No barracks, no sheep pens – super new hostels

A planned new youth hostel will be big. It’ll be purpose built and it’ll be in London. Not what many of us expect from a youth hostel? It’s easier to think that youth hostels are small, out of the way places in fantastic locations. We might love those kind of hostels but we should think again and here’s why.

Grab a coffee and allow about 15 minutes for reading this.

YHA is planning a big new super youth hostel for London.

If planning permission is granted the new hostel will have 850 beds. It will be three times bigger than any other property in YHA’s network. The new hostel in east London will be in the Olympic Park next to Stratford Tube station and Westfield Shopping Centre, a short walk from Stratford International mainline station. The £30 million hostel will have en suite bedrooms, bars, restaurants, conference and meeting facilities, a self-catering kitchen and communal spaces.

The new hostel will be big, it’ll be purpose built and it’ll be in London. But for a youth hostel it really isn’t that different or that unusual. It continues an old tradition.

One of the first

YHA has had youth hostels in London for a long time and the first one there, one of the first in Britain, opened in May 1931.

Highgate youth hostel, an early youth hostel in London. (photo courtesy YHA Archive).

New Talbot House near the Tower of London was the vicarage of All Hallows by the Tower where Tubby Clayton, of Toc H, was vicar from 1922. Toc H began in the first world war and became an international movement that aimed to promote reconciliation. Clayton was an early supporter of youth hostels. A lack of suitable low cost accommodation denied many young people the chance to travel and Clayton, like many others, saw youth hostels as the way to change that.

The first hostel in London was for men only. Unfortunately, it closed soon after, having recorded only 33 overnight stays. Many other early youth hostels closed as quickly. The first youth hostels came and went, sometimes with bewildering speed. A settled network of hostels took a long time to appear.

Impecunious youth

The hunt for another site in London began, encouraged by TA Leonard.

He was another early supporter of youth hostels. He had inspired two previous organisations which provided accommodation in the countryside, the Co-operative Holidays Association and the Holiday Fellowship. In 1929 he had thrown his support behind youth hotels.

He was one of the earliest to push for a youth hostel in London. He was an internationalist, keen to see people from different countries mixing together. In 1932 he declared there was a crying need for a youth hostel in London.

“London has the discredit of being the only capital in Europe that cannot welcome impecunious youth into its midst. Teachers, welfare workers, scouts, all sorts of young folk from the benighted provinces, not to forget Continental youth – all want to see this wonderful London…”

A year later Leonard had his wish. From 1933, for two summers, the Welcome Club Rooms at the Alexandra Palace, Wood Green, were London’s next hostel. A large restaurant, on the ground floor, offered youth hostel members meals at special prices. In many ways, it was a super hostel in a special place.

The association next opened a youth hostel at Highgate, on West Hill. YHA leased the brick-built townhouse from 1935. It bought the building in 1944 and it continued as a youth hostel until until 1997.

A bigger youth hostel, at 38 Great Ormond Street, opened in July 1936. GOSH, as it became known, stayed open until 1952 when a new hostel at Earl’s Court, which remains open today, replaced it.

Central London Youth Hostel, Great Ormond Street. (Photo courtesy YHA Archive).


As the 1970s ended something in London and in other cities was about to change. Cities were in decline. 1981 saw riots in London, Liverpool and Leeds. Young people were being left behind and old industrial cities were slipping into dereliction.

The old docklands, especially the London docks, epitomised these problems. Docks fells out of use in the 1970s as shipping companies built bigger and bigger ships to carry goods in containers. Bigger ships needed deeper harbours. Docks shifted. Tilbury and Felixstowe opened.

The last dock in London closed in 1980. Bristol abandoned the harbour at its centre for docks at Avonmouth and Portbury.

Bristol looked for new ways to reshape its old docks. Local MP, William Waldegrave, appealed for funds for a youth hostel there in September 1986.

Converting an old grain warehouse, on the edge of the harbour, into a youth hostel took almost three years. It opened in July 1989, the first of a series of hostels opening in dockland development schemes.

The trend turned back to London. Another new youth hostel opened in 1991, at Rotherhithe in London, on land reclaimed from the old Surrey Docks. It was super new and up to date.

The new building had magnetic keys, 24-hour access, security lockers, lifts, a toilet and sink in each bedroom, a cafeteria, kitchen, currency exchange and a sightseeing booking service. The Queen officially opened it in March 1993.

Purpose built hostels, in dockland redevelopment schemes, in Manchester and in Liverpool, followed. The Duke of Edinburgh opened the youth hostel in Liverpool, in August 1998, the first permanent youth hostel in that city.

Official opening YHA Liverpool, YHA chief executive, Colin Logan, greets the Duke of Edinburgh. (Photo courtesy YHA Archive).

Back to another tradition

Youth hostels like Rotherhithe also marked a return to another trend. The German school teacher and founder of youth hostels, Richard Schirrmann, was one of the first to find that youth hostels in converted castles and barracks were impractical. Youth hostels in buildings never meant to be accommodation made them difficult to run. They were inefficient and expensive to keep.

By 1926 Schirrmann and others had realised that they needed youth hostels built for purpose. Youth hostels should be dedicated to being one thing, not a classroom with add-ons, not a castle. By then, Schirrmann was adamant, youth hostels should not be in any old converted building.

