I’ve searched for a photo of the YHA celebrations at Ashridge Park in Hertfordshire, that marked YHA’s 21st birthday in 1950, for a long time. And, when I least expected it, one turned up…
The photo shows Jack Catchpool, YHA’s first national secretary and the equivalent of today’s chief executive, seated on the left of the small stage where a group of Swiss singers are giving a performance. I loved the image because I’m in the midst of researching and writing a biography of Catchpool.
To celebrate finding that photo here’s the story of that event and YHA’s celebrations, a reminder of the power that youth hostels exercised in young people’s lives at that time, when they travelled across borders at their own expense to meet and make friends from different countries.
YHA in England and Wales hosted the conference and rally in 1950 coinciding with their own anniversary celebrations. 2,000 young people from 20 countries travelled to the Bridgewater Memorial Field near Ashridge, Hertfordshire, on Saturday 19 and Sunday 20 August. The Rucksack magazine described the setting for the rally as typically English, on a meadow circled by oak and beech trees.
Catchpool had a big job preparing for the rally. A team of 200 volunteers drawn from local groups helped him. They hired tents, fixed a platform for the national dances and brought a water supply to the rally field. They arranged toilet facilities and provided a hospital tent, post office and bank. They flood-lit the camp grounds and helped put together a mass of documents for the conference.
Catchpool was in his element. He thrived on bringing together young volunteers from all walks of life in a shared effort with a common goal.
Accommodation and meals for the weekend cost 20/- and day visitors paid 2/6. Weather for the weekend alternated between bright spells and showers. The showers were not enough to dampen spirits. The first visitors arrived on Friday evening and continued through the night. A group from Tunisia lost its leader and their money with him. A party from the USA got the dates wrong and had to leave before the rally began.
Community singing began the event on Saturday evening. Dancers and singers in national costumes from more than a dozen countries took part. A BBC recording van captured their voices and song, and the evening finished with fireworks. The rector from the nearby church at Ivinghoe led a united service on Sunday, and the programme continued with a puppet show and discussion groups.
The International Youth Hostel Federation conference began on Monday morning. King George VI, the prime minister, and the Archbishop of Canterbury sent messages of congratulation.
GM Trevelyan welcomed 80 delegates from 25 different countries to the Great Hall of Ashridge House. He read a message from the first United Nations Secretary General, Trygve Lie. Sir John Maud, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education, opened the main business of conference.
They reviewed statistics. They discussed co-operation with government departments. On the continent youth hostels were often extensions of government. In Britain the education department was extending itself into the social well being of young people, moving closer to the work of youth hostels. But the conference recommended that youth hostels should continue without direct government involvement. The experience of youth hostels in Germany under the Nazis was a deterrent.
They debated long and hard over banning hitchhikers from youth hostels. Many associations saw hitchhiking as another form of motorised travel like using a private car or motor bike. They opposed it as they opposed travel by car or motor bike. The argument ended without conclusion in a resolution supporting lower fares for public transport.
Finally, five years after the end of war, the federation readmitted German youth hostels to their midst.
Jack Catchpool retired. He had been president of the federation since 1938. The conference elected lively, dynamic Leo Meilink to replace him. Meilink had been secretary of the Dutch association and had played a leading role in the international federation before the war.
When the meeting closed everyone went by coach to London. They joined 5,000 young people for YHA’s official birthday celebrations at the Albert Hall on Saturday 26 August. Tickets for this event were again 2/6. 12 teams danced national dances.
Singers entertained them and they all sang together. Lord Baden-Powell and John D Rockefeller, president of the United States youth hostels, gave speeches. Barclay Baron, YHA’s first chairman, spoke and then it was Catchpool’s turn.
The Times reported his speech in full. He delighted at how youth hostels had provided opportunities for young people to gain knowledge of the beauty and history of their country. From youth hostels they gained the capability of looking after themselves and a tolerance that came from mixing with others from different backgrounds.
He anticipated a future with more hostels on long distance paths and in national parks and with more school children using youth hostels to continue learning in beautiful surroundings.
He would not drop the subject of government support for youth hostels. He looked across the North Sea to the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. Local authorities provided youth hostels in those countries and handed them over to the associations who ran them. He saw it as a way of providing more youth hostels. He envied those countries for the pride they took in their youth hostels.
Catchpool recalled that when visiting a Danish town, “your guide, showing you round, will point to the lovely church, take you a little further, and show you that wonderful old bridge or the river, then turn to you and say; ‘There is our Youth Hostel, up on the hill.’”
He longed for that sense of responsibility towards young people in Britain and was glad to see so many MPs in his audience. He urged them to think on the problems of young people.
This is an extract from Open to All, a definitive history of YHA in England and Wales, available £9.98 from Amazon.