Leader, 20 Nov 1915].
From the above account in the Rhondda Leader on 4 December we know that, as on countless occasions during the war, the schools in Rhondda took up the challenge to raise money for the war effort. Only four days after the article appeared in the Leader the Head Teacher of the Ton Boys’ School reported:
A cheque for £7.10.0d was sent to the Secretary of the YMCA at Cardiff, this sum having been collected by the boys and girls of Ton Schools towards the erection of a ‘Rhondda Hut’ for our Soldiers at the Front [Ton British Boys School, log book, 8 Dec 1915, ER36/2 p.481].
Two months later Frank Higman, the general secretary of the YMCA in Cardiff, wrote to the Rhondda Education Committee:
Will you kindly convey to Mr Berry and the head teachers and the staffs our warmest thanks for their splendid co-operation in securing such a substantial sum towards the cost of a hut which we shall have pleasure in christening the “Rhondda Hut” [Rhondda Leader, 12 Feb 1916].
The Rhondda schools, in less than 2 months, had raised £150 with a further £50 to be passed to the YMCA. The total, however, was still well short of the £300 required as a contribution by the schools to the overall costs. It was a further 15 months before the Rhondda Hut finally opened on 5 May 1917. A full account of the opening was given in the Rhondda Leader:
On Saturday afternoon the 5th inst, the YMCA Rhondda Hut for Soldiers which has been erected opposite No 1 Platform of the Great Western Railway Station Cardiff was opened. Mr H E Maltby, chairman of the Rhondda Urban District Council presided….
The premises occupy a peculiarly convenient position for the purposes they are intended to serve. There is a spacious central hall for light refreshments, furnished with a piano, a billiard table and various other forms of games and replete with facilities for reading and writing. The room is brightly decorated. In a building immediately adjoining there is sleeping accommodation for about 80 men, with bathing facilities. The institution will be kept open day and night until the end of the war. The hut owes its establishment to the generosity of the inhabitants of the Rhondda, who have raised a sum of £1,160 for helping on the war work of the YMCA. It is gratifying to note that with the exception of about £250 the whole of the money has been subscribed by the working class portion of the community [Rhondda Leader, 12 May 1917].
Although the Hut was open there was still a need for further money to meet running costs. Yet again the Rhondda schools threw themselves into fund raising:
For the purpose of aiding the funds of the Rhondda Hut of the YMCA and the Auxiliary Military Hospital, Llwynypia, a successful miscellaneous concert was given by the pupils of the Pentre Secondary School at the Park and Dare Hall, Treorchy, on Friday evening, the 18th inst. The performers who acquitted themselves remarkably well were under the direction of Mr W A Morris, LCP [Rhondda Leader, 26 May 1917].
Other schools, including Mardy and Trealaw, also pitched in:
Other recent “War Activities” in which the teachers were the principle workers, were the YMCA Hut Campaign, held in March, and the Russian Flag Day, held in April. The results were – YMCA £85.4.9d, Russian Flag Day £23.4.7d [Mardy Boys School, log book, 20 Jun 1917, ER23/5 p.125]
The collection towards the YMCA Huts amounted to over £20 – collected by H T Staff & a few helpers [Trealaw Boys School, log book, Feb 1917, ER41/2 p.279]
In November 1919, one year after the signing of the Armistice, an article in the Rhondda Leader underlined just how well the Hut had been used:
This Hut in connection with the YMCA was opened in May 1917, opposite the Great Western Approach, Cardiff and was christened the “Rhondda Hut” because a large proportion of the money necessary for it came from the Rhondda district.
Our readers may be interested to know that nearly 400,000 travelling troops have been entertained free….In addition, 55,897 have been provided with sleeping accommodation during that period.
These figures have justified the erection and maintenance of the Hut, and through the kindness of the Rhondda people much comfort has been given to the men who serve in the Forces and have had to use the Cardiff Station as an important junction [Rhondda Leader, 1 Nov 1919].
There is little to tell us why the YMCA turned primarily to the Rhondda for the funding for the Hut. It is possible that, with the Hut being provided primarily for service personnel in transit though Cardiff, many of the soldiers and sailors would have been from the valleys of South Wales. The cause, therefore, would have struck a particular chord with communities in those areas. There was, however, an interesting comment made Sir John Courtis at the opening of the hut in 1917 and reported in the Western Mail:
Although splendid work for soldiers had been done by another agency in the city there was ample scope for supplementation [Western Mail, 7 May 1917].
This was probably a reference to the Cardiff Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Rest. This was a significant facility and the Western Mail records the programme provided at the Rest on Christmas Day 1917:
Every effort was made at the Cardiff Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Rest, St Mary Street, to give men of the Army and Navy a good time. Between 10am and 7am on Sunday night and Monday morning over 800 men were entertained at the Rest. On Christmas day tea was served and afterwards Mr F E Andrew lent the Central Cinema, the Hayes, for a private exhibition of pictures free of charge to all men in uniform. In the evening there was an entertainment at the Rest [Western Mail, 26 Dec 1917].
It is possible, therefore, that there may have been a degree of scepticism, in some circles in Cardiff, as to the need for a further centre along the lines proposed by the YMCA. Yet at the same time as 800 were being entertained at The Rest, the Western Mail noted that close by, at the Rhondda Hut, …200 men, including a party of Americans were given a capital dinner. The fact that over 400,000 used the Rhondda Hut in just over two years suggests that the YMCA was right in its estimation that a further centre was needed.
There were certainly many weary soldiers and sailors who had good cause to thank the people of Rhondda and, in particular, the school children of Rhondda, for the food, comforts and the warm welcome that they received at the Rhondda Hut when travelling through Cardiff.
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer