On a bright December day in 1930, Connie Alexander was walking down Lord Street in Liverpool. She was happy and carefree. Christmas was coming and bright days in December can be few. On a street corner she bumped into two friends in the middle of an animated discussion.
Her chance appearance pleased them. She was just the person they were looking for. There was a little job they wanted doing. They had found their first youth hostel. They were going to open Pennant Hall for Christmas and they wanted her to get a group of people together, as many as possible. They wanted the new youth hostel to be a success.
That summer Alexander had travelled to Germany in a group with Tom Fairclough, one of the two who met her on Lord Street. Fairclough had heard of “the remarkable welcome that awaits trampers at the Youth Shelters in Germany.”
The trip was a success and Connie Alexander remembered later standing with Fairclough on the deck of the ferry coming back to England. It was a bright summer Sunday morning as they approached the English coast.
Their thoughts and conversation turned to all that they had heard and seen in Germany. She remembered saying pessimistically “Isn’t it a pity there are no youth hostels in England?” To which Tom replied, “There is no reason why there shouldn’t be.”
A different tradition
Connie Alexander was more pessimistic. English traditions were different to those in Germany. Parents kept a watchful eye on sons and daughters, limiting their freedom. Her mother and father had only allowed her to go walking in a mixed sex group with reluctance.
She couldn’t imagine parents allowing their young people to roam the countryside on their own, as they did in Germany. People shuddered at the thought of boys and girls sleeping in the same shelters.
But in answer to all her doubts Fairclough replied “What Germany can do England can do.”
His optimism never left him. “He lost no time in gathering together all the forces he could, to bring the idea to the notice of all his rambler friends and influential people.”
Fairclough drew Connie Alexander into these plans for youth hostels. At the time she was working at the African & Eastern shipping line in Liverpool, before the firm transferred to London in 1931. She and Fairclough were part of a wider class of people working in clerical and administrative jobs in the great shipping firms of Merseyside who would form the backbone of the new youth hostel movement.
For the last few months she had been in the habit of taking orders from Fairclough and his friend, Alf Embleton, Alexander recalled, but this demand to organise a group for Christmas seemed a bit too thick.
“I murmured vague excuses, but they were of no use and, with a promise to do what I could, I went on my way a sadder and less confident creature.”
She may have been less confident but she sold the proposal for Christmas at Pennant Hall to her friends. She picked them off in pairs. She assured them the cost would be low and that they would have a wonderful time in glorious surroundings, even though she had never seen the place.
The trip to Pennant Hall would make a memorable end to what had become a difficult year for many people. The depression of 1929 had really begun to bite that year. Unemployment had soared. Later, YHA’s first chairman, Barclay Baron would observe that they could not have chosen a more difficult time for the start of a movement.
On the day before Christmas Eve an advance party of six in two carloads with boxes and cases set off for the hall. More people would follow. When she arrived, Alexander found the hall and its glorious surroundings as good as she expected. The hall, near Eglwysfach in the Conwy Valley, was a large house high on the Denbigh Moors near Llanwrst. Bertha Gough, another of Alexander’s friends who visited the hall two months later, described the hall in her diary.
“It had a beautiful entrance hall, with very shallow stairs, large lofty rooms and queer underground passages…”
The pioneering party set to work. They lit fires in the big empty rooms, unpacked equipment and set up beds. They worked hard, creating a dormitory and washroom for each sex. They furnished a common room and equipped the kitchen with an oil stove and pressurised kerosene cookers, the primus cookers that became widespread in youth hostel kitchens. They ate sausages, the instant packaged food of the time, all that Alexander had been able to provide for their first meal.
She had no experience of cooking, something Fairclough had overlooked.
The rest of the party decorated the youth hostel on Christmas Eve with holly and evergreen from the hall’s grounds while Alexander went in search of supplies. She returned with a good fat goose, eggs, bacon, more sausages and lots of other food she thought necessary. She also brought back a very elementary cookery book, bought for sixpence.
Thirty people spent that Christmas at Pennant Hall. Alf Embleton organised them all to explore the surrounding countryside on Christmas Day. They stuffed the goose with an amazing variety of oddments and roasted it in the complicated stove while puddings boiled on the primus cookers.
They sat down to eat at tables set for the occasion with an appetite that can only come from a good walk on a winter’s day. There was at that first Christmas dinner one self cooker.
“There he sat,” Connie Alexander recalled, “cheerfully munching his carrots and nuts while we took our fill of goose, plum puddings, mince pies, cheese and cake.”
Afterwards they all sat around a huge log fire telling tales. They relaxed with contentment. They sang songs and played games. But their first night in a British youth hostel was uncomfortable. They were all so cold in their camp beds that few of them slept much. Alexander’s friends, Bertha Gough and Tom Fairclough, missed the occasion.
They went camping instead leaving Alexander to record the occasion and to become warden of the first British youth hostel and to celebrate the first Christmas in a British youth hostel.
Connie Alexander wrote about that Christmas that “to many it was a dream come true… not only because of their mutual love of walking and the companionship in the simple life, but because they believed that the enjoyment of such things could be shared by all the peoples of the world and that the youth hostels common room could become ‘the parliament of man and the federation of the world.’”
This is account is based on an extract from Open to All: how youth hostels changed the world, which was in turn based on an account from Connie Alexander of the first Christmas in a youth hostel.