Tag Archives: YMCA

The YMCA, the Great War and the Bard

On the corner of Gower Street and Keppel Street in Bloomsbury stands the impressive inter-war building of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The site’s earlier history, though, is important in the history modern Shakespearean performances in the capital, linked to the RSC and the National Theatre – and it provided a haven for soldiers and sailors in London in the Great War.

In the years before the Great War, a group of like-minded and well-connected people were campaigning to open a Shakespeare Theatre in London as a venue for the Bard’s plays in the capital. In 1913, Sir Oswald Stoll gave 1616 guineas towards the project (an enormous sum when working men’s wages were around 20 or 30s per week – a guinea was 21 shillings). Israel Gollancz (uncle of the publisher Victor Gollancz) led the project and by early 1914 a site had been found and cleared, and a competition to design the theatre was launched, with a view to opening the theatre in 1916 for the tercentenary of the Bard’s death. In August 1914, the project came to a halt.

During the first eighteen months of the war, the YMCA and other organisations opened up places for soldiers and sailors to relax in London. Many were based around the railway termini (and we have seen that one was opened in 1917 for US servicemen: the Eagle Hut), but in August 1916 the ‘Shakespeare Hut’ was opened by Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (wife of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a grandson of Queen Victoria).

Advert for the opening of the Shakespeare Hut 11 August 1916 (from the Times)

Advert for the opening of the Shakespeare Hut 11 August 1916 (from the Times)

The Shakespeare Hut, photo by GP Lewis © IWM (Q 28741)

The Shakespeare Hut, photo by GP Lewis © IWM (Q 28741)

The hut was used throughout the war for entertainments and as somewhere for soldiers and sailors to sleep if they had no accommodation in the city. The Times reported in September 1918 that over 2,000 men were sleeping in the Shakespeare Hut each week, the most of any of the YMCA huts whose statistics they listed.

After the war, the huts on the site were made into accommodation for students at the nearby University of London (the site is close to Senate House), mainly Indian students. The site was sold in April 1922 as the site for a new School of Hygiene in the University; as Gollancz (by now Sir Israel) put it, “On the site secured for the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre there will soon arise a Temple of Hygeia”. This new building and others around the university have completely changed the scene around the site of the hut.

YMCA Shakespeare Hut, Gower Street (C)IWM Q 28740

Then: YMCA Shakespeare Hut, Gower Street (C)IWM Q 28740


The junction of Gower Street and Store Street today (image from Google streetview)

Now: The junction of Gower Street, Store Street and Keppel Street today (image from Google streetview)

While it was lent (rent-free) to the YMCA during the war years the site had increased in value, and in the years after the war rent had accumulated from the use by Indian students. This money went towards the National Theatre movement and the creation of a New Shakespeare Company, as the campaign for a Shakespeare theatre in London became more closely allied with the one that had already been built in Stratford. Although it never became the site of a Shakespeare memorial theatre, the site was part of the story of the genesis of the National Theatre (eventually established in 1963) and the Royal Shakespeare Company (created in 1961 at the Stratford theatre)

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Posted by on 22 April 2014 in Famous companies, Famous People, Places, Then & Now


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A postcard from the Eagle Hut

The “Eagle Hut” on Aldwych was the home to the American YMCA and used by thousands of Americans in London in 1917-1919.  Those visitors could buy and send postcards of the Hut. One of these postcards was sent by George Donald Preece to his wife Doretta in Brooklyn, New York.

The American YMCA 'Eagle Hut' in Aldwych.

The American YMCA ‘Eagle Hut’ in Aldwych.

On the back of his postcard, George D Preece wrote:

George D Preece's message to his wife back in Brooklyn

George D Preece’s message to his wife back in Brooklyn

The message reads:

To my dear Little Wife,

            This is the center of YMCA activity in London. It is packed to the doors with soldiers and sailors. This sure is a busy burg and we are on the go. The YMCA men and women are wonderful and do every thing possible for us. Wish that I had you with me.

Love, Geo.

George Donald Preece was serving on the US Navy’s Submarine Chaser 47. After enlisting in December 1917, he was in training from January to March 1918 and was mobilised on 20 March. He served on US SC 47 for the remainder of the war.

A summary of George D Preece's service in the US Navy (from

A summary of George D Preece’s service in the US Navy (from

He born in January 1893, the son of George William Preece and his wife Matilda.  George senior was in fact from London, having been born in North London in 1871 and went to New York in July 1887, where he was working as a machinist when he became an American citizen two years later (and briefly served in the National Guard in 1898). Matilda was born in New York but her parents were both born in Germany. In 1900, the family lived on Warren Street, New York: George and Matilda with their children Matilda, George, Helen and Gertrude. Like so many Americans, George D Preece found himself in Europe to fight against one of his ancestral homelands. When he sent the postcard, though, he was in his father’s hometown of London.

When he registered for the draft in June 1917, George D Preece was an unmarried timekeeper, living at 443 54th Street, New York, and working for C.W.Bliss on neighbouring 53rd Street. That December, though, he married Doretta May Heyl, the recipient of this Eagle Hut postcard, then living at 232a Sixth Avenue, Brooklyn.

George returned home to New York after being demobilised in June 1919 and in 1925 the couple were living at 1979 Troy Avenue, Kings, Brooklyn. They had two daughters, Dorothy in 1919 and Norma in 1923. They were still living there in 1941 when George again registered for war service. Doretta died in 1968 and George in 1970, after over 50 years of marriage.

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Posted by on 7 February 2014 in People, Places


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