Keeping thousands of visiting troops entertained in their leisure time was one of the big challenges in Luton. While churches organised concerts for the troops, it was the YMCA that looked after their everyday welfare.
Luton's first YMCA marquee appeared on the Moor, off New Bedford Road, within two weeks of the declaration of war and as the North Midlands Division Territorials arrived in town.
In its August 20th, 1914, edition, The Luton News reported on the erection of the Moor marquee by the Midland District Union of the YMCA. A visiting reporter describing it as excellent accommodation for the Territorials.
"At one end is a counter at which a very good cup of coffee is provided for one penny, and there are also minerals, cake, etc, to be had. Such good value is given for money that the YMCA lose on it.
"They also supply notepaper and envelopes free to the Territorials, and in the marquee are plenty of tables and chairs at which soldiers may sit and write home with the pen and ink provided, instead of having to scribble with a pencil against a shop window or wall. The communications may be posted in the letter-box in the tent."
In its October 8th edition, the newspaper gave a more detailed description of the marquee and the work of the YMCA. It reported:
"To people who go along New Bedford Road in the evening the big marquee which the YMCA have established on the Moor always seems to be full to overflowing. And this is the case every evening.
"The YMCA Camp seems to very successfully cater for the troops in their hours of leisure, and whether they want to write a letter, to buy stamps, postal orders or postcards, to beg a sheet of brown paper in which to send some washing, to get new leather laces for their boot, or something to relieve their toothache, they all come along to the tent to get their wants supplied. They also come along for a nightly sing-song, to which they themselves often contribute, and on Sundays they come just as readily to the bright services which are organised.
"Already over 60,000 letters, postcards and parcels have been posted at the little post office in the tent. The stamps sold have amounted to £219, and post orders to £850. Supplies of stamps and post orders are obtained from the local post office, which must be saved a considerable amount of work by the facilities provided for the men in the YMCA tent. The £850 spent on postal orders may be safely regarded as money which has been sent home by the men now in training. Stationery is provided free of charge and, having regard to the number of letters sent and the certainty of occasional spoils, the workers are getting nearly to the end of their first supply of 100,000 sheets of paper and envelopes.
"From the temperance point of view, the support which is given to the refreshment bar is very encouraging. Already between 70,000 and 80,000 cups of tea and coffee have been provided, in addition to minerals etc, and it should be pointed out that the prices charged in this department are so moderate that they only show a very small margin of profit to be devoted to the cost of running the camp. There is a savings bank, and men are encouraged to deposit such small sums as they do not want to immediate needs, such deposits being always withdrawable when wanted.
"Something like 2,000 Testaments have been given away. Of these, 250 were distributed at the service on Sunday evening. They contain Lord Roberts' message, and the recipients have to promise to take their Testaments with them when they go to the front, and not to send them home.
"The latest development is a French class. This commenced at 6.30 on Monday evening, a university man who is among the helpers at the came undertaking to teach to all the soldiers who care to come along general French phrases which will be of great service to them when they get to the Continent.
"Serious consideration is being given to arrangements for carrying on the work throughout the winter. The work of the YMCA will continue as long as the troops remain in Luton, but when the cold weather comes the marquee will not be serviceable. We understand that the Mayor of Luton is endeavouring to assist in getting a suitable building, but if this is not possible it may be found necessary to erect some kind of structure where the tents now stands. This will involve an expenditure of quite £200 for the structure alone, which is a serious item to contemplate. The camp cannot be expected to pay its way, having regard to the work which is being done, and already there has been a loss of £60 which has had to be met out of the funds of the Association. It is also only one of about 500 centres which are being run throughout the country, and as in nearly all these camps some expenditure will have to be faced in the provision of suitable winter quarters the Association are undertaking a very big risk. Probably, however, some local people who realised the value of the work which is being carried on may come forward and help the Association to meet the expenditure which may have to be faced."
On Friday, November 27th, a more robust building was formally opened by Mayoress Mrs W. J. Primett to replace the marquees on the Moor. A Saturday Telegraph report the following day says it is constructed with wooden sides, lined on the inside with striped canvas, and the roof is of specially prepared canvas. It has a wooden floor, raised slightly above ground level, and stoves are installed for heating. The cost of this new building, which is 100 ft and 80 ft, has amounted to £300.