1932 – 1960: Boystown is Born
New Zealand faced economic hardship during the 1930s. For many youth, this meant there were virtually no sports or leisure facilities, leaving them frustrated and bored. But hard times brought out the generous support of many which lead to the establishment of Boystown in 1944.
Life was tough in Auckland’s poorer suburbs during the early 1930s, tougher than many today could imagine.
New Zealand, along with the rest of the world, was in the grips of the worst economic crisis of modern times. With a population of little more than a million, we had around 50,000 unemployed. There was no dole, no minimum wage and no sickness benefits. To qualify for government support, men had to leave their families and live in relief camps in often isolated districts, leaving mothers with the task of bringing up children on their own.
To help save money, the government lowered the school leaving age from 15 to 14. But around 60% of male school-levers in 1932 couldn’t find work. For the poor kids of Auckland’s mean streets, there were virtually no sports or leisure facilities. All they could do was hang around on the streets, frustrated, bored and, all too often, with hunger gnawing in their bellies. It’s little wonder that petty theft and trouble-making were rife.
But hard times brought out the generous best in some people. Nellie Ferner, the first woman JP appointed to the Children’s Court, helped set up the ‘Community Sunshine Club’ in the former Nelson Street School, where Youthtown now stands. Huge cauldrons of soup simmered away on the exact spot now occupied by Youthtown’s swimming pool. There was no charge for the never-ending meals of soup and dry bread for anyone who wanted them.
Nellie also recognised the need to give unemployed Youth an outlet for their energies. And so she helped organise “physical culture classes, arts, crafts and a varied programme of technical subjects”.
Meanwhile, a very different character was also concerned about the boys he saw wandering aimlessly around the streets. Bill Dervan, proprietor of the Freemans Bay Hotel, was known as “Mr Boxing” and famed for the powerful voice with which he regularly announced major bouts at the Auckland Town Hall.
Bill was convinced of the value of boxing for curbing young males’ aggression. As he put it: “A boy that can defend himself will find that there is no need to look for situations where he has to prove himself amongst others.”
And so, in 1932, Bill opened the basement of his hotel as a boys’ boxing gymnasium. There were no set programmes and no paid trainers. Bill and a few professionals would coach the boys with what little equipment and facilities they had – a few dumbbells and a boxing ring.
But the biggest draw for kids from homes without hot water, was probably the gym’s shower. And there were also coffee and biscuits available. Soon, for every boy in the boxing ring, around ten of his mates would be on the premises, along with boys from the richer, outer suburbs, drawn by the lively, friendly atmosphere.
Of course, helping the boys over the frustrations of idleness only solved part of their problems. They were still hungry, their clothes were often torn, they might be without shoes and may have gone for weeks without a haircut. So Bill Derwan took it on himself to try and relieve some of the hardship suffered by both the boys and their families.
Word got round that Bill was paying the food, clothing and fuel bills for poor families out of his own pocket. Several prominent local personalities offered help and there were soon free haircuts, free cinema tickets and even a free medical clinic available. Others gave generously in cash.
Bill Dervan’s gym stayed open till 1934. By then, people were coming from miles around to take advantage of what had originally been a local relief effort. Bill and his helpers had unlimited goodwill but not limitless money. So rather than discriminate between boys and parents, Bill decided to close the gym at the end of the year.
But a seed had been planted from which Boystown would grow. Some of the youths who had regularly attended the gym started spending more time at Nellie Ferner’s Community Sunshine Club in Nelson Street. Eventually, thanks to boxing coach, Les Halford, a gym started up there, with boxing the main attraction, along with wrestling, table tennis and woodwork.
In 1944, the gym moved into a tin shed at the top of Parnell Rise, which was to remain Boystown’s home for the next 19 years.
Starting in the 1950s, Boystown benefited enormously from the involvement of Auckland’s Police Force, which recognised the importance of the club to crime prevention. Each week, officers gave many hours of their time voluntarily to organising team games and coaching gymnastics, boxing, wrestling and unarmed combat. They also helped organise camps and hikes, starting a tradition of open air adventure for city kids that still flourishes at Youthtown.
1961 – 1970: Fundraising Fever Hits Boystown
The Boystown building in Parnell was considered unsafe and a public appeal was launched to raise £60,000 to cover the cost of a new building. American multi-millionaire, Clement Stone, led the charge offering £6,000 on condition other fundraising for the project reached the total of £54,000 by December 1961.
The old tin shed in Parnell was already dilapidated when Boystown moved in. By the late 1950s, the floor had rotted away and the place stank. Insects were creeping out of the walls and the electricity frequently didn’t work. Things couldn’t go on as they were.
Help arrived in June 1961, in the form of American multi-millionaire, Clement Stone, who was shocked at the ramshackle facilities. Actively involved in supporting boys’ clubs in the United States, Mr Stone was also a close friend of Auckland’s legendary Mayor, Sir Dove Myer Robinson.
