Sunday 25 October 2020

A cleaner and better young manhood: Indoor swimming returns with the Guelph YMCA

On 22 September 1913, Guelph's newest public edifice was officially opened. As it was a YMCA, its gymnasium provided the perfect venue for the assembled crowd and dignitaries. The headline about the event in the next day's Mercury was, "Y.M.C.A. building dedicated to a cleaner and better young manhood in the city." Much was said about the institution and the people responsible for bringing it to Guelph but, as the headline suggests, the building itself played a starring role.

The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) had been founded in London, England in 1844 by George Williams, a draper who wanted to promote Protestant Christian values among other young migrants to London such as himself. London and other cities were increasingly drawing British youth away from farms and into cities in search of work and opportunity. As their incomes increased, opportunities for insalubrious leisure increased also, including saloons, pool halls, and houses of ill fame. A central proposition of Williams's YMCA was to provide wholesome alternatives for these young men, alternatives in keeping with Protestant values. Lectures, libraries, and religious services were made available to members for this purpose.

("Sir George Williams, founder Y.M.C.A., 1844," postcard published by the Artvue Post Card Company. Courtesy of the Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts.)

The YMCA became popular and put on a display at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The display made a favorable impression on visitors and interest in the institution travelled to North America with them on their returns. American and Canadian branches followed in due course.

In its early years in the New World, the YMCA held its functions in rented accommodations. However, this practice failed to give the Association the resources or civic profile that its promoters thought it merited. The solution was for them to build their own structures. In 1869, the first purpose-built YMCA building was erected in New York City at Twenty-Third Street and Fourth Avenue.

This precedent was increasingly followed in other cities on the continent, where the "Y" arrived in the form of a distinct structure in a prominent location. These buildings were distinct not simply in belonging to a civic association but also in the facilities that they provided. In particular, a YMCA building usually provided athletic facilities including a gymasium and, later, a swimming pool.

These features were in keeping with the Association's adoption of "muscular Christianity," a movement that connected vigor and athleticism with the Protestant ethos. Before the mid-nineteenth century, leisure time and activities tended to be regarded as frivolous diversions from proper hard work. However, advocates of muscular Christianity promoted the idea that athletic pursuits in general and sports in particular were compatible with Christian virtues of discipline, teawmwork, and manliness. The YMCA leaped into this philosophy with both feet, with the result that YMCA buildings placed increasing emphasis on opportunties for indoor sporting activity and the facilities needed for them.

Designing buildings featuring gymnasiums and swimming pools required specialized expertise, often outside the experience of local architects. So, the YMCA took increasing control over their design. By 1910, while not quite offering a turnkey service, the Y's Building Service provided close guidance of the construction of new structures, especially in provincial towns like Guelph.

Indeed, the first person to speak at the official opening in 1913 was Mr. J.W. Hopkins, the General Secretary of the Toronto YMCA, who had played a key role in the planning of the building itself. In his speech, Mr. Hopkins noted that he first took notice of Guelph around 1900, when he spent a week in the Royal City raising funds to acquire space to establish a presence for the Association there, Guelph being one of the larger cities in the region without a YMCA. The work did not bear fruit but enthusiasm for a YMCA picked up with the efforts of Walter Buckingham, a local lawyer.

("W.E. Buckingham," detail from "Official Program for Guelph Old Home Week, 1908." Courtesy Guelph Civic Museums 1979X.00.632.)

Walter Buckingham had been a keen athlete during his studies at the University of Toronto and was university champion in cross country running. Also a member of the Varsity soccer team in 1889–1890, he was selected to the All-Dominion University soccer team that toured Great Britain in 1891 (Mercury, 6 Jun 1949). He moved to Guelph in 1894 and remained there for the rest of his life.

Around 1910, he became captured by the idea of bringing a YMCA to the Royal City (“A story of the beginning of the YMCA in Guelph, Ontario”, pp. 4–5):

Picture Guelph at the time of which I speak—the year 1910, a thriving, attractive, homogeneous, but withal conservative community of about 13,000 people, with a preponderance of sturdy old country stock, a city of churches and schools, but with no focal point for its youth, no common meeting place for its people. It was out of this urgent need that in 1910 this project was born and carried to a successful conclusion.
For some reason, which I have never quite been able to understand, the dream of a YMCA in Guelph began to haunt me and continued to haunt me till it became an obsession.
With the guidance of Mr. Hopkins, Buckingham organized the fundraising drive for the building, to which he contributed $5000 of his own. A significant total of $70,000 was raised, which allowed the project to go ahead. Buckingham continues his account (p. 15):
I was inclined to relax, but Hopkins with a quizzical smile, said, and it was only too true, “Your troubles are only just commencing," for there were now to be tackled the problems of the building, equipment, incorporation, maintenance and organization, each one it itself a major problem. On top of all that, when the smoke had cleared away, we found we were still $20,000 in debt. This was met by a mortgage of $20,000 with the directors as guarantors.
Of course, the effort was ultimately successful. The property at the corner of Quebec and Yarmouth streets was bought from the Kloepfer Coal Company, which used it as a storage yard, and design and construction got underway. Design was undertaken by Mills & Hutton of Hamilton, who had already designed a YMCA in the Ambitious City in 1909, in conjunction with local architect W.A. Mahoney.

