No one but a desperate woman

Women, hostels, history #1

Y050001-Bellever 11 10Jun34 400-10 phoY

Gwen Moffat wrote that “No one but a desperate woman”* would have gone to work at the remote Ro Wen youth hostel in Snowdonia in 1952.

Each morning, after the hostellers left, she washed sheet sleeping bags used the night before. She repaired Primus stoves, storm lanterns and Tilley lamps, almost daily, and emptied all the chemical toilets. She put up notices that members should use the toilets ‘only when necessary’. She shopped and carried all the provisions and equipment for the hostel on her back, from a bus stop in the valley, up to the hostel.

But she had a roof over her head and an occasional day for climbing. She considered herself well off, on pay of £1 a week in summer and ten shillings (50p) in the winter. She went on to become Britain’s first female mountain guide and a writer of crime fiction.

Many women ran youth hostels, as Gwen Moffatt did, some more remote than Ro Wen.

Joan Chapman ran Black Sail hut, in Ennerdale in the Lake District, a hostel that could only be reached by walking over mountain passes or up a long valley. Her nearest bath was two miles away, at Honister Hause youth hostel, and she joked that, in the Lake District’s notorious weather, heading for a bath she got three; once going, once there and once coming home.

As a woman, her employers thought she would be safer at another hostel, closer to a road, to which Joan retorted she was safe enough at Black Sail, where any one wanting to make trouble with a lonely woman would be too tired to be a nuisance.

Women were central to the story of youth hostels

Gwen Moffat and Joan Chapman are two women who have left their stories and who played their part in the history of youth hostels.

Their stories, and those of others, show that women were always central to the rough equality youth hostels offered.

There had been accommodation like youth hostels before. The Northumberland Trampers Guild ran a chain of simple shelters as did the Scottish Young Men’s Holiday Fellowship. But their accommodation was not open to women.

The centres of the Co-operative Holidays Association and the Holiday Fellowship welcomed women but neither encouraged tramping or touring from one place to the next, in glorious freedom.

Youth hostels did and youth hostels were open to men and women. They encouraged social mixing, bringing together young men and women from different places, different backgrounds and different nations. They encouraged young women to free themselves, to travel independently and to see the world.

The supervision of youth hostels would be key to their success.

There was opposition to youth hostels, from parents, from the churches and from landowners, from their beginning. Some saw youth hostels as radical and subversive.

To win support, responsible people, to supervise and run youth hostels, were essential to reassure parents and local communities of the good standing of youth hostels.

Many women took that role. In 1931, YHA’s first year, more women than men ran youth hostels, and not because running a youth hostel was domestic work.

In the early days of youth hostels, members did the domestic work. The members swept, cleaned, polished and tidied.

The wardens were supervisors. They managed the hostels, accounted for funds, and ensured good order amongst those who stayed, and more women than men did that work.

Women left their mark on youth hostels.

As well as supervising youth hostels and staying in them, women left their mark on youth hostels in other ways.

They took part in committees which decided policies and ran the organisation, and one young woman was the editor of the youth hostel magazine for the formative years of YHA.

Alongside men, women did the hard work

YHA often seems a masculine, patriarchal organisation, led by men making hostels, men on committees, men as presidents and men as leaders.

But that overlooks the parts that women played in youth hostel history. Women were there, their stories throughout YHA’s archives and the pages of its magazines and reports.

They are fascinating stories, about the way youth hostels formed, about how youth hostels came to be and the part that women played in that history.

By gathering a few of the stories and accounts of women in the early days in youth hostels, I hope that picture may shift.

You can read some of those stories in the following articles and posts.

I hope, too, that these stories will inspire someone else to investigate the subject further, to write about women, youth hostels and their history in greater depth and with more astute analysis.


*Moffat, Gwen, Space below my feet

Photo, Bellever, Dartmoor, 1934 opening, courtesy YHA Archive, Special Collections, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

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