‘Unhappily he is American!’ – more on the YMCA at Harwich

Sydney Spencer took the opportunity of his 26th birthday to reflect further on his work with the YMCA with soldiers at Harwich, and record his impressions of some of his co-workers – and one ordinary soldier – for posterity. His brother Will, also mentioned here, was a refugee from Germany, where he had been teaching the piano at Cologne Conservatory.

Sunday October 4th
My birthday!…
Dear old Will has just come in to wish me many happy returns & would make me accept a gift of 5s, which I would much rather he had not given me at such a time!…

There is so much about my experiences at Harwich which I want to write on, but as I have written some pages & must just read them over & see what has been left out. I have just read through the 20 pages of my diary at Harwich & find that there are a fair number of little anecdotes which I wanted to chronicle, also I find that I have not written my impressions of Hayes yet, and I promised him he should not be let off but would go down to posterity – or oblivion – according as my diary should [illegible] in the future! I will begin with him first. He is a man 6 ft 2 ins in height; a finely built man, ruddy brown with grey blue eyes & a small moustache. He strikes one as being a splendid specimen of a full grown & well proportioned Englishman. Unhappily he is American! His people left England somewhere about 1727. His parents are missionaries in China. He studied first at a college in America & afterwards as a Rhodes scholar at Merton College, Oxford. He has just finished his course at Oxford taking “greats”. He is a Leander Club man, & just missed getting his “blue” for the sake of getting “Greats”. In fact in Oxford the name “John Hayes” of Merton was a name of one of the “Bloods” of Oxford. He was a remarkably refined and sensitive man. He was alive to every wind of thought, & his sarcasm was of that refined & polished order which made me almost long to offend him so as to be subjected to some of his sarcasm. I used to just hug myself with delight when I saw him put on a lazy sleepy expression for I knew then that the game was up and someone was in for it. The fun he had in his “study” of the officers was delicious & I can see him now marching up and down our marquee with his fingers on his chin or viciously biting his little fingernail, thinking out in the dim light of our post-9.30 candle, just precisely the right message & its exact wording to boot which he should send over to the mess the next morning in return for a rather enigmatic one received by us during the evening…

After I had played at the service in the Co-operative Hall on the first Sunday night I was there, on coming into the body of the hall I was accosted by one of Kitchener’s men who wanted me to have a cup of tea with him at his expense, as a mark of his appreciation of my work. This of course I willingly did & we drank mutual goodwill to each other in cups of tea. I was delighted with this expression of his goodwill. On the night of our concert, that is the Wednesday night, after the preparations for the concert had been made, I found at 6.45 that the tent was already filling with men, while I was in a desperately begrimed condition & needed to find a place to wash & clean myself up. This operation had to take place on the concert platform & I had the curious experience of making my ablutions before an audience of some thirty or forty men! In the middle of these ablutions Captain Watson walked in & chuckled with delight over my idea for footlights, which by the way if I have not before mentioned it were 8 or ten candles placed in saucers on a form.

Dr Marks whom I mentioned in connection with Gravel Hill was a dear old man. A child psychologist – I think a professor of Sheffield University, he had a very beautiful character, & spent himself in his eagerness to do all he could in this YMCA work.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1914 (D/EX801/12)

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