“A hostel where each night will gather nearly 200 young people from all parts of the world who are exploring Britain, or on their way abroad to explore some other country…”
The Youth Hosteller of June 1959 crowed with pleasure at the opening of a new youth hostel in London, on the edge of Holland Park in Kensington, but admitted surprise. “To open a 200-bed hostel in London, to let loose architects on the job, this was dangerous! Because the hostel spirit is not supplied to order.”
The Youth Hosteller magazine adopted a defensive tone about the new London hostel because the hostel was large, when hostels were usually small, in a city, when hostels were usually in the countryside, and designed by architects, when volunteers usually converted unwanted buildings into hostels in the cheapest possible way.
All the same, the defensive tone is surprising because the architects behind the project were some of Britain’s foremost.
From the ashes
It was 20 years since an architect had designed the hostel at Longthwaite in the Borrowdlae Vally in Cumbria. Since then war had intervened and, with priority going to reconstructing homes and businesses, building of new youth hostels had been constrained.
The idea of the hostel in Holland Park had been a long time coming. An old building, Holland House, had been on the spot since 1607. Cromwell, and other Parliamentary leaders had met there during the civil war.
Damaged in the blitz on 27 September 1940, a few days later Jack Catchpool, YHA’s national secretary and equivalent of today’s chief executive, had explored the ruins.
He thought it unlikely that “the beautiful reception rooms and library” * of the old mansion would be rebuilt but the east wing and servants’ quarters offered potential.
“Hostels at Earls Court and Highgate were neither big nor grand enough”
Never short of hope or optimism, Catchpool lobbied contacts on the London County Council (LCC). He suggested the servants’ wing could be restored as a hostel and the rest of the grounds turned into a public park.
In 1949 YHA affirmed the need for a hostel suitable for London, emphasising its importance with a resolution at its national meeting of that year. Presumably it had decided that existing hostels at Earls Court and Highgate were neither big nor grand enough for the city.
Catchpool continued to correspond with Sir Issac Hayward, leader of the Labour Party on the LCC, and in due course the proposal came to fruition. The LCC bought the fire damaged property in 1952.
The LCC turned to the 38 year old Hugh Casson to design the hostel. Casson was one of a group of architects who believed design could help build a new society, based on communities and social space, as architects moved away from the traditional to distinctly modern. The period marks a break in British architecture and among those who respond to it. Some love it and some hate it.
Casson rose to prominence as Director of Architecture for the Festival of Britain, an outburst of optimism at the end of the war which transformed land on the south bank of the Thames for the Royal Festival of 1951 and saw the Royal Festival Hall built.
A meeting place for young people of all nations
Casson was knighted for his efforts. With partner, Neville Condor, his firm of architects designed important buildings, like the arts faculty building at Cambridge (1952), and the elephant and rhinoceros pavilion at the London Zoo (1963).
The architects oversaw the restoration of the old buildings of the east wing of Holland House into bedrooms and accommodation for staff, and set about designing and constructing new buildings; “a four storey, simply detailed Modernist reception and accommodation block, connected by a single storey glazed link to another two storey brick accommodation wing.” **
A memorable day
The Queen opened the hostel on 25 May 1959. Children greeted her arrival with cheers. She looked over the outside of the hostel before speeches and formalities, flowers, curtsies and a tour of the hostel.
Richard Schirrmann, the German schoolteacher who invented youth hostels was there and YHA’s chairman, Arthur Dower, presented the Queen with an album of photographs of hostels and the Duke of Edinburgh accepted a present of two rucksacks for the Prince of Wales and Princess Anne.
The Queen reflected that the fine modern building would be a meeting place for young people of all nations, where “they may learn that mutual understanding and trust for the lack of which their elders have so often and bitterly suffered.” It would be a fitting memorial to her father, funded by his memorial fund.
The entrance was bright and light and open.
Windows from the downstairs dining area opened on the garden and ponds. The design and the use of architects may have split opinions, but the hostel proved popular, with fittings enthusiasts could enthuse about, and “a self-cooker’s kitchen almost as large as some small hostels.” Furniture was comfortable and simple.
Following the opening event, the Queen consented to become YHA’s patron, a role in which she returned to the hostel for a second visit in 1980, for YHA’s golden jubilee celebrations.
A personal connection
When I arrived in London in 1976, I stayed at Holland House and enjoyed it, especially the escape from the city that a walk across the park to the hostel offered.
I was surprised to find that kind of peace and space in London. I slept in a big downstairs dormitory and, while lying on a bed worrying about my future without a job, I heard YHA was recruiting staff and that led to my taking a job with YHA and to writing books and this blog.
The hostel was a success but in the end YHA handed back the keys to the hostel in 2014.
Perhaps the critics of modern architecture had won the day and, in any case, YHA was wary of the costs involved in bringing the buildings in Holland Park up to date.
It had other properties in London, and more to maintain and develop elsewhere. Despite its loss, YHA’s guests and members remain well provided for in London.
*Candles in the Darkness by E St John Catchpool, p 250
**Holland House, Holland Park Heritage Design Considerations online 22 Feb 2019.
Thanks to John Martin for the invaluable help of his marvellously detailed profile which you can download below.