At a meeting in the Town Hall chaired by Mayor Robbie, Clement Stone offered to provide £6,000 for the erection of a new building for Boystown, on condition that other fundraising for the project reached the total of £54,000 by December 1961.
And so fundraising fever hit Auckland, with a major raffle, a gown competition and an amateur go-kart contest, with the mayor captaining Boystown’s team. But, by December, only £17,000 had been raised.
Clement Stone then offered to match pound for pound the amount Aucklanders could raise. If they could provide £30,000, he would give as much, provided the money was all in by 1st September 1962.
‘Housie’ evenings were held, a Boystown Spectacular staged at the Town Hall, further raffles organised, old clothes collected and auctioned and piles of pennies erected in pubs. There were also fundraising night flights over Auckland. Even the prisoners in Auckland jail joined in with, a fundraising concert. The £30,000 target was reached and duly matched by Mr Stone.
A key question now was where the new building should be situated. Unexpectedly, Boystown’s old friends from the Community Sunshine Association came back into the picture, offering to transfer their site in Nelson Street and all their assets to Boystown.
The Nelson Street site was large enough for a more impressive new building than had previously been considered. And so the financial target was raised to £180,000, a massive sum for the 1960s. Fundraising recommenced, with auctions, a bowls tournament, judo competitions, charity dinners and a women’s rugby match all contributing to the targeted sum.
Part of the new building, designed by architect Tony Mullan, opened on the 4th October 1967. Within two weeks it had received 1,400 enrolments. The official opening was in May 1968, with a gathering of 800. Within a year, 5,000 boys were enrolled.
The new building boasted a 25 metre swimming pool and a gigantic gym. It was as modern and as purpose-built as could be imagined in those days. Over 100 adult volunteers, many of them experts in their fields, were recruited, to teach new activities, including photography, music, art, billiards, squash and volleyball. There was even a Boystown Band, with 22 young men banging drums or blowing away melodiously on trumpets, tubas and trombones.
It seemed as if a new era of growth and fulfilment was dawning for Boystown and, for a few years at least, everything seemed to live up to this expectation. But, gradually, new problems began to emerge.
1971 – 1990: Boystown Becomes Youthtown
Doug McConnell was appointed Executive Director in 1984 and Boystown was renamed Youthtown in recognition of the large number of girls and young women using the Nelson Street facilities. Doug McConnell is remembered as an inspirational figure who lead the organisation through difficult times.
The 1970s and 1980s were to prove a difficult time for the Nelson Street team.
The comfortable years that followed World War Two were giving way to a less settled epoch. The nuclear family was eroding and prosperity no longer seemed assured, particularly in the less well-off Auckland suburbs from which Boystown drew most of its users. Meanwhile, youth unemployment was helping to boost the numbers of ‘street kids’ hanging around the city./p>
Just as Boystown had helped the disadvantaged kids of the 1930s, so now it helped a new generation of aimless and often homeless Youth. But the street kids brought problems with them. Some had gang affiliations or were into glue sniffing. They were used to living rough and were often careless of personal hygiene. Boystown did what it could to help them but their presence tended to discourage other young people from using the place. By the early 1990s, the street kids were no longer congregating in Nelson Street. But their presence had dented its image in the eyes of parents and funding sources alike.
Despite these challenges, Boystown was still a popular place to come. By the early 1980s, boxing had a much lower profile. At the same time, basketball was becoming a mainstay with frequent use made of the court and with both boys’ and girls’ teams competing at a high level in national championships.
The swimming pool was still unroofed but was also well-used in the summer months. There were opportunities for camping, canoeing, swimming and sailing. And there was also more focus on educational achievement with the development of a library.
However, cash shortages were taking their toll on what had once been Boystown’s gleaming new building. Alan Reid who joined the Nelson Street team in the mid-eighties recalled his first impressions.
“It was lined with mahogany coloured plywood and the carpets were covered with chewing gum. I’ll always remember my first sight of the piano at the end of the hallway. All you could see of it was the white ivory of the keys, because everything around it was so dark, dirty and dingy. My reaction was to say: “Holy smoke, do people actually work in this place? We’ve got to get this changed! We’ve got to move on from here!’”
Amidst the gloom, two events took place that were to have a significant long-term impact on Boystown and, ultimately, help it chart a new course.
The first of these events was the appointment, in 1984, of Doug McConnell as Executive Director, a post he held until his untimely death from cancer in 1999. The second event, two years later, was the changing of Boystown’s name to’ Youthtown’, in belated recognition of the large numbers of girls and young women using the Nelson Street facilities.
