October 11 marks the birthday of the man who founded the YMCA, Sir George Williams, born in 1821 in Dulverton, England.
His story in important ways parallels that of the founder of our own local Y — Edward T. Bedford, born an ocean away in 1849 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Although as a boy Edward migrated with his parents away from the bustling city to the bucolic community of Greens Farms, his experiences with the social conditions of the day and his resolve to improve upon them show that great minds, indeed, do think alike.
As a young man, George Williams left his family farm for London, where he got a job in a draper’s shop. He was horrified by the conditions of the city. There were so many young men who came from the country to try and find jobs there, and they worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, and slept in crowded rooms together. When they did have time off, their only entertainment was whatever they could find on the streets of London — streets filled with gamblers, drunks, and prostitutes.
Williams described himself as a “careless, thoughtless, godless, swearing young fellow” but eventually became a devout Christian. His conversion was in part the inspiration to create a place for young men to hang out and make friends, a place free of temptation. So in 1844, he and some of his fellow drapers started a group for recreation and Bible study, and that was the first Young Men’s Christian Association, the YMCA.
The first YMCA in North America opened in Montreal, Canada, on December 9, 1851. The first YMCA in the United States opened on December 29, 1851, in Boston. It was founded by Captain Thomas Valentine Sullivan (1800–1859), an American seaman and missionary.
Count Captain Sullivan as another “like mind” committed to changing lives. Influenced by the London YMCA, he saw the founding of such an association in Boston as an opportunity to provide a home away from home for young sailors on shore leave. From that first U.S. outpost, YMCAs spread across the country, from generation to generation.
During his presentation speech in donating “the Bedford Y.M.C.A.” to the town of Westport in 1923, Edward T. Bedford said, “I am asked why and how I became interested in the erection of this building…”
“Sometimes of a Saturday afternoon and often of an evening I used to go to Westport and I have stood outside the windows of the old Westport hotel, where this building now stands, watching a game of pool or billiards. I was not allowed to enter on account of the saloon.
“The recollection of this and the experience taught me as to the need of some place for boys and young men to congregate led to this building, which I hope may not only fill this want, but also be the headquarters for many good things that can be done for the benefit of our town.”
A director of Standard Oil and founder of a (now) multinational corn products company, Mr. Bedford not only gave the town our YMCA but also the Central Firehouse, and half the money for Bedford Elementary School, which is now Town Hall. He was also a lead benefactor of Greens Farms School, Bedford Junior High School and Norwalk Hospital, among numerous other charitable endeavors. He died in 1931, at age 82, in Westport; his descendants continue his philanthropic legacy.
Recently the Family Y honored that legacy by naming its new Y building, now under construction at the Y’s Mahackeno campus just north of downtown Westport, the Bedford Family Center.
Williams was knighted in 1894 by Queen Victoria. After his death in 1905, he was commemorated by a stained-glass window in the nave of Westminster Abbey. Sir George Williams is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
(Note: This account was created from Y-USA historical sources, including the YMCA and George Williams Wikipedia pages. To view a timeline of the Westport Weston Family Y’s history, please click here.)