The origins and aims of youth hostels have often been misunderstood. Traditional views have youth hostels emerging from an outdoors movement of walkers and cyclists. This view overlooks the leading role played by Quakers in the pioneering years of youth hostels and the work of its first national secretary, E St John “Jack” Catchpool.
Catchpool’s life shows a different side to the origin of youth hostels and highlights the role of Quakers and social work in the story of youth hostels. During the period of Catchpool’s life, social work moved from charitable philanthropy to voluntarism and professionalism. Quakers played a leading a role in this development and Catchpool’s influence on YHA during its pioneering years was pivotal.
Born into a Quaker family, reformers, like Seebohm Rowntree, and a sharp awareness of social differences led Catchpool to social work in the slums of Birmingham. He was one of the first to qualify as a professional social worker from the University of Birmingham in 1912 after studies at Woodbrooke, the Quaker college.
When war broke out in 1914 he joined the Friends Ambulance Unit on the western front. He went to Russia as an aid worker. He joined relief efforts for refugees in Moscow and the Volga, and worked in the Caucasus among survivors of the Armenian genocide. As the Bolshevik revolution swept Russia he survived famine, disease and civil war. Accused of spying, he narrowly avoided execution.
He returned to England, determined to build peace and improve the lives of people especially young people. He worked in London’s East End, at Toynbee Hall, in garden suburbs and new towns, and with organisations like the Workers’ Travel Association. His connections with mutual aid associations in education and leisure led him to the Youth Hostels Association in 1930.
As YHA’s first secretary, the equivalent of today’s chief executive, he brought all his experience of relief, aid and social work to the association. He gathered supporters from his network among Quakers, trade unionists and politicians. He found buildings and drew funds for the early enthusiastic supporters of hostels.
Despite the hardships of the second world war he established youth hostels as an institution in British life, a voluntary organisation run by its members. When war ended, as the leader of the international youth hostel movement, he kick-started youth hostels throughout Europe. After his retirement in 1950 he continued a life of travel and adventure in India and Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa.
His career spanned the shift from charitable philanthropy to voluntarism and professional social work. He never gave up his passionate belief that youth hostels contributed to world peace and that it was better to light a candle than to protest against the dark.