Body, Mind and Spirit: YMCA Auckland Celebrating 150 Years 1855-2005
Reed Publishing, $69.99,
Auckland’s reputation has been assessed too long in terms of its founding father’s claim that “the whole and entire object of every one here is making money”. Colin Taylor’s history of YMCA Auckland provides another view – for here is a century and a half of Aucklanders’ entrepreneurial energy spent on mission and service rather than acquisition. Its first glimpse of Auckland in 1853 shows Richard Shalders, a young 29-year-old newly emigrated from London, distributing tracts and inviting strangers to his home in Queen Street for Scriptural Conversational Classes. He soon went on to found the first YMCA in New Zealand.
Taylor’s opening chapter on the establishment and growth of the YMCA in London gives a convincing picture of the significance of the YMCA movement in the 19th century. Founded in 1844 by a young Baptist draper, Charles Williams, the YMCA’s goal was to improve the spiritual condition of the thousands of young drapers who drifted into a dissolute life when they left rural districts for work in London. The thrust of Williams’ revivalist message was “give your hearts to God while you are young”. From small beginnings with prayer meetings and Bible studies in boarding houses, the movement spread rapidly. YMCAs had been established in 23 cities around the world when the Auckland branch was founded in 1855.
The success of the YMCA derived partly from its ethos of brotherliness that offered a cure for loneliness in a huge metropolis. Williams believed that a shake of the hand was more persuasive than thousands of sermons. Imaginative marketing – from an offer of oysters for tea to the distribution of tracts to a million young men at the Great Exhibition of 1851 – encouraged expansion. The interdenominational character of the YMCA concentrated on a shared core of faith rather than dogmatic differences. The movement also tapped into young men’s intellectual curiosity by providing lectures by famous speakers. Williams later broadened his vision and, together with Lord Shaftesbury, led the fight for improvements in the working hours of drapers and warehousemen. By the time that I’d learned that London’s shops were decked in black for Williams’ funeral procession and burial in St Paul’s Cathedral, I was convinced that I should continue reading this bulky story.
Body, Mind and Spirit gives a valuable picture of how an important institution reinvented itself in the changing world of the 19th and 20th centuries and in the process became an organisation that is no longer specifically young, male or Christian. In Auckland, one of Richard Shalders’ first moves was to loosen the English requirements for membership by deleting questions on personal faith. Early lectures included “Young men of 1755 and 1855 contrasted” and “How to choose a wife”. By the 1880s the Auckland YMCA was diversifying its activities. Under the rationale that men who rallied round the YMCA should be “the manliest young men in the community”, it followed the American YMCA’s focus on physical improvement. Outdoor rambles and a gymnasium became more important than the lecture hall, reading room or prayer meetings.
The best chapters of this book describe the work of the YMCA in two world wars and the development of sports medicine in the 1970s. Under the challenge of wartime the YMCA’s 20th century goal of fostering a healthy body, mind and spirit saw its fullest expression. YMCA field officers offered a wide range of services that included cocoa canteens in the trenches and communion services before battle; they trucked mail, New Testaments, a mobile cinema and piano into the desert, and then gave assistance with re-employment in peacetime.
The Auckland YMCA’s entrepreneurial approach to sports medicine in the 1970s exemplified the same ability to make the most of a challenge. After the “tired, old and grey years” of the 1950s, when the association failed to attract milk-bar cowboys onto their premises, the YMCA gained a new momentum in the 1970s under the leadership of Maurice Rendle who had introduced 5BX and 10BX exercise regimes into the Air Force. Along with staff from Green Lane Hospital’s cardiac unit, Rendle pioneered the development of sports medicine and scientific assessments of health. By expanding its clientele from young people to businessmen, housewives and the elderly, YMCA Auckland developed New Zealand’s biggest health and rehabilitation centre.
Taylor’s portrayal of the YMCA’s capacity for adaptation provides a valuable model for voluntary groups struggling with relevance and financial viability in a changing world. From the 1970s the board became more financially astute, following a business leader’s advice to take a hard look at traditional activities and strip those that were no longer appealing: “You’ve got to be able to afford your philosophy.” The YMCA extended hours of activity at the Pitt Street gymnasium by introducing free breakfasts from 6 am, and saved on capital building costs in the suburbs by cooperating with local bodies to provide community activities.
The livelier chapters are scattered with good stories. When use of the chapel declined in the 1960s it became a haven where K Road prostitutes could meet their clients, until YMCA staff took noisy flash camera shots (without film) of the men arriving. Later in the 1970s, Rendle’s Friday afternoon social visits to Green Lane with a flagon of sherry under his arm enabled him to return to town laden with pieces of hospital equipment for his gymnasium. However, I would have expected a racier read all through the story from an experienced journalist like Taylor. Good chapters are interspersed with the drearier administrative spheres of fund-raising and building extensions, when without the reviewer’s task I could have given up on it all.
The book has some drawbacks as a social history. Its character as a Boys’ Own Story is fine in the early years, but girls and women took an increasingly large role in YMCA activities from the 1950s. Although they feature in plenty of photographs their voices are seldom heard in the story. It is difficult to tell whether their involvement was a result of parental and school pressure or derived from an acknowledgement of equal rights to physical fitness and the outdoors. It is interesting that the change was accepted first at Camp Adair, “out of sight”, and much more reluctantly in the central city gymnasium. And it seems odd that there is no mention of Every Girl, Sandra Coney’s history of the YWCA in Auckland. Taylor could also have gained from using Coney’s knowledge of the philanthropic energy of 19th century Auckland business families.
A more satisfying account would have conveyed more of the broader context of New Zealand ideals of manliness; after all, the Auckland YMCA’s journal was called Manhood through much of the 20th century. The American connections are interesting, but there is very little comparison with other YMCA groups in New Zealand although several of their histories have been written. Why, for example, was the fostering of the “mind” apparently unimportant in YMCA Auckland, while there have been innovative educational programmes in Hawke’s Bay?
Body, Mind and Spirit was produced for the celebration of the 150th year of the YMCA in Auckland, and exemplifies the recent move to make local and institutional histories look more splendid. The book is large, imposing and well illustrated. However, this history is too long and bulky; you can’t read it on your knee on the bach verandah. Taylor’s account lacks the verve of Sandra Coney’s parallel story and should have been pruned to make a tauter narrative. Some of the most fascinating sections (such as the invention of volleyball in the United States) are supplied with no indication of their relevance to the YMCA in New Zealand. We could lift the bar a bit higher in our expectation of how the history of our important local institutions is written.
Margaret McClure’s The Wonder Country: Making Tourism in New Zealand was reviewed in our August 2005 issue.