The Wrekin Buildings, Walker Street

When it comes to Great War legacies, few locations in Wellington have so storied a history as the Wrekin Buildings in Walker Street. An unopened military hospital and maternity centre during the conflict, it was equally notable as a meeting place that reflected the temper of times in 1919, when it was purchased by the organisation that continues to define its role in local life a century later.


The Wrekin Buildings, on the corner of Walker Street and Tan Bank, were built around 1908 and owned at the outbreak of the First World War by local Liberal MP Sir Charles Henry. Within the first few months of the conflict, the upper floor (known as the Wrekin Hall) was converted into a Voluntary Aid Detachment hospital for wounded servicemen but did not meet with military approval. Consequently, its founder Flora Dugdale was forced to dismantle the facility before it received a patient. Just before the war, in 1913, the local branch of the YMCA began an association with the building that endures to this day. Thanks to its activities, the Wrekin Hall continued to play a part in the war effort, serving as a training centre for St John’s ambulancemen (70 had qualified by February 1917) and a recreational facility for wounded soldiers from the military hospital in Holyhead Road; its billiard room was set aside for their convenience on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons. In May 1916, Wellington’s first Child Welfare Centre opened there, too, and remained on site for over four years, offering maternity services to local mothers. In the post-war period, the building remained at the centre of Wellington life, hosting the meetings of a range of local groups and providing a barometer of changing times. In fact, 1919 proved to be a particularly pivotal year for the future of the Wrekin Buildings when new owners redefined its role for the century to come.

Sir Charles Henry sold the Wrekin Buildings to the YMCA in June 1919

A New Owner

The potential sale of the Wrekin Buildings first came to light in March 1919, when it was mooted as a site for the town’s official war memorial — which the local council then envisaged as new improved facilities for the Child Welfare Centre. While that plan fell through the transaction did not and on June 24th Sir Charles Henry sold the building at pre-war cost to the YMCA (also contributing £650 to the purchase fund; around 10% of the sale price). At its October AGM, officers reported on an ‘epoch making year’ for the Wellington and District branch, and one in which its newly-purchased headquarters was about to playing a starring role. Nationally, the task of reintegrating around three million demobilised servicemen back into civilian life was a major concern for a Government wary of social unrest in a febrile era. Yet, in Wellington, the YMCA was carving out a niche as a recreational centre for returned soldiers and sailors, which no doubt helped to rally support for its cause. At the AGM, newly-elected President Mr AS Corbett declared the Association ‘would leave no stone unturned to help in building up of the manhood of the county’ and central to those plans was a modernisation of the building itself, as outlined in the Wellington Journal:

“The committee are hoping as early as possible to fill the premises with agencies and activities that will all promote with greater degree religious, social, mental and physical life. With the premises decorated upon up-to-date lines with various attractions as proposed, the YMCA should induce a large number of young men to become members”.

The Wrekin Buildings have been home to the YMCA since 1913

From Sweden to Japan

By October, the YMCA was making good on its promise. An agreement had been made to affiliate with the recently-formed local branch of the Workers Education Association, while it had also begun a hugely popular lecture series at the Wrekin Hall dealing with an array of subjects from the Real Japan to Britain’s Quaintest Insects! The following month a winter programme was unveiled, in the delivery of which officials had left ‘no stone unturned’ it was claimed. It began with a Swedish Drill display by the Birmingham YMCA Gymnastic Team, which served as a prelude to establishing a local gym in Wellington on Tuesday and Friday evenings, to which the Journal reported ‘a goodly number’ signed up. Its cause was no doubt aided by the much vaunted renovations, which were unveiled at an official ceremony in December by Mrs Walter Long. They included a comfortable lounge (where members could smoke and talk), a reading room, two billiard rooms and a large room for gymnastics that could also double as a venue for study circles ‘and other forms of education’.

In all, £200 had been spent on the improvements (with inflation, that figure would be nearer £10,000 today) but with a new library planned, more changes were still to come. Surprisingly, Mrs Long — who had spent the war working in YMCA huts in France — revealed that the branch finances were in fact ‘the weakest spot in the Association’:  

‘It was only since the Armistice was signed that the Association had got into debt and this was accounted for in different ways. Prisoners of War returned practically starving and they were fed and cared for by the YMCA (applause) — without any payment’.

The Wrekin Buildings from Tan Bank

This revealing insight demonstrates the lack of official support for veterans after the war and, with the town’s branch of the Comrades of the Great War still searching for a new headquarters, the intervention of the YMCA was clearly very welcome. In 1920, its activities went from strength to strength, as the organisation introduced a popular series of Saturday evening populars, while a fund was established to pay off the remaining £5000 of debt accrued in purchasing the building. At its October AGM, an ambition for the Wellington and District branch base to become ‘the finest place of its kind in the Midlands’ was revealed but it was soon to be adapted for new purposes once again. As the economy began to decline, and local unemployment rose sharply, a soup kitchen was established in November 1921 for the purpose of distributing to deserving cases ‘at least one pint of soup with a good chunk of bread’, all in exchange for two pence; by the following May it was helping around 80 cases a week. Once again, the Wrekin Buildings were serving as a measure of fast-changing times.