There was much public interest in the building plans when they were put on public display at the office of G.B. Ryan, who had helped to organize the project. The arrangement of facilities was described in detail in the Mercury (23 September 1911):

On the ground floor the office arrangement between the senior and junior departments is very complete. To have these two departments separate from one another is a good feature.
It will also be noticed that the large reception hall idea is carried out, with a reading room and parlor separate from the “Gym”, which is a leading thing for Y.M.C.A. work, is large, being 43 x 60 feet.
The second floor, with its class rooms, which can be thrown open by a system of folding doors to make a breakfast hall. Here also are the kitchen auditorium and honorary members’ parlor. The gymnasium also has a banked running track. On the 3rd floor are as fine a lot of rooms as could be found which will accommodate 36 beds, with lavatory and shower baths complete.
In the basement it will be noticed that each department is completely separated from the other. Yet every department is so arranged to give light and ventilation from the outside.
The design of the building is very attractive and when built on the site will look dignified and will be a credit to the Royal City.
Several early postcard views of the "Y" bear out its dignified appearance. Its exterior would have been considered very "modern" in contemporary terms, recalling taller office buildings of the period.
("YMCA and Knox Church, Guelph, Can." postcard published by the International Stationary Company. Courtesy of the John Keller Collection.)
("YMCA, Guelph, Ont." postcard published by the Heliotype Company, ca. 1923.) For comparison, see the current view of the site in Google Street View:

It is notable that no menton is made of any swimming pool, especially as it was Guelph's only indoor swimming pool at the time, the pool in the Petrie Athletic Park having been decommissioned in 1901. Evidently, its arrival was not much celebrated; the Royal City was just not yet in the swim.

Nonetheless, a pool there was. Its nature and use are described the in the 1919–1920 YMCA Annual Annoucement (p. 5):

“The natatorium is 20 x 46 feet in area and 3 to 6 feet deep. Our “lake” is always right and cold breezes are unknown.
Swimming and life-saving. The Royal Live-Saving Society’s awards carry recognition for the holder, wherever he may go, as a swimmer of ability and merit. Classes will be arranged as soon as possible. The course is most interesting and instructive.”
"Natatorium" was a more dignified term for swimming tank or pool, derived from the French natation for "swimming" (and found in the name for the International Swimming Federation, better known as the Fédération internationale de natation (FINA)).

I have yet to find a picture of this early natatorium. However, it most likley resembled the swimming pool at the Orillia YMCA, which was built in 1912, apparently to similar specifications.

("Swimming pool Y.M.C.A., Orillia, Ont." postcard published by the R.O. Smith Company of Orillia. Courtesy of the Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts.)

Obviously, Guelph was not prepared to host the Olympic Games but the pool was adequate to the purpose of basic swimming and life saving lessons for which it was intended.

Despite now having a permanent and credible indoor pool, competitive swimming does not seem to have worked its way deeply into local culture. There are few mentions of it in the local papers. One event of note is described by Harold Cole ("The Guelph sports hall of fame," 1972, p. 24):

If Guelph produced nothing else in the way of swimming stars, the City did, on one occasion, provide excitement for the few people who saw the event happen. A Toronto young man named George Young, had, in the long distance swim, successfully negotiated the treacherous waters off the mainland coast of Southern California leading to Catalina Island. He made front page news all over the North American continent, however, a Guelph young man, Reg Moritz, beat him in a Spur Of The Moment race in the tank of the old YMCA building at Quebec and Yarmouth Streets. Moritz was a sprinter and didn’t have much trouble in a ten-length dash in beating the long distance man.
(Obviously, this book was written ahead of the appearance of Victor Davis on the scene.) George Young was, briefly, one of the most celebrated sports heros of Canada. In January 1927, he completed the first Wrigley Ocean Marathon, swimming the 22-miles from Catalina Island to the California mainland in 15 hours and 44 minutes, the only competitor of over 100 to finish.
("Start of cross-channel swim by Geo. Young, Catalina Is., Calif." postcard published by the Pacific Novelty Company, 1927. Courtesy of the Santa Catalina California Archives.)
("William Wrigley, Jr. with George Young (right) after the 1927 Wrigley Ocean Marathon Swim.")

Called the "Catalina Kid" for his achievement, he became an instant celebrity across North America and in Canada particularly. He was given a hero's welcome in a special parade on his return to Toronto, where he had learned to swim in Lake Ontario the West End YMCA.

However, fortune was not kind to Young, who was not equipped to handle complicated financial affairs. Despite the $25,000 prize money and rich movie contract offers, his mother, aunt, William Wrigley and others got involved in his financial affairs with disasterous results. In addition, Young withdrew from the Toronto CNE swim marathon organized later that year due to the icy water. The fickle public turned on Young, labelling him a quitter and a phony. Young struggled to restore his standing and reputation. He toured widely, swimming against local heroes like Reg Moritz and did finally win the CNE marathon swim in 1932. However, his star had fallen so far that his victory attracted little notice. He retired from swimming and moved on to other things.

I have not found out when George Young swam at the Guelph YMCA but, clearly, it would have been around 1930.

Like the pool in Petrie's Athletic Park, the pool at the Guelph YMCA was not given much attention. However, unlike the Petrie pool, it stuck around for many years, tucked in the basement of the City's proud YMCA building, helping to train young Guelph men in the art of swimming and maybe keeping them out of trouble. The building was pulled down late in 1968 to make way for the Park Mall apartment building.

The cornerstone for the Guelph YMCA was officially laid on 15 May 1912. A picture of the occasion was printed the followng day in the Mercury and also as a real-photo postcard.
(Courtesy of the John Kelleher Collection.)
The following materials served as sources for this post: