Into the beauty

A small group of friends from Liverpool went to Germany in 1929. I’ve written about this before; how they emerged from different groups in different places in Britain at the the time, all pledged to start youth hostels, and how they came home, started the first regional group of youth hostels, brought the term youth hostel into use and opened the first youth hostel in Britain, though that was very short-lived and fated to close soon after it opened.

Tom Fairclough and a young woman, Connie Alexander, left stories that have become essential sources for the history of youth hostels, of a trip to Germany, that fired the beginnings of hostels in North Wales, and of the first Christmas spent at the first youth hostel in Britain.

Tom Fairclough and friends in Germany. Tom is centre, his feet marked by a blue cross

Now an album of photos shows us that trip to Germany in 1929 and we can see Tom Fairclough and his friends as they travelled through Germany, through Cologne, Heidelburg and Frankfurt, sightseeing, visiting a castle, watching a play about William Tell, walking in the hills and woods, and swimming in rivers, a graphic addition to the stories they left and the closest we can get to the trip itself at this distance in time.

The photos are from the family albums of Tom and Ena Fairclough, passed by their daughter, Gillian Hutchison, to the YHA archive, where they will be preserved and will become publicly available, once John Martin, YHA’s honorary archivist, has finished recording and cataloguing them, forming a vital record of the pioneering days of youth hostels.

a style of accommodation, simple, shared and based on the jugendherberge of Germany…

Tom organised the trip to Germany and, like others, came back enthused by what he had seen and determined to start youth hostels in Britain. He became the first secretary of the regional group on Merseyside and a formative influence on youth hostels until his retirement in 1965.

In the photos we can see Tom and his friends, see how at times they were tired enough to fall asleep on park benches or under shady trees, dusty and travel-worn, in their walking clothes in contrast to the formal dress of the men and women who welcomed them to Germany, the country that had invented youth hostels.

“The warmth of welcome we received was one of the most pleasing features” of their trip, Tom later wrote, and he hoped to “not only take our own Youth out into beautiful places but also to foster this wonderful international movement so well established in Germany.”

He resolved “what Germany can do England can do.”

Tom was a veteran of the first world war, he had travelled and, like his companions, he was from Liverpool, a huge port, the entry point for Britain and its door through which the riches of empire came. They were all familiar with distance, travel and the ideas that came from other countries and faraway places.

But it was also a hard time and, unknown to them in 1929, they were on the edge of the Great Depression when, within months, some of them would be out of work and it would look as if they had chosen the worst possible time to open youth hostels, dedicated to travel, holidays and leisure time, as they struggled to find money to fund their dreams.

Others elsewhere were making similar steps in different ways to start a style of accommodation, simple, shared and based on the jugendherberge of German, that would become youth hostels.

They included the Holiday Fellowship, the Northumberland Trampers Guild and the Wayfarers’ Hostels Association in London and all of them would come together in London three months later to give youth hostels their national start.

But it is the pioneers on Merseyside we remember so well because they left such a wonderful record of what they were doing, stories in words and, now, in pictures of the development of youth hostels in Britain.

They were the first to use the term youth hostel and the first of the local initiatives that became the bedrock of the association, that drove the development of hostels at phenomenal speed, as a result of which, despite depression, recession and unemployment, less than ten years after that trip to Germany, in 1939, 297 hostels would be open in England and Wales, with more in Scotland and Ireland.

By then more than 83,000 young men and women, and boys and girls, were members of the YHA. The explosive arrival of youth hostels, in such inauspicious times, today looks like a miracle.

Thank you to Gillian Hutchison, Tom and Ena Fairclough’s daughter, who has given kind permission for me to share these images from her family albums here and to John Martin, YHA’s honorary archivist, who has scanned, cleaned and tidied the images and who, with his usual kindness, agreed to my sharing his work.

December 2019 sees the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Merseyside branch of the British Youth Hostels Association by Tom Fairclough and his friends, kicking off a year of events and celebrations for YHA in its 90th anniversary.

Open to All is the definitive history of YHA in England and Wales and the story of how youth hostels changed the world.

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