Doug McConnell is remembered as an inspirational figure, under whose leadership, Youthtown started to take on its current shape and purpose. A man of strong ideals and memorable charisma, the former schoolteacher led Youthtown through difficult times, when funding was scarce and the margin of survival very thin. He kept Youthtown afloat against the odds and never compromised about doing his best for Auckland’s young people.
Tui Tait, now Youthtown’s Basketball Manager, first met Doug when visiting Nelson Street as a teenager in the 1970s. She has vivid memories of the man:
“Doug was a great guy. He really did live and breathe Youthown’s vision and philosophy and he really did care about young people. Doug believed in nurturing the kids and helping them grow. For him, the job was never about money. He could have gone anywhere and done any job and made lots of money. But that wasn’t Doug. He did what he truly believed in.”
Doug’s passion for weightlifting had turned him into New Zealand’s national coach and he was one of the sport’s outstanding personalities. He trained a number of leading weightlifters at Nelson Street including triple Commonwealth Games gold medal winner, Darren Liddell, helping to turn the sport into another of Youthtown’s specialities.
1990s: New Beginnings
In the 1990s, Youthtown re-positioned itself as a community facility rather than a drop-in centre and a further, long overdue upgrade took place, when the swimming pool’s sliding roof was completed in 1994, turning the pool into an all-year facility.
In the 1990s, Youthtown started to re-position itself as, in the words of its then Operations Manager, Alan Reid, “a community facility rather than a drop-in centre”.
“There were now far fewer street kids or, for that matter, extremely disadvantaged kids within a reasonable radius of Nelson Street. Instead, we had huge numbers of kids from ‘time poor’ families, where Mum and Dad both worked very long hours and needed a place like Youthtown to take up the slack.”
“In the early nineties, Doug would organise staff planning days and out of these came a plan for upgrading Nelson Street and organising new activities. Instead of taking a piecemeal approach with a few thousand dollars spent every time a wall needed painting or something like that, we looked at the big picture for revamping the building and it came to about $1.2 million. Gradually, we got the money together, including $800,000 from the ASB and $200,000 from the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board.”
One of the most significant developments of the early 1990s was the establishment of a Learning Centre, in 1992 with $200,000 provided by the Paykel family trusts. A further, long overdue upgrade took place in 1994, when the swimming pool’s sliding roof was completed, turning the pool into an all-year facility. In Alan Reid’s view, it wasn’t just the facilities which improved during the 1990’s:
“We had always had after-school activities, for which people would drop their kids off. But then we started picking the kids up from local schools, looking after them and ensuring they were safe and enjoying themselves until their parents were ready to collect them.”
“Our Holiday Programmes also became more structured during the 1990s. The demand was huge from all over Auckland and we sometimes had 300 kids a day turning up. To make it a worthwhile experience, we had to limit the numbers and we also put an increasingly professional team in charge. We’ve now got a situation, with both the Holiday Programmes and the After School Programme, where the kids are having such a good time that they don’t want to go home.”
Boxing was finally phased-out during the 1990s, reflecting a change in public sentiment, as well as increased medical misgivings. Meanwhile, basketball achieved new prominence.
As the millennium drew to a close, Youthtown had much to be proud of. In March 1999, Doug McConnell, already ailing and with less than six months to live, received a surprise telephone call. It led to a heart-warming encounter and to Doug reflecting in his Director’s Report on the huge contribution made by Youthtown:
“In 1975 we discovered a nine year old who was malnourished, unable to speak well and spending some of his time living under houses. My wife and I fed him a complan milkshake every day and taught him to swim. Other staff read stories to him. Then suddenly Stephen vanished and we never saw him again. He telephoned me last week and came to Youthtown on Tuesday after more than 20 years. Now weighing 140 kg and over six feet tall, I believe the milkshakes must have worked. He said that he went on to win some school swimming competitions and felt good about that. He also said that his mother took him away to the South Island but that Youthtown had been an important refuge for him. Stephen said that ‘through all the years Youthtown (he knew it as ‘Boystown’) was never far from his heart.”
“Doesn’t this just emphasise that Youthtown’s influence in our community is not just a quick and instant thing which is here one day and not the next but is something positive and stable spanning decades.”
The new millennium has resulted in huge growth for Youthtown. Today it is a leading national youth organisation successfully working with young people to help them raise their aspirations, realise their potential and have their achievements recognised.
The period from 2000 – 2012 has been a time of unparalleled growth in Youthtown’s staff, activities and the numbers of young people accessing its services and programmes.
Keith Thorpe, who became Executive Director in 2003, cites growing professionalism and substantial improvements in funding as key components in moving Youthtown forward.
“I remember that when I first joined Youthtown as Marketing Manager, I wanted to put out a brochure, which would have cost about $5,000 and soon realised that it wasn’t going to happen until I’d first raised the money. Going from there to where we are now has been a giant step forward.”
