A brief history of international hostels

Left to right, Catchpool, Schirrmann and Deelen, 1934, (image courtesy YHA Archive).

In 1932 people around Europe banded together and started an era of travel for all young people. Here’s the brief story of those events.

You can read the full story of how youth hostels developed in Richard Schirrmann, the man who invented youth hostels, available from Amazon, paperback or kindle.

In the early 1930s different countries were developing youth hostels with different motivations and different cultures. They had various styles of membership card, different age limits, different aims and objects and varying standards of equipment.

None of that was a problem until the members of each wanted to visit another country, to stay in youth hostels there. They wanted their membership cards recognised and they expected similar regulations and standards. The benefit of establishing formal links and working together was increasingly plain.

In December 1931 Richard Schirrmann and Wilhelm Münker from the Germany association met the secretaries of the Dutch, English and Scottish associations in Hildenbach near Wunsiedel in North Eastern Bavaria, close to the Czech border. They talked about convening a conference of youth hostel organisers like themselves, to create better and more formal links.

Dr HLFJ Deelen, the Dutch Secretary, a stiff, formal man with a penchant for fashionable dress and plus fours, visited the Flemish, Danish and Norwegian associations. They responded that if Deelen organised an international conference they would attend.

In August 1932 Deelen invited them all to meet in Amsterdam in October and offered hospitality for the meeting. 22 representatives from 11 counties (Germany, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark, France, England and Wales, Ireland and Belgium along with the Dutch organisers) were there.

Austria, Northern Ireland and Scotland, although invited, were unable to attend. Each country had been invited to send two representatives. Schirrmann and Münker represented Germany.

Terry Trench, a founder of the Irish Association, An Óige, Youth, attended despite the misgivings of colleagues, who failed to see what could be gained from the meeting.

Jack Catchpool, first secretary of the England and Wales Association, also attended. Command of the German language was required as the meetings were held in German, and Catchpool had along with him a young German speaker, Mary Landers.

Schirrmann presided and Terry Trench recalled him coming up with the phrase solvitur ambulando, it is solved in walking. The phrase “would have made an excellent motto for the international organisation but it was never taken up.”

On 20 October 1932 they created an association of international youth hostels. They elected Schirrmann as their president and chairman, with Deelen as secretary.

The meetings were good natured and optimistic. They agreed principles and laid foundations that would support a future boom in youth travel.

Hostels were to help young people travel freely. They were to be open to all the young people of a country. There could be no discrimination.

Young people would pay lower fees, for membership and for accommodation, and they would be given priority over other guests in the allocation of beds. Boys and girls would be accommodated in separate dormitories, one to a bed, in simple and homely accommodation.

Deelen stressed the importance of education and Münker emphasised youth hostels must cater especially for young people, in line with Schirrmann’s original idea. He insisted nothing should be considered too good for young people. They were not to be treated as inferior or deserving of anything less than the best.

None of the conference’s principles or conclusions were binding on the new members. Membership cards would have a uniform style and size but they couldn’t agree to recognise each others’ membership cards.

Schirrmann and Münker with Germany’s 2,000 youth hostels, many more than any of the others, could not agree reciprocal memberships until there was a more equal balance of hostels across Europe. They feared they would be swamped in their own hostels by members from beyond the borders.

They agreed they would only recognise one association from any one country. Exceptions were made for Belgium, with its two associations, and two different language groups, and for Czechoslovakia, with its German minority.

The exceptions were a portent of future issues over German minorities in other European countries when the Nazis came to power in Germany.

For now, the meeting in Amsterdam had established a common way of working and common understandings of what youth hostels should be, built on Schirrmann’s original idea.

Read more in Richard Schirrmann, the man who invented youth hostels, available from Amazon as a paperback or kindle.

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