Pushing the boat out

26 Bedford Square, London
26 Bedford Square, London

Different people in different places, through the winter of 1929 / 1930 were trying to start youth hostels. None was making progress until the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) took a hand.

The NCSS was the ideal sponsor for the new venture. Today, it’s the National Council of Voluntary Organisations. Beginning in March 1919, it aimed to avoid too many voluntary services working in the same areas.

The NCSS solved exactly the problems youth hostels faced. It had no ability to start youth hostels; that kind of practical work lay outside its remit. But it could bring all the interested groups together. It could cajole them into doing what it couldn’t. It could get a national organisation started.

In early 1930 a coalition of six organisations prompted the NCSS into action. The National Council of YMCAs, the National Adult School Union, the Workers’ Travel Association, the Holiday Fellowship, the Co-operative Holidays Association and the British Youth Council asked the NCSS to call a conference.

They wanted national bodies to consider launching a movement to provide inexpensive sleeping accommodation at suitable places for young people spending week-ends and holidays walking through the country.

Captain Ellis called a meeting on Thursday 13 March at 11am. 28 people met at the council’s offices on the north side of Bedford Square, around the corner from the British Museum. Ronald Norman, vice chairman of the NCSS and chairman of the London County Council, started the meeting. He reminded those present of the steps leading up to the meeting.

Y610102-4 1934 400-8 phoY
Barclay Baron, centre, with (left) Richard Schirrmann, the man who invented youth hostels at YHA Harrington Hall, 1934, (image courtesy YHA Archive)

He then invited Barclay Baron to speak. Baron described the Jugendherbergen of Germany with their 2,500 hostels and 3,000,000 overnight stays. “The effect of this provision of hostels on the youth of the country is remarkable,” he declared. “In place of the heel-clicking mechanical type of character, a healthy, clean youth is springing up, whose dominant note is a self disciplined freedom.

“The shallow attractions of city amusements are abandoned in favour of open air life. Intelligent interest is taken in the many aspects of nature, a love is developed for the simple folk song and dance. The violin, the guitar, and the lute replace the ukelele, and pride in bodily fitness, moral uprightness, and a friendly spirit to all, are the dominant principle.”

The conference decided to explore providing something similar in Britain. They didn’t wish to slavishly follow the German system. They wanted a scheme suited to British conditions and they immediately appointed a provisional executive committee.

The first committee members were HW Barter, School Journey Association; Clifford Hall, YMCA; Ingram Knowles, Merseyside Youth Hostels; Ralph Nun May, National Union of Students; Henry Stone, HF; Henry P. Weston, CHA; Nevill Whall, CTC; and Ernest Wimble, the Workers Travel Association.

Others joined later, from a Birmingham Regional Council and a Bristol Regional Council, when they formed, and from the British Youth Council, recognising the work they had done in investigating youth hostels. JJ Mallon, warden of Toynbee hall, an educational settlement in the East End of London, also joined the committee. Lady Dorothy Meynell, from the National Federation of Women’s Institutes was on the first executive too.

They appointed Barclay Baron as chairman. He later claimed that asking a simple question at the meeting caused “seven years of hard labour.”

In his 40s, a strong social conscience and concern for others dominated his life. He was “a genial soul… devoid of vanity… an artist in words as well as in paint,” a “lively, invigorating man,” interested in people of all sorts and from all backgrounds. He was a gifted speaker and a colleague claimed “to hear him speak was sheer joy.”

They organised another meeting at the NCSS offices a month later. On 10 April a diverse range of national organisations with an interest in youth hostels, guided by the NCSS, “pushed the boat out” and set up a national association for youth hostels. They were off, without funds, without buildings, and without resources.

This is an extract from Open to All –  how youth hostels changed the world, the definitive history of youth hostels, available here.

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