Chance discovery

Discoveries come by chance, information falls in our laps like Newton’s apple.


The story of Frederick James Catley was one of those chance discoveries.Catley lived in Bristol.

He was born about 1910 and worked in a bookshop in the city. At weekends he went with friends walking in the surrounding countryside.

When war came in 1939 he registered as a first aid worker. He was a fire watcher when his city was bombed and a conscientious objector. The authorities treated COs with more sympathy by the second world war. They gave him conditional discharge from the army so long as he continued to work at the bookshop.

From 1923 he kept a diary and the diaries are lodged in the Bristol records office where anyone can read them.

Catley wrote poems published in magazines and was paid for his poems. Penguin published one of them in its Penguin Parade, a series showcasing new stories and poems by contemporary writers.

Meticulously kept in a range of small pocket notebooks, diaries or journals, he wrote some contemporaneously. Others he wrote up later, after the events.

Observations of people, activities, of the weather and his job fill the diaries in his neat, cramped writing. As we all do, he believed he should have been better paid for the long hours he worked at the bookshop. Sometimes he was there from 9am until 9pm, with a half day on Saturday and a day off on Sunday, as was common.

The Gloucester, Somerset and North Devon group

I found Catley’s diaries because I look out for stories about youth hostels and people. Visiting Bristol, I looked online to see what information on youth hostels the record office held. That idle look led to Catley’s diaries.

He was a for a time regional secretary of the Gloucester, Somerset and North Devon youth hostel group, as it was then called, based in Bristol. His diaries are full of stories of youth hostel trips. He wrote about what he did on those trips, on the people he met but left very little detail of the hostels themselves.

In 1938 he went with a friend to Europe. They cycled through Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany. Along the way, Catley complained about the cobbles over which they had to ride.

In 1938 he and his friends visited the youth hostel at Wookey Hole. He wrote that he arrived at the hostel at 6.30 to find “2 American girls, 1 Ipswich or thereabouts, 2 Birmingham. Supper & talk. Railway game. Out for a walk with Cliff Tucker till 10.”

Dinner by candlelight

Youth hostels were relaxed places to stay. Catley had his friends stayed up late at night, served themselves cups of tea in the morning in bed and often never left the hostel until after 11am. They walked and cycled and used buses to get around.

In 1939 he was with the rest of the regional group at Batheaston hostel, for a “YHA Christmas party. Tea and Xmas dinner by candlelight. Games, singing, dancing – a very good party, 53 people including the two Helens, “Weed”, some new people and pretty little Jean” with whom he was intent on starting a relationship. “Weed” was the nickname for one of the girls in the party, another Helen.

For anyone wanting to understand what people did and why they wanted youth hostels, these diaries are a rich record, waiting to be transcribed, waiting to be interrogated and investigated.

They have a wealth of detail of what people who stayed in youth hostels did and how one young man at the time felt about them and yet, they were just a chance discovery that now can be listed as another source of information about youth hostel history.

Image – courtesy YHA.

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