A letter from Ramsay MacDonald

P1060713A letter from Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Party prime minister, turned up in old papers this week.

The pages on which it was written are stiff, thick and yellow with age. An old fashioned treasury tag holds the typewritten pages together, and the paper smells faintly of decay. It slipped from a bundle of old cards, photographs and letters.

Faint spatters mark the first page as if something spilled while someone was reading the letter. The top page is creased as if it has been read and handled frequently.

It must have been. Receiving a letter from the prime minister must have been an achievement for YHA. The letter may have passed around an office, been read aloud and commented on. A secretary might have copied the text and if not, the pages themselves must have gone to a typesetter.

As I hold the pages I wonder who else held them? MacDonald did, as he signed the letter. HG Vincent, his private secretary did, as he signed the covering letter. Jack Catchpool did, as the letter was addressed to him but, beyond that, the pages don’t tell.

They do tell that MacDonald had written a foreword for the new YHA magazine and was sending it to Jack Catchpool, secretary of the YHA, to be included in the first issue. The letter appeared pretty much as written in the first issue of the YHA’s Rucksack magazine, published in the winter of 1932.

In 1932 in a split with the Labour party Ramsay MacDonald was running a coalition government as the country climbed out of another recession. Jack Catchpool knew him personally and the prime minister seems to have been a supporter of youth hostels. Many of those on the left in British politics were.

The first page of the letter is headed simply 10 Downing Street, Whitehall with the date and a simple logo, the words prime minister above a government coat of arms. Nothing more. The letter is plain and typewritten. Did the prime minister write it himself? Probably.

The letter comes from a time when the YHA was just getting started. It was two years old, had 20,000 members and had opened its first hostels the previous year. It had the support of the most senior politician in Britain. It was a time when politicians were more accessible, when we lived more open lives.

His response to Jack Catchpool was quick. Catchpool requested the foreword on 23 September and it was done by 12 October, not bad going and I doubt our current prime minister would respond as quickly if asked for an article for a magazine, even without an election campaign. Neither does it seem likely she would write as personally as MacDonald did. She is a keen walker but I don’t think she stays in youth hostels.

In his letter MacDonald wondered how the new YHA magazine would be used. Would the magazine cheer “our workday lives” or recollect past pleasures and “a promise of those to come.” Would the reader use it to plan future trips? MacDonald expected the magazine would give “useful information of all kinds – of the type of scenery and of the chain of hostels whose doors will be open to us, and so on.” Just as YHA’s current e-zine does.

He wondered what would become of the YHA when it was 25 years old and “in the dismal, monotonous flats of middle age”, or when more than 50 years old, where it is today.

There may be more of a story around the letter somewhere but at this stage I’ve no idea. Who floated the idea of asking MacDonald to write a foreword for a new magazine? Did someone call up and ask his office? Was there a discussion? Catchpool knew MacDonald so there may have been a discussion, at some event or other. The letter might lead to further checks.

History’s like that. One mystery opens another. There’s no way of knowing with any certainty.

For the time being the letter sits on my desk, a quick connection with Jack Catchpool, the man whose biography I am trying to write and a reminder how different those times were, when youth hostels were just getting started and the illegitimate son of a housemaid was prime minister.

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