“We don’t want… any gloomy medieval fortress, any miniature castles from an over-romantic age with mock turrets and lighthouse-like towers, any barracks, any sheep-pens. Buildings must be constructed to accommodate youth, the rising generation; simple and functional, light, easily ventilated, yet retaining the warmth, pleasant to live in, beautiful…”

Schirrmann and his colleagues began designing and building youth hostels from scratch. Public authorities supported them with funds and sites. Hostels became a completely new field of architecture.

Architects and designers

In Britain, people looking to create the first hostels in 1930 looked to architects for help. In Wales, an English-born Welsh architect, Clough Williams-Ellis designed the first purpose-built British youth hostel in 1931.

He was a fashionable architect with a positive vision. He believed people were meant to live in happy beautiful surroundings. He wanted a new architecture that enhanced surroundings. He wanted colourful, beautiful buildings that blended with the landscape.

Maeshafn youth hostel. (Photo courtesy YHA archive).

The simple wooden structure and unusual design of the hostel he designed at Maeshafn, two miles from the main Mold-Ruthin road, made an immediate statement. It aligned youth hostels with modern architecture in a colourful style, linked to the arts and crafts movement.

The building was Italianate and Mediterranean. Blue doors in the yellow walls of a central common room opened into two dormitories, one for men on the south side and one for women, on the north side. He divided each dormitory into four cubicles for cosiness and suspended stout canvas bunks in the cubicles.

Super modern

A 26 year-old architect and member of the newly formed London Regional Council, designed another hostel at Holmbury St Mary in Surrey. Woodland surrounded Howard Lobb’s red brick hostel which opened in its idyllic setting in 1935. Its long low lines faced east and west among broad and gently sloping hills. Lobb designed everything for simplicity, with men downstairs, women above.

He broke the two large bedrooms for 24 into cubicles to give a sense of privacy. Each cubicle slept four in two bunks. Under each window, between each pair of bunks, built-in lockers provided seats. The common room opened on a sun terrace with space outside for camping and games. In the common room, with windows on three sides was a cheerful painted frieze and a low open fire.

Lobb designed a second youth hostel at Ewhurst Green in brick and timber.

A user described the youth hostel as “super modern.”

It had showers, electric cookers and bright painted furniture. YHA sold it in 1983 and, demolished, it made way for a new house.

Super efficient

John Dower, Sir Charles Trevelyan’s son-in-law, designed youth hostels at Bellingham, Northumberland; at Eskdale, Cumbria; at Malham, West Yorkshire; and at Langdon Beck, County Durham. The Lakeland regional group built an architect-designed youth hostel in Borrowdale in the Lake District. The hostel in red cedar opened in 1939.

But, for the next two decades no more architect designed youth hostels were built. Youth hostels, when they opened, were in converted properties.The next big architect designed youth hostel in London, at Holland Park didn’t open until 1958. Sir Hugh Casson designed a modern concrete and glass modern wing for the old Holland House.

Rotherhithe youth hostel. (Photo courtesy YHA archive).

Mansions and halls

In Germany as well as learning the lesson of purpose built hostels they also learned to build big. If you expected lots of people to stay in a hostel it made little sense to use a tiny building. They learned to have little time for little hostels there. They learned to build big.

A hostel in Munich had opened in 1927 for up to 300 guests, with a classroom attached to each dormitory and a kitchen, where groups and classes could cook their meals, and another, where they could buy meals. Large numbers of young children required specially designed, robust equipment. The hostel recorded 45,000 overnight stays in its first year.

In England and Wales youth hostels in the Peak District achieved a reputation for being big and for being in mansions. Richard Schirrmann admired them. When he visited Derbyshire in 1934 some of the hostels he saw surprised him.

Derwent Hall, one of the youth hostels Richard Schirrmann visited in Derbyshire. (Photo courtesy YHA Archive).

He had not expected to find youth hostels in such grand mansions.

Though they had great hostels in Germany, Schirrmann declared, they had not the atmosphere of these wonderful halls.

The Peak District’s mansion hostels meant hostels in the area could accommodate large numbers as they became more popular. School parties used them and large groups of all kinds, helping YHA reach out to new generations.

Big, bigger and super

When a youth hostel opened in Ambleside in two converted hotels in 1971, YHA had its largest hostel. It had 240 beds and was the biggest in the network until a new hostel in London opened in February 2008 with 300 beds.

The planned new super hostel in London will overtake them all. London’s new hostel, when it opens, will follow in a proud tradition of architect designed, purpose built, big youth hostels in London. The new hostel will fulfil Richard Schirrmann’s vision of not being in any old barrack or sheep-pen, but a hostel designed for young people.

We might think of a typical youth hostel in an old converted building, in some remote location, but it isn’t always like that. Youth hostels have for a long time been big, in cities and built for purpose.

YHA chief executive, Caroline White, says “This is a very exciting time in YHA’s 85-year history in England and Wales. We are responding directly to the needs of today’s young people and their families with our plans for YHA Stratford.”

Her words almost echo TA Leonard’s.

“Once built, it will further our vision to reach more young people and enable them to discover the capital with their school, group or family.”

Find out more about the story of youth hostels, and architect designed youth hostels – a chapter of  Open to All: how youth hostels changed the world is devoted to that subject. Order a copy from any good bookshop, from Amazon, Waterstones or from Amazon as a Kindle book.

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