Always intent on better lives

Jack Catchpool and a history of youth hostels

The struggle to improve lives fascinates me. It’s an endeavour, sometimes called the life reform movement, that defines the first half of the twentieth century, the era out of which youth hostels leaped, and is the reason why, when I first came across a second-hand paperback copy of his biography, the story of Jack Catchpool grabbed me.

Facing the latest invasion of our lives, by the illness of Covid 19, his life seems even more relevant, something I never expected when I began writing this book.

I admired the way he just did things, his courage and bravery, that he followed no rules and that his efforts did improve lives, sometimes, in very small but significant ways and, sometimes, in very big ways.

Jack Catchpool, in characteristic pose, at the opening of Black Sail hut in Cumbria in 1933.

He found work and did it. He always had improving the lives of others in mind, especially the lives of young people. I loved it that he was an internationalist, with interests that went beyond borders. That he had been to Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia and the country of my birth, twice, gave us something in common.

His autobiography, Candles in the Darkness, reads like a story from a boys’ magazine a century ago. He faced danger and risk. He faced down bandits in Armenia. He worked in the slums of Birmingham and the East End of London.

He travelled without destination but always with purpose. His life was full of travel and adventure.

In the first world war he dodged shells during a bombardment, ferrying gallons of petrol in an open truck. He faced a military court and was almost shot as a spy during the Russian Revolution.

He travelled to China, Japan, Korea, India and Pakistan. He climbed Mount Ararat though he failed to reach the top. He pioneered an overland route from India to England that, ten years later, hippies travelled in search of enlightenment.

He made two trips through Africa, visited Palestine and led work to bridge gulfs between warring nations, like India and Pakistan. He worked for reconciliation in Ireland, after the republic’s war for freedom from the British empire.

Yerevan, Armenia, where Jack Catchpool was an aid worker during the first world war, a photo from his personal papers at the University of Lancaster Library.

Concern for social reform and young people drove him. He dreamed, hoped and planned to improve the lives of young people wherever he went, in the sweat shops of Birmingham, in the East End of London, in revolutionary Russia, in China and Japan.

He was tenacious, determined and sometimes stubborn. Sometimes his plans succeeded and sometimes they did not. But he never gave up and never stopped dreaming, hoping and planning. Even in the last years of his life he plotted bringing skinheads and immigrants, from London, together on trips to the countryside.

From his life of adventure and travel he learned of the danger our society faces, that we must share the good things in our lives or find that sharing is forced upon us.

At a time when it seems life for many in our society and around the world is not getting better, he is an inspiring figure. Inequality is growing, lives are getting meaner and communities more shrivelled.

Our institutions are shifting into an earlier time, similar to the times when Jack Catchpool began his work, where poverty is the fault of the individual and it is their responsibility to deal with these problems and not for wider society or institutions.

He was always a practical man. His work was always practical.

War, plague and diseases still unleash horrors on peaceful people and refugees still flee those terrors. Authority abandons those it should protect and democracy no longer functions for all.

Power has moved out of the hands of democracy, from the state to private companies. Examples of failure abound, from banks to pension funds, from Grenfell Tower to New Orleans, from Syria to Myanmar. Disaster tangles those who feel neglected and overlooked, their voices never heard.

Realising that others had faced exactly the same problems that we face now and solved them, can come as a shock. In 1909 the state was a shadow of what it would become. The school leaving age was 12 and further education out of the reach of anyone who was not wealthy. Many people lived in overcrowded insanitary slums.

Quakers were natural supporters of youth hostels. Jack Catchpool on the left here with Eve and Peter Rowntree.

A Quaker, Seebohm Rowntree, conducted a study of poverty in his home town of York and showed that families were poor, not because they were not striving, not because they were indolent, not because they were feckless, shiftless or idle, but because of the circumstances in which they lived.

That lesson is being forgotten in our drive to save costs to cut taxes, with a free market ideology that maintains wealth trickles down and that individuals are responsible for their own well-being, through energy, thrift and hard work. That ideology failed in Victorian times. People floated, swam, or sank, and the state did little to intervene. Voluntary effort and charity offered the only safety net, alongside the poorhouse.

Rowntree showed that poverty was a result of poor education, poor health and low wages.

But people solved those problems, especially by action after the first world war, after the Great Depression and when the war against Hitler ended, and we can do the same. Catchpool’s energy and his example show how it can be done.

Catchpool, as a pioneer, followed three broad ways. The routes he took are still helpful to us today, his methods worth keeping in mind in our efforts to improve lives.

He was always intent on a better life for everyone and especially young people.

He was a social reformer, an early graduate from the University of Birmingham’s first course in social work. He joined efforts to improve the lives of sweat-shop workers in Birmingham. From trade-unionists he learned the art of helping others to help themselves. He involved himself in education and co-operatives.

