Youth Hostel Pioneer

Jack Catchpool 1915

Jack Catchpool was the key figure, the central force, the driver, coordinator, and chief pioneer of youth hostels. Using all his enormous skills, a wide network of allies and supporters, and his simple faith as a Quaker, he spread the idea of youth hostels throughout England and Wales to the world.

This book, published in spring 2020, looks to the early years of the Youth Hostels Association and the story of its foremost pioneer and shows how the concerns of YHA at is start are still relevant to us and youth hostels today. With a foreword by James Blake, YHA Chief Executive.

Catchpool (centre, standing) at the opening of Black Sail hut

Jack Catchpool’s life shows how youth hostels emerged from a colourful tapestry of concerns, organisations and people, and introduced modern independent travel to young adults for the first time. With a rich heritage of education, social work and principles Catchpool carved a place for youth hostels at the heart of young people’s lives and their leisure.

Catchpool was born into a Quaker family. Reformers, like Seebohm Rowntree, and work in the slums of Birmingham led him to ideas of social reform. He was one of the first to qualify as a professional social worker from the University of Birmingham in 1912 after studies at Woodbrooke, the Quaker college.

When war broke out in 1914 he joined an ambulance unit on the western front. He went to Russia as an aid worker. He joined relief efforts among refugees in Moscow and the Volga, and worked in the Caucasus among survivors of the Armenian genocide. He learned the importance of self help and the values of commerce even in terrible conditions. As the Bolshevik revolution swept Russia he survived famine, disease and civil war. Accused of spying, he narrowly avoided execution.

He returned to England, determined to build a better world, especially for young people. Better health rested on education, leisure, rest and recreation for everyone. Working in the slums of London, in garden suburbs and new towns, he nurtured his love of the outdoors. With organisations like the Workers’ Travel Association, his connections within mutual aid associations in education and leisure led him to the YHA in 1930.

Catchpool (left) with Richard Schirrmann, the man who invented youth hostels (centre) in 1934.

As YHA’s first secretary, the equivalent of today’s chief executive, he used his networks and gathered supporters, found buildings and drew funds for early hostels. Despite the hardships of the second world war he established youth hostels as an institution in British life, a voluntary organisation run by its members with a strong commercial approach and an ethos of self-help.

When war ended, as the leader of the international youth hostel movement, he helped youth hostels get started again throughout Europe. After his retirement in 1950 he continued a life of travel and adventure in India and Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa.

He was always a practical man who believed that big reform came through small steps. He never gave up his passionate belief that youth hostels improved the lives of young people and that it was better to light a candle than to protest against the dark.

His life illustrates the immense debt youth hostels, young people and communities owe to philanthropy, liberal thinking and a Quaker’s practical commitment to better lives for everyone, especially for young people.

Catchpool receiving flowers in Tokyo in the 1960s.

The book is based on extensive research in original papers at the Library of the Religious Society of Friends and in the YHA archive at the Cadbury Research Library and in papers never seen before in the library of the University of Lancaster.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: