On 26 August 1909, while on a walking tour from Altena with pupils, a violent storm fired the imagination of Richard Schirrmann, a school teacher who loved taking his pupils on walking holidays.
When accommodation he had arranged for the night fell through, Schirrmann headed with his group to the small town of Bröl, where the school teacher let them use a class room to shelter for the night.
“The storm raged through the whole night with thunder and lightning, high wind, cloudbursts and hail, as if the end of the world had come…”
While his pupils slept Schirrmann lay awake. “I thought to myself that the schools throughout Germany could very well be used to provide accommodation during the holidays…
“Villages in good walking country could have a friendly ‘youth hostel’, situated a day’s walk from each other, to welcome all young Germans who enjoyed walking…” From this the idea of youth hostels was born.
Schirrmann set out his vision. He wrote a pamphlet ‘Hiking for young people and the benefits it can bring’ and a year later wrote an article proposing youth hostels.
Schirrmann’s article, entitled ‘Elementary School Children’s Hostels’, set out the case for youth hostels.
They would be explicitly for young children, not young adults, to ensure that children were not ignored and left out of the burgeoning opportunities in the outdoors. Crucially Schirrmann wanted a national network of youth hostels.
His design for a hostel was rudimentary, without ornamentation. The idea was practical and inexpensive, needing only the minimum of effort and expenditure, using buildings and rooms already there.
Every town and almost every village had an elementary school. They were just the right kind of places for children, as Schirrmann already knew, familiar and designed for children.
He had thought it all through enough to describe what a youth hostel would be like. Youth hostels would be in school classrooms during the holiday season.
“Two classrooms will suffice,” he wrote. “One for boys and one for girls. Some of the benches will be stacked up. That will make room for fifteen beds. Each bed will consist of a tightly stuffed straw sack and pillow, two sheets and a blanket.
“Each child will be required to keep his own sleeping place clean and tidy…The resident school caretaker’s wife will provide clean sheets, for which each child will pay her 20 pfennnig.”
The teacher would take advance bookings, supervise cleaning beds and rooms, take money, keep accounts and store equipment at the end of the summer season.
He sent his article to German teachers’ journals but his fellow professionals dismissed his idea. They saw too many problems with combining the existing roles of teachers with the ‘hostel father’ Schirrmann had in mind.
“My dear colleague, your article asks for the impossible: straw sacks in the school… and the teachers as ‘hostel fathers’. That would set our profession back a hundred years to when we had the miserable status of caretakers.”
Schirrmann stubbornly persisted, despite the rebuff, searching for support.
A daily newspaper, the Kolnische Zeitung, published his article in 1910. The newspaper reached a much wider audience that immediately understood the significance of his plans.
Those who were not professional teachers saw how his ideas would benefit young people. His plans promised to open the outdoors to young children and inspired others who responded overwhelmingly with assistance and gifts, in money and kind.
Lifted by this support Schirrmann equipped his school with beds and mattresses. Visitors came from far and wide and not just classes with teachers but students and Wandervogel, and not, as he had expected, just in school holidays.
He, and the school caretaker and his wife, found themselves setting up the hostel at the end of every school day and clearing it away before classes could be held every morning.
Success threatened to swamp his idea. Schirrmann never anticipated how demand for youth hostels would explode, nor that his fellow teachers and authorities wouldn’t co-operate to make youth hostels work.
Supplementing accommodation, taking groups in holidays, wasn’t enough. His idea quickly required a permanent building, open all year with staff doing no other work.
Schirrmann, eminently practical, changed his thinking. In 1912, helped by the local authority and supported by his walking club, Schirrmann transferred his hostel from the original school to the castle in the town.
The castle is often called the first youth hostel. The permanence of the arrangement sets it apart from Schirrmann’s first temporary hostel. He designed the youth hostel at the castle, with two dormitories but this time with massive, triple-tier bunks, a kitchen, washrooms and a shower-bath.
Schirrmann had shown his ideas to be practical, capable of change and evolution. He was not an idealist, committed irrevocably to an idea. He was willing to compromise and to adapt.
Today, youth hostels cover the world. Read further, how Richard Schirrmann developed his idea from this simple beginning in Richard Schirrmann, the man who invented hostels.