Youth hostels were always magical, dreaming but practical places, run by locals but accommodating guests from far away places. They required generous spirits, and hard work, of the people who ran them and a willingness to welcome visitors from anywhere.
They have always been international, places where the world and young people met. I’ve always loved that about them.
The idea of youth hostels started in Germany in 1909. In Britain and other countries, in the 1920’s, people heard what was happening there. They visited Germany and came back full of stories of these wonderful places called youth hostels.
Young people in Britain started pushing for youth hostels in Britain, after they had been to Germany, and seen and stayed in hostels. Men like Barclay Baron, Jack Catchpool and Tom Fairclough saw how youth hostels could transform the lives of young people in their own country, as they were doing at the time, in the Netherlands, Poland and Denmark.
The founder of youth hostels, Richard Schirrmann, thought youth hostels could be a bridge to peace, from nation to nation, providing meeting places where “thoughtful young people of all countries… could get to know each other!”
In 1932 youth hostels leaders met in Amsterdam and set up what came to be called the International Federation of Youth Hostels. They aimed to share their experiences of opening and running youth hostels, to discover success from each other.
They agreed that people from one country should be able to stay in youth hostels in other countries and introduced the idea of youth hostels open to young people from counties all around the world.
The original papers of those meetings disappeared during the second world war but in 1950 the federation agreed a new constitution to replace the one that was lost.
Goodwill among nations
Their aim became amongst other things; “to foster understanding and goodwill between nations, particularly by facilitating travel by members of the various Youth Hostel Associations”.
The federation’s president, Jack Catchpool, travelled the world as a youth hostel pioneer. He helped found youth hostels in the USA and went to India, to Pakistan, to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, and Uganda. He was in the Carribbean and South America, and visited Japan, Australia and New Zealand too.
He was able to share his experience of hostels and learn about the challenges of youth hostels in other countries.
We have an apparatus in our hands which may do much to heal the wounds of our broken world. We must carry our chain of youth hostels around the world.Jack Catchpool, 1950
But, by the 1960s some of the magic of youth hostels had faded. They had not been able to prevent the second world war. They had not been able to bring peace between warring countries, despite the boundless optimism of men like Jack Catchpool.
With Russia and the countries behind the so-called “iron curtain” staying out of the international federation, travel to those countries was difficult, if not impossible. Youth hostels could play no role in creating greater understanding between the east and west.
Neither had youth hostels kept up with the modern world. The challenge became less about creating peace and understanding, more about ensuring that youth hostels kept up with the demands of young people for greater comfort and more freedom.
Challenges just to survive left little time for ideals. Sometimes, those ideals got in the way of change. Ideals like the one that said people should walk between hostels and that banned cars, or that everyone should help run youth hostels, by cleaning or caring out other domestic chores, put people off staying in hostels.
The federation encouraged hostels to learn through surveys, and from each other, how to provide young people with what they wanted. They learned to drop out-of-date rules, and to modernise.
They invested in modern facilities, introduced private rooms, bars and restaurants, and abolished requirements for each member to help with daily chores in youth hostels. Rules that forbade the use of private cars, while travelling between hostels, were swept away.
You can see the success of that work in today’s modern hostels, which offer greater comfort, more privacy and greater freedom. A lot of the success was down to the leadership of John Parfitt, president of the international federation in the 1990s.
A new idealism
The national associations of countries around the world still have a battle on their hands. Having clean cheap rooms was essential but it’s no longer enough.
Hostels are finding new ways of being guides to new generations. They are finding new ways of talking about what they do, to convince a new generation that they offer new adventures in ways that private hostels and hotels cannot.
As YHA in England and Wales is showing, by its aspiration to play its part in the international federation, co-operation among associations in different countries can still be as strong as ever. Youth hostels can still be meeting places for the world, not just places like any other cheap lodgings, where a bed or a room can be bought for the lowest possible price.
They can do that by encouraging travel and adventure for everyone, not just for the people of one country, and “especially for those of limited means”. Without it we’re all poorer.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, when she opened a youth hostel in London in 1959, put it well. Thinking of the terrible war, that had ended only 15 years earlier, she said that the youth hostel was a meeting place for the 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.”
Youth hostels still have a role to play in preventing that bitter suffering.