“Throughout the 1990s, Youthtown was coming to terms with the need to be more market- orientated. But we were still failing to put a realistic price on most of the things we were doing. This, in turn, was both restricting our income and limiting the quality and value of what was on offer.
“Attitudes have changed and New Zealanders have got used to paying for many things they used to consider entitlements. If something’s free or cheap, people now tend to ask ‘what’s wrong with it?’ So, we’ve moved the emphasis to quality first and price second, although we still subsidise many of our services and try to keep them easily affordable by the average family.”
“None of this has involved any retreat from our mission of helping young people at risk. There may be less poverty around than when Youthtown first started-up. But kids from all types of backgrounds can be at risk if they have nothing constructive or challenging into which they can pour energy or talents.”
Meanwhile, Youthtown’s After School Programmes have continued to flourish, both in Nelson Street and at a suburban facility in Panmure, with activities including indoor soccer, basketball, badminton, volleyball, unihoc and team games, as well as art classes, a cultural programme, cooking sessions, quizzes and opportunities for swimming, table tennis or board games. And there’s also a ‘Homework Club’ at Nelson Street for those who want to get on with their studies.
School Holiday Programmes are even more packed, with visits to, amongst other places, tree adventure facilities, beaches for blo-karting, aquatic parks, swimming pools, cinemas, mazes, ‘haunted houses’, climbing wall facilities, museums, archery classes and sweet factories. Holiday Programmes operate out of Panmure, Pakuranga and the North Shore, as well as Nelson Street.
Meanwhile, Youthtown has taken its first steps towards becoming a nationwide service, with an After School Programme starting in Upper Hutt and discussions held with local authorities elsewhere in the country.
As Keith Thorpe points out, young people across New Zealand have similar needs, with enjoyable and accessible activities way up on the list of priorities:
"Another constant factor is the concern parents feel over what happens to their children, when school is shut. Long working hours are a reality for many parents and it's not always possible for them to be with their kids. If we want safer, happier communities, with less youth offending, organisations such as Youthtown need to be there for our young people."
Back in the days when young males went to Boystown for boxing, few would have imagined its successor organisation would one day be promoting art and self-expression. But, then, a lot has changed down the years, for both Youthtown and New Zealand. Art is now flourishing, with Youthtown Central’s Art Studio boasting an impressive array of equipment, including an electric kiln. Usage of the facility has risen by about 500 percent over just a few years.
In 2003, a group of young Art Studio regulars, under the guidance of Art Tutor, Sue Clark, helped beautify Auckland by painting their own life-sized fibre-glass cow, as a contribution to the city’s CowParade. Eighteen months later, the Art Studio ran a joint project with Freemans Bay School, creating a giant mosaic, to celebrate the school’s cultural diversity. Almost all of its 350 students designed, painted and glazed their own individual ceramic tile, with some producing more than one item.
Film is another area in which Youthtown is encouraging creativity. An inaugural ‘Short Film Challenge’ for 13-to-18 year olds, held in 2004, provided a modest start for what’s become an important annual fixture, with entries from across New Zealand and with an ‘Oscar Night’ type ceremony held at the Academy Cinema. Youthtown also holds a non-competitive ‘Reel Short Festival’ every year.
After waning in the 1990s, Youthtown’s commitment to the 13-plus age group has been revived in recent years, with the development of a separate ‘Urban Unity’ brand for teens and regular dance parties and gigs, held both in Nelson Street and Panmure.
A typical Urban Unity Holiday Programme, in the summer of 2006/7, included blo-karting at Karekare, snorkelling around Goat Island and kayaking and sailing on the Waitemata, as well as several less active days on beaches around Auckland.
There are some who say New Zealanders have become a nation of couch potatoes. But that’s not the experience of Youthtown’s Outdoor Adventure Coordinator, Ben Nanasca. In the past few years, he and his colleagues have seen a fivefold increase in the numbers of young people involved in outdoor pursuits.
“To some extent, this is because we now have more equipment and facilities, including dinghies, kayaks and blo-karts. And we also have more staff, three of whom are qualified ‘Waterwise’ Instructors. But another factor is simply that more kids want to be active in the open air.”
“Once a week during the school term, our New Adventures Club brings around 30 young people together for a couple of hours of adventure, which might include blo-karting, high ropes, horse-riding, kayaking, sailing, mountain-biking or rock-climbing. During the winter months, we also organise a Ski & Snowboarding Club, making use of the unique indoor facilities at Snow Planet near Silverdale. Meanwhile, local schools have started contacting us to provide outdoor training and activities for the entire school.”
“Each year, we also take several groups of young people on ski and snow boarding camps on Mount Ruapehu. Quite often, the kids have never seen the snow before or spent much time away from the city. So it’s a wonderful experience for them. And we also run summer camps in Northland.”
Introducing city kids to the ‘great outdoors’ has long been part of Youthtown’s brief, and never more so than today.