He saw the importance of leisure and recreation from his work in London during and after the first world war, when he fought for schools to open their playgrounds to children out of school hours, so that children would not be forced to play on the streets and be lured into mischief and crime. He loved the outdoors, and took children on trips to the seaside and the countryside, and understood how travel made better people.

The second element of his work supported his longing for social reform. He was always a practical man. His work was always practical.

Doing good required doing well and paying the way.

Theory, talk and ideas never worked for him. He disliked committee work. What counted was practical work, drive and push to get things done, especially on behalf of young people. He always retained a commercial approach, that doing good required doing well and paying the way. He helped refugees find work, earn pay and gain self-respect from their labour.

Jack Catchpool, seated third from left, at Toynbee Hall, an educational settlement in the East End of London.

Youth hostels are, more than anything, practical, social work in action. They provide shared, simple accommodation, communal space for cooking, eating, and socialising, and separate bedrooms for males and females, though private rooms are a feature of modern hostels.

They are buildings, brick and mortar, stone and tile. They are beds, toilets, showers and drains. They pay their way. They have to be warm and dry. Their plumbing must be efficient, their walls sound, their roofs good and their beds dry.

Only after that can they bring about reform. Only after that can they achieve their more lofty ideal of improving life. Only then can they help all but especially young people of limited means to better health, rest and recreation.

He had an extraordinary gift for taking the world’s good will for granted.

Everything follows from their simple, practical nature. In that, they suited Catchpool. Practical work has an immediate result. It is visible. It has a touch and feel. It is action and activity. Catchpool was not a dreamer and, though he had dreams and ideals, he was always busy, full of energy, full of concern for active, real service.

None of Jack Catchpool’s extraordinary achievements would have come about without his chief skill, and the third theme of his life. We need organisation and organisations.

As we have turned our backs on association, voluntarism and co-operatives, in favour of the individual endeavour of entrepreneurs, we have lost our ability to organise ourselves. Catchpool’s skill was as an organiser, helping others to organise themselves.

He supported others to do what they need to improve their own lives. He had an extraordinary gift for taking the world’s goodwill for granted, and then plucking at every wire to make things happen. He brought people together and used all his networks to achieve ends.

Jack Catchpool, left, with Richard Schirrmann, centre, the Germany school teacher who invented youth hostels, in 1934 in Derbyshire, England.

He learned organising at the Quaker college, Woodbrooke, and the university of Birmingham. He went to Russia as an adjutant, to arrange and smooth the travel of his fellow aid workers. He learned the importance of keeping records and was proud that a set of index cards helped reunite families of refugees, broken apart by war in Russia.

He was a life-long reconciler. Through his connections he could get into the White House and President Roosevelt’s private home. He could get colleagues into Downing Street for tea with the prime minister’s daughter. He could meet inspiring people like Albert Schweitzer and Nehru, the Indian prime minister.

He could get important people to do extraordinary things for plain causes.

He was the first secretary of YHA but the term today can belie its purpose then. He was more than a note taker and administrator. His role was more akin to a great secretary of state who heads a government department and leads its work, while remaining answerable to cabinet and parliament. He raised funds to open hostels, and found the buildings hostels needed and, when work needed doing, brought people to do the work.

We do not prosper without those administrators and organisers or without networks. Disorganised, revolutions sink into chaos and fail. We emphasise spontaneity, managers and individual effort, when we need administrators and secretaries. We all need to learn organising skills to manage our own lives and we have lost a vital way of doing that as democratic associations have withered. This book explores what we have lost with those organisations and those roles.


Jack Catchpool was with the Friends Ambulance Unit in Belgium during the first world war, here, seated third from left, with hospital staff.

Catchpool’s life showed the success that can come with efforts to improve lives from small practical steps. He was a not a revolutionary. He had seen war and catastrophe, lived through famine and disease, and was almost shot as a spy. That taught him that practical action counts more than ideas, that big movements are made of small actions and small people all working together.

Catchpool gave a start to the Youth Hostels Association, an organisation that changed the lives of young people, that changed the way we all travel and the way we take our holidays. He saw those small steps for what they are, the best way of preventing war and catastrophe. If we travelled more in his way we might see the world more clearly and from that we might improve our lives along the way.

The staff at Woodbrooke College, in Birmingham, encouraged Catchpool to write his memoirs because his “varied experiences, mostly in the service of youth… might be useful to others in their approach to young people.” His life is an example of how we can go about improving our lives and the lives of others, and those lessons gave me the impetus for researching and then writing about the life of Jack Catchpool.

Youth Hostel Pioneer is the story of the life of Jack Catchpool and his adventures and travels in the cause of peace.

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