A good war

A short history of youth hostels and the second world war.

As youth hostels define a role for themselves, in the crisis of Covid 19, here’s a look at their history in an earlier crisis, which may or may not be helpful, as the times and the challenges faced then were very different to those we face today.

Ravenstor Youth Hostel in 1944

Youth hostels had a good war. Less than ten years old when hostilities began, war could have destroyed them. But against the odds they decided to carry on.

Jack Catchpool was still secretary and GM Trevelyan, the historian and author, was still president. John Cadbury took up the chairmanship. He was a businessman, from the successful chocolate making family of Birmingham, and had been a member of the National Executive Committee since 1933.

“War makes the need for our service greater, not less” Trevelyan wrote in 1939.

The authorities requisitioned a third of all youth hostels immediately. Requisitioning happened quickly with sudden closures.

Soldiers, mothers and children, schoolchildren, schoolteachers, the aged and infirm, and people made homeless, as a result of air raids, used requisitioned youth hostels. Others accommodated soldiers on leave, a Friends Ambulance Unit training camp and Czech refugees or became emergency meeting rooms and feeding stations.

Schools from large cities took over youth hostels. Moved, because of the threat of bombing, children took up residence. The youth hostel at Ilam, in Derbyshire, housed children from nearby Derby. 80 schoolchildren from Manchester went to Ravenstor, also in Derbyshire, until the Ministry of Health took over the youth hostel, in June 1940, for a special school from London.

Troops occupied the tiny youth hostel, a former cheese factory, in the Dorset village of Litton Cheney not far from the sea. Judging by graffiti on the walls “very few units of the British Army (not to mention Americans) … were not there at some time during the War!”

Families bombed from their homes in Coventry took refuge in Warwick’s youth hostel and a bomb scored a direct hit on the roof of the youth hostel at Swanage.

The coastline of southern England and East Anglia expected an invasion and youth hostels close to the sea and the beaches, in restricted areas, closed for the duration of the war.

The youth hostel at Scarborough in North Yorkshire continued through the first months of the war. In October 1940 it was still operating but only to members resident in the restricted area along the coast. By 1941 it was open again.

The national office at Trevelyan House turned into an emergency hospital. Jack Catchpool moved the association’s office into his family home and Meadow Cottage, in Welwyn Garden City, became YHA’s office for the rest of the war as Catchpool kept the national organisation alive, almost single handed.

A central role in national life.

Catchpool always believed that youth hostels were doing the work of government and contributed as much to young people’s learning as schools, and in more practical ways. Youth hostels deserved backing by government, especially by the Board of Education.

Youth hostels, with their open easy comradeship, educated young people in the ways of independence and responsibility and turned them into better citizens more quickly than any school. So, in Catchpool’s equation, the board should be helping youth hostels.

He turned to persuading government to recognise youth hostels and the role they were playing in winning the war. He persuaded two government departments. The Board of Education and Ministry of Labour threw their support behind youth hostels.

Jack Catchpool, centre receiving flowers, in later life

The board wanted young people, after they left school and particularly those engaged in wartime industries, to take part in outdoor exercise and relaxation. Officials agreed that youth hostels, offering healthy and inexpensive holidays and a change of surroundings, made a real contribution to the country’s morale and strength.

The board made a direct grant for the salary and expenses of a liaison officer. Mary Lander, who had been with Catchpool since 1932 and who had joined him at the first meeting of the international federation in Amsterdam, took up the post.

Her job was to help bring back youth hostels from requisitioning and to promote youth hostels to a public that knew little of the opportunities they offered. She would continue as liaison officer until 1946, supported throughout by the Ministry of Education which replaced the old board.

The Ministry of Labour also stepped in and recognised the contribution of holidays in the countryside for reinvigorating war-workers of all occupations and both sexes. The Minister for Labour wanted to make all possible provision for the needs of young industrial workers and hoped youth hostels could make more accommodation available.

A greater service

Even if the government released youth hostels from requisitioning, finding people to run them was often a battle. Vera Watson dealt with bookings for the youth hostel at Houghton Mill near Cambridge. A National Trust property on the edge of a placid pond, old machinery and the mill workings littered its interior.

Watson cycled the 15 miles to the mill where she acted as warden at weekends, before cycling back to Cambridge in time for work on Monday morning. Her dedication made the hostel one of the most popular in the region. With petrol rationed, cycling was her only choice.

Houghton Mill Youth Hostel drawn in 1944

Government support helped keep many youth hostels out of requisitioning or returned them to use more quickly than otherwise might have been the case. Government support had helped with supplies, equipment and funds to keep youth hostels open.

The newly created Ministry of Education funded new youth hostels, made payments for equipment and gave grants to assist in administration. It funded, among many others, youth hostels at Wooler and Rock Hall, Northumberland; Chester, Cheshire; Grantham, Lincolnshire; Swanage, Dorset; and Colchester, Essex.

War had made clear the role of youth hostels. Authorities gave their work official sanction, a seal of approval that came with financial backing. They recognised how much youth hostels could contribute to changing lives. They acknowledged youth hostels’ central role in the nation’s life and their contribution to the health and welfare of an entire people.

This is an edited extract from Open to All – how youth hostels changed the world – published in 2016 and available for purchase from Amazon as a paperback and a kindle book.


Images courtesy YHA archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

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