In their early days youth hostel beds were sometimes appalling. People paid a shilling a night, and slept in a bed that could be cold, hard, noisy, and made of anything that came to hand. But that was because youth hostels offered more than a cheap bed.
The hostel at Holmfirth in Yorkshire in 1935 had beds made of half-cartwheels with wire nailed on to make a base of sorts. People sleeping in them rolled like balls into the middle, and kept doing so throughout the night.
The beds were, as Bertha Gough*, a founding member from Merseyside, remembered, in a loft “with a current of air blowing straight through holes in the wall.” It was decidedly draughty. But, she reflected, they were getting hardened to queer hostels. She and others accepted the hardships because they enjoyed it.
The first youth hostel to open in Britain was at Pennant Hall in north Wales. It opened in time for Christmas 1930. Sleeping on camp beds, guests were so cold on Christmas Eve that hardly anyone slept.
Cold beds featured frequently. When Idwal Cottage youth hostel opened early the following year, also in north Wales, the first guests helped construct beds before they climbed into them to sleep. Those beds were hammock-like constructions slung on wooden frames. It was a snowy weekend, and the beds were again very cold. But Bertha excused them too. She and others “had not acclimatised to hostel life then.”
When Maseshafn youth hostel opened the same year, also in north Wales, everyone was cold in the bunks, and some slept two in a bunk to keep warm. This was at YHA’s first purpose built youth hostel, designed by Clough Williams Ellis, the architect, famous for Portmeirion, but the bunks were still not comfortable.
Sleeping two in a bed seems to have been a common tactic against the cold in those more innocent times, especially for young women. When a friend arrived at a hostel to find there was no bed for her, Bertha took three blankets and her mattress up to an attic which they had to themselves. She made up a bed for two on the floor and they slept quite comfortably together.
Mattresses were often palliasses, made of sacking or other strong material and stuffed with straw. Campers used them stuffed with straw from a friendly farmer or filched maybe from a cow or horse.
Youth hostels adopted the palliasse mattress from campers. At Cumbria’s first youth hostel, in the Quaker meeting house at Kirkby Stephen, straw for the palliasses came from the farm opposite.
One hostel had beds with proper mattresses but they, for some reason, had paper under the mattresses. The paper rustled every time anyone turned over, and kept Bertha Gough awake all night.
She was a light sleeper, and little things like that woke her. She seldom had a good night’s sleep in a hostel. We can only be grateful that for all those sleepless night because she left so many anecdotes of useless beds.
Over time, youth hostel beds standardised and improved. Mattresses replaced palliasses but even they could be so thin as to offer little protection from springs, wires, and boards.
Coarse woollen blankets, washed so often they had felted, became standard. Ex-army stock, they shed softness with fluff that filled dormitories which had to be swept away each morning.
The YHA standard issue sleeping bag, made of sheets, only added to the discomfort. In the 1970s, often made of slippery nylon, the bag wound itself in knots around the sleeper’s sweating form.
Hostel beds ushered in a world of hardship boggling to our modern minds and far from the comforts to which we’ve become accustomed.
Which all goes to show that something else kept people staying in youth hostels. They didn’t come for the comfortable beds.
Youth hostels were finding their way with optimism, soaring demand, and no funds. In 1930 no one really knew what youth hostels were or what they might become. Some had heard of them. Some had stayed in them in Germany. Everyone had hopes for them.
But there were none in Britain. People only knew they wanted them so they could travel further than they had ever travelled before to places of which they had only heard.
Youth hostels had the potential to set them free and to usher in the world to which we have become accustomed. So they took any buildings they could and made them into hostels. The same philosophy applied to the beds.
This is the history of youth hostels you can read in Open to All – how youth hostels changed the world.
*Bertha Gough left a fascinating description of early hotels, and their beds, in her diary which was much later copied by another member. As a record of early hostels, and their users’ philosophical approach to life, it cannot be beaten. More about Bertha and her diary here.