Women, history and hostels #3
Connie Alexander epitomised the best of those who ran youth hostels, a woman with a lively sense of adventure, full of genuine care for others.
Wardens, as hostel managers were then known, were hard to find at the beginning. YHA paid them them “a pittance”, about £50 a year, and allowed them the profits from selling meals, food from little shops and sometimes serving teas. But Connie did the work and gave her best, in the spirit of youth hostels, not for the pay.
“She early showed a promise for Societies and Committees, and was full of good works.”*
Born in Yorkshire and brought up in Liverpool, she worked with the Holiday Fellowship and the Ramblers Federation.
She helped with a surgery in the slums, tending to children off the streets, and was in the League of Welldoers, a charity known in Liverpool as The Lee Jones after its founder, set up to provide school meals to starving children throughout Liverpool, Everton & Bootle.
The charity also aimed at “betterment”, improving the lives of those trapped in poverty and hardship, through cultural events like concerts, a drive which fitted well with early visions of youth hostels.
Connie worked as a clerk in one of the big shipping firms of Liverpool, the African & Eastern, but lost her job as the Great Depression struck and the firm began transferring its offices to London. She worked alongside Berta Gough and the two became good friends.
In the summer of 1929 she had taken part in the walking holiday in Germany out of which the youth hostels group on Merseyside grew. A year later she opened the first youth hostel in Britain, the short lived Pennant Hall in Denbighshire.
But it was as warden at Idwal Cottage in Snowdonia that she is best remembered.
She wasn’t the first warden there. For Easter 1931, when the hostel first opened, the warden was a university student called Williams and Connie only began her work there in May.
As the warden at Idwal, she commanded affection and admiration, with her lively sense of adventure. She was capable and friendly, the hostel was bright, attractive and spotless. Nothing flurried her even good temper.
She was a climber, benighted once on Tryfan, with only her little dog, YoHo, to keep her warm. The dog was named for the popular nickname of youth hostels in their early days.
She knew the hills and mountains well, and could give good advice to guests and visitors to the hostel. She turned Idwal Cottage into an organised, highly effective base for mountain rescue, an aspect of the hostel shown in The Magic Shilling, an early film about youth hostels, which also featured Connie.
As warden she became well known and respected by local farmers, who did not necessarily offer much sympathy or esteem to a single woman living in such a remote spot nor for the hostelling movement.
For the sake of peace
After nine years at Idwal Cottage she left when, “for the sake of peace”, in July 1940, she married Richard ‘Taffy’ Williams, a climber who had kept coming to her door to borrow jam-jars and bits of string, and moved to Llandudno.
She created a welcoming attitude, with a reputation for never turning anyone away. She was relaxed about rules but severe with those who transgressed decent and civilised behaviour, an inspiration for wardens and managers of subsequent generations.
When Maeve Larkin wrote her play about youth hostels, Best Foot Forward, for the Mikron theatre in 2017, she chose the name Connie for the lead character, in honour of Connie Alexander.
Rucksack Easter 1941
Rucksack Jan – Feb 1950
* p 31 Coburn, Oliver, Youth Hostel Story.
League of Welldoers https://welldoers.org.uk/history/
Photo; courtesy Gillian Hutchison, and YHA’s archive, Special Collections at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.