Part of what makes GFS so unique is it’s rich history supporting women and girls since the 19th century. But it isn’t just history, it’s a living story about the power of women and girls.

We were established in 1875 with the support of the Anglican Church as a pioneer youth organisation to protect working-class country girls who left home to take up urban employment.

We continue to support girls and young women today, adapting to the new challenges and opportunities presented by an ever-changing world. While the organisation has taken many different shapes over the last several decades, our dedication to supporting girls and young women has remained the same.

The beginnings

‘The Girls Friendly Society’ was officially established in England on 1st January 1875 by Mary Elizabeth Townsend, an Irish clergyman’s daughter married to the wealthy Frederick Townsend.

She once wrote “If the power of rescue work will be so increased by organisation, why should no work be organised to save from falling?” In modern terminology, from its inception GFS was concerned with prevention.

Cut off from the support of friends and family, Mrs Townsend’s idea was for ‘Lady Associates’ to befriend and guide these girls, who would form the Society’s members. Today, we would probably call these Associates ‘mentors’. Girls could join GFS from the age of 12, but from 1882 those from the age of eight could become ‘membership candidates’.

1880 to 1920: the golden years

By 1880, GFS had nearly 40,000 Members and more than 13,500 Associates. During this year, Queen Victoria became the Society’s Patron. It was an almost exclusively female organisation, being run by and for women with the exception of male Treasurers, Trustees and some senior clergy who held ex officio positions.

GFS provided numerous facilities for the young women under its protection. Most important were its lodges which offered cheap, good-quality accommodation to young women working in domestic service and as mill or factory workers.

The Society communicated with Members and Associates through numerous publications beginning with The Girls’ Friendly Society Reporter in 1875, quickly followed by Friendly Leaves. By 1883 Friendly Leaves had a monthly circulation of 46,000, and Friendly Work was introduced, with a focus on older Members to reflect their gradually increasing role as local workers for the Society.

The Society also produced many books and pamphlets. Among the most popular was Every Day: Thoughts on the GFS Rules of Life, first published in 1895, which encapsulated the Society’s entire ethos that GFS should inform Members’ whole approach to daily life. The History of The Girls Friendly Society was published in 1897.

By 1900, GFS had more than 150,000 Members and nearly 33,000 Associates in 1,361 Branches. Young women working in domestic service comprised the largest single occupational group among the Members. Others were teachers, nurses, clerks, students and workers in refreshment bars, mills, factories and warehouses.

The 1920s and 1930s: expanding its wings

The outbreak of the First World War and its aftermath resulted in a decline in Members’ employment and membership numbers. In the decade following the War the Society expanded its activities in many other directions.

In 1921, the Society acquired Argyll House, a hostel originally established by the Deptford Council for Youth. It took in homeless girls and women and those escaping domestic violence.

The Society’s Golden Jubilee in 1925 was celebrated, amongst other activities, with a pageant, The Quest, performed in the Albert Hall by six hundred Members and attended by Queen Mary and Princess Mary.

By 1925, the Society had 66 Homes and Hostels in England and Wales. Workers gathered for Conferences, Retreats and Training Weeks and the first Correspondence Training Course were introduced. Camps were organised for younger Members, the Readers’ Union introduced a Certificate of English and the Migration Department assisted hundreds of members with their travels abroad.

Further innovations followed in 1926 with the first GFS continental holiday party, which visited Brussels, and the Society’s first promotional film, In Friendship’s Name, which was shown around the country.

The 1930s saw some modernisation of the Society with the appointment of Correspondents for Health, promotion of the study of Citizenship among Members and the setting up of a Central Council for Recreative Physical Training.

In 1937 Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother became the Society’s World Patron, a position she held until 2002.

The 1940s and 1950s: new world order

From 1939, the Society threw itself wholeheartedly into the War effort. A War Emergency Committee again raised money for clubs and hostels for women working on the Home Front, while the Branches undertook various tasks from helping with evacuees to ‘adopting’ a mine sweeper.

In 1942 GFS launched its War Training Scheme for girls aged 14-18 which was taken up by Youth Committees and Education Authorities. The training covered a variety of subjects from ARP Techniques to Poultry Keeping. The League of Skilled Housecraft, in conjunction with the Board of Education and London County Council, also introduced a Youth Wartime Section to provide housecraft training for 16-18-year-old girls.

In 1945, it introduced in every diocese an experienced full-time organising worker and, in 1948, a scheme to provide training for GFS voluntary leadership. In 1957, a joint scheme between the GFS, Westhill Training College and the College of the Ascension, Selly Oak, resulted in the first two GFS students to train as Professional Youth Leaders.

GFS also increased its missionary work overseas with, in 1951, 25 missionaries in Africa, Japan, India, Pakistan and Iran.

The GFS World Council was formed in 1955 to promote fellowship between the members of the Society throughout the world by the exchange of information and ideas and in 1959 the first World Project was launched, helping to support a GFS worker in Mombasa. The World Council agreed to meet every three years.

The 1960s and 1970s: the modern woman

In 1964, the Society launched a Development Scheme to extend its work at home and abroad. There was an ever-increasing need for residential hostels for girls in the large cities and new facilities were opened in Birmingham, Swindon and Bristol, with an emphasis on self-catering accommodation. In 1967, the Society opened another hostel in Kensington accommodating about 40 girls, many from the Royal Ballet School.

GFS made an emphatic return to its original focus on young working women, but with a modern edge. It launched ‘Girls at Work’ courses and opened lunch clubs for young working women. The Girls at Work syllabus included fashion, make-up and etiquette, budgeting and interview techniques and the courses, sponsored by employers such as Marks & Spencer and Metal Box Company, were attended by factory and office workers, shop assistants and laboratory technicians.

The 1980s and 1990s: new challenges

In the 1980s and ’90s the Society reviewed its aim and function. A new name, ‘GFS Platform for Young Women’, was adopted for campaigning and outreach work, emphasizing the commitment to help ‘girls and women to develop spiritually, personally and socially.
The Society reduced its housing schemes and in those that remained the increase in homeless young women and young mothers, meant an alteration in the kind of provision offered and greater staff support.

In 1989, a community project was established in Great Yarmouth, offering ante and post-natal advice, education, childcare and supported housing to young mothers, to reduce isolation, build self-esteem and increase employability. It also trained the young women to talk to local school pupils about the reality of young parenthood, relationships and contraception. Success led to similar projects in Skegness, the Isle of Wight and south London, all areas of social deprivation.

The 21st century: a new beginning

The Society today is very different. We no longer offer accommodation and sadly in September 2018 we also saw our last remaining Projects – GFS Skegness and GFS Great Yarmouth – close due to a lack of much-needed government funding.

And yet, there is continuity. Our volunteer-led groups continue to grow all across England and Wales, offering sessions on a weekly basis to over 400 girls and young women through our 36 groups. Groups are now opened strategically in areas of disadvantage, ensuring that we are reaching the girls who need us most – something we know would hold with the values that Mary Townsend held when she started the organisation almost 150 years ago.

Although GFS is no longer a religious organisation, some groups include elements of faith. We continue to encourage friendship and understanding between women of different generations and backgrounds.

The Women’s Library at the London School of Economics holds a GFS Archive that consists of the records of The Girls’ Friendly Society, including minutes, reports, organisational files, volumes of memoranda, recipe books, and personal papers of members. There are printed materials and publications such as journals, magazines and books. The archive also includes objects, particularly photographs, badges and banners.