Radical roots

y050001-black-sail-25-1933-400-12-phortaylory
Jack Catchpool at the opening of Black Sail youth hostel in 1933 (image from the YHA Archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham).

Chatting to a reporter from the BBC last week while taking part in an interview about the history of youth hostels, I was reminded that youth hostels were radical when they began and how much work had to be done to secure their future in 1930.

Youth hostels are such a part of life for so many people today that it’s easy to forget their radical roots.

You find them all over the world but when they began, many people didn’t want them. That youth hostels succeeded was down to many reasons but they owed a lot of their success to Jack Catchpool, first secretary of the YHA (Youth Hostels Association of England and Wales). He “begged, cajoled and lobbied continually” to get them established.

Another pioneer of youth hostels said that “The astonishing growth of youth hostels in England was due to the energy and enthusiasm of many people all over the country. But it is doubtful whether all the obstacles could have been overcome so quickly without Catchpool’s friendly persistence, persuasive powers and wide contacts.”

Landowners didn’t want young people wandering over the countryside and on their estates. Only a year after the first youth hostels opened, groups led by young communists invaded a shooting estate in a mass trespass to show they would not be kept off the moorlands. Many others were also demanding access to the countryside.

Those who loved the countryside were afraid youth hostels would draw trouble. They feared young people coming from towns and cities would also leave litter and mess in their wake, that young city dwellers would misbehave in the countryside and interfere in the business of farming.

Catchpool did every thing he could to reassure that this would not be so. YHA distanced itself from the mass trespass on Kinder Scout as did the rambling groups who later formed the Rambler’s Association.

Catchpool persuaded the historian, G.M.Trevelyan, an important figure in the countryside world of gentry and estates, to support youth hostels. Trevelyan had led a campaign to save an estate in Hertfordshire from property developers keen to build houses on open fields and woodland.

Trevelayn became an important figure in the National Trust. But when Catchpool went to meet him, Trevelyan was more worried about unsupervised young men and women sleeping under the same roof.

He feared youth hostels would lead to sexual misbehaviour and scandal. His comments are an indication of how fearfully people looked on the arrival of a radically new kind of accommodation.

Catchpool assured Trevelayn that youth hostels would be properly run and that, in any case, young people were determined to have their freedom. If they did not have youth hostels where they could stay, they would sleep in haystacks. Trevelyan, reassured and mollified, became YHA’s first president and a great spokesman for youth hostels.

Pubs and hotels didn’t want youth hostels. They saw youth hostels as competition, taking away their business. Churches didn’t want them because they would lure young people away from churches to go out walking on Sundays. When an early youth hostel opened in a church meeting room the owner of a local pub persuaded the church to close the hostel.

Catchpool held meetings with hotels and pubs. He held long discussions to persuade one hotel association to offer spare accommodation for youth hostels in stables unused because of the growing numbers of guests using cars and not horses. Catchpool was a tenacious man, prepared to meet opposition face to face and head-on.

He encouraged friends in newspapers to write about youth hostels and, as a Quaker, he encouraged other Quakers to get involved. The Society of Friends was a respectable organisation and their support brought others along. He wrote in the Quaker magazine about youth hostels and an old friend, Paul Sturge, started the first regional group based in Bristol.

Catchpool believed that youth hostels were doing good educational work with young people and that therefore the government should support youth hostels. He finally succeeded in persuading the Ministry of Education to support youth hostels. The Ministry provided financial support to open youth hostels up until at least the late 1970s thanks to Catchpool’s early work.

Young people had their youth hostels and their freedom. No scandals engulfed them. Youth hostels developed their own countryside code, had their own rules and employed wardens to supervise the young people who stayed. Within a short time youth hostels were established, reputable places and the radical threat they had offered was forgotten.

Young people showed that given freedom they would be well behaved model citizens, part of a new way of life and a new era free of all the old constraints. What had been a radical idea to give them places to stay became an established part of their lives.

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