So, “what’s next.”

Now that I’ve finished Open to All, a few people have asked what I plan next and this is a kind of answer.

Jack Catchpool, first national secretary of the YHA, at the opening of Black Sail youth hostel (photo courtesy YHA).

I’ve been looking around, visiting archives, reading books, mulling options. I’ve been to the Cadbury Research Library, reading old records again. I’ve been down to London, to the Friends Library on Euston Road, a favourite place for a quiet stop on any journey through London. And it has a lovely cafe and bookshop.

I’m still intrigued by some of the places that youth hostels came from and what has become of that original impetus behind youth hostels.

They were part of a philanthropic movement, but philanthropic in an older sense of the word.

The Oxford English Dictionary points out that the meaning of the word has shifted. It gives the meaning of the word as “Love of mankind; the disposition or active effort to promote the happiness and well-being of others; practical benevolence, now esp. as expressed by the generous donation of money to good causes.”

Today it has come to mean giving money but it used to mean much more, an active effort and a practical benevolence.

Working together

Youth hostels were also an association. The dictionary says an association is “the action of combining together for a common purpose; the condition of such combination; confederation, league. The Youth Hostels Association was one of many. Others were the Cooperative Holidays Association, the Young Women’s, and Men’s, Christian Associations, the Workers Travel Association, the School Journey Association and the Workers’ Educational Association. Some of those organisations have gone. Others have changed, like YHA, over time.

People involved with those organisations were often part of getting youth hostels off the ground. When they started YHA, they brought with them skills and experience they gained from other associations.

Associations were a way for people to band together, to run their own affairs, to bring improvements to their own and others’ lives. Associations were like trade unions.

Associations were founded to create opportunities for those who could not afford other options. The Workers’ Educational Association aimed to bring education to working men and women who could never have afforded it otherwise, just as youth hostels aimed to provide accommodation in the countryside for people who couldn’t afford hotels or inns. Associations were a way of breaking down financial and class barriers.

They were part of a shift in society. People had lost faith in the ability of free markets and growing prosperity to lift ordinary people out of poverty. Just as today, we see the gap between rich and poor growing.

So people formed their own organisations to create their own rights and opportunities. In working together to run an organisation, they gained skills. Their confidence in their own abilities grew.

They learned to run meetings, to persuade others and added to their abilities so that they could take on other jobs and might eventually become trade union officials, councillors or MPs.

Democratic ways

We talk about democracy and volunteering in connection with youth hostels from those early days but the words imply something more or less than what was going on. It wasn’t the democracy or volunteering in themselves that were important.

What mattered was the ends. Associations offered one of the only ways for people to lift themselves from the traps society imposed on them.

People more than 50 years ago had to act for themselves, to improve their own lives. They were willing to organise themselves to achieve their goals right down to the nitty gritty of grafting in meetings until late a night, after working longer hours and for more days a week than we do. They tolerated the tedium of debate and the endless rigmarole of meetings because those meetings were the only way they were going to get what they wanted.

These ideas fascinate me.  I wonder what we can learn from for today, when we feel that we lack control, that our lives are not our own. Somewhere in those ideas there are answers to our times. Somewhere in all that there’s another book.

Ideas want stories

Armed with those ideas I have to decide where I will go next. Ideas on their own won’t be enough. I need stories and people through which to explore these ideas.

Catchpool with Richard Schirrmann and Heer Deelen of the International Federation of youth hostels 1934 (courtesy YHA)

The story of Jack Catchpool fascinated me when I was writing Open to All. I first heard of him when I ran the youth hostel in Colchester. He was still well remembered, having died less than ten years earlier. We still went to meetings at Toynbee Hall in London, another place with strong associations with him.

His life, when I found out more about him, surprised me. He was an adventurous man with a strong social conscience. He had travelled widely. He was a pacifist and a conscientious objector during the first world war. He travelled to Russia as part of voluntary relief efforts for war refugees. He was there during the revolution and the civil war.

Back in England he worked in adult education and became the first secretary of YHA. In the youth hostel movement, once the pioneering days were over, he was particularly involved in the international federation and saw how youth hostels might contribute to peace.

He was also closely involved with the Workers’ Educational Association and the Workers Travel Association. He came from a wide background in social work.

In the last three months I have been digging around to see what more I can find out about him. Records of his life, in original sources like letters, as well as books and magazine articles, offer more than enough for a biography of the man.

Taking it slowly

I learned from writing Open to All, that all this will take a lot longer than I might think. I’ve also learned, strangely late in life perhaps, not to rush at things. I’ll take my time and go one step at a time. If I’m lucky, it’ll take me until the end of 2018 to get this done.

There’s always more than the initial scope suggests. Research has a way of opening new areas for investigation.

As I go along I have been finding more tranches of records to do with Catchpool and I’ve had to find out more about some of the other organisations he worked with. His energy and enthusiasm were almost boundless.

He was involved with the garden city movement through Welwyn Garden City, where he came to live in 1930. And he travelled widely in India and Pakistan, in the Middle East and Africa, on behalf of the Society of Friends, of Unesco and the UN.

It will all take time. Meanwhile I believe that the life of Jack Catchpool offers a fascinating glimpse of the life of associations and the workings of philanthropy in the early part of the 20th century.

That will be particularly relevant to our times, when we are losing faith in the ability of big corporations to change our lives and in the idea of wealth trickling down to lift us all.

Jack Catchpool worked at a time when those ideas had run out of steam and when people were organising themselves. Youth hostels were part of that wider movement of philanthropy that emerged from the end of the 19th century and it’s a story that fascinates me.

If you want to be part of the journey, sign up for newsletters and I’ll keep you in touch with how things develop through newsletters and this blog. I’ll try out ideas and ask for thoughts. At some stage I’ll be looking for beta readers too. You’ll have a unique chance to be involved in the development of this book and to come along with me as it goes.

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