Dorothy Tomkins

Women, history, hostels #2

When it came to opening youth hostels, women often did the work and Dorothy Tomkins, a young unemployed architectural student, did the work at Winchester.

She was unemployed, available and, as an architectural student, equipped with a knowledge of buildings, ideal to furnish and prepare an old mill in Winchester to be one of Britain’s first youth hostels.

The experience in Winchester showed her that women often proved the best at getting things done.

She was resourceful and tough minded, able to turn an old sign into a table, and unafraid of sleeping alone in a building with rats and, supposedly, ghosts.

She had experienced youth hostels in Germany and went to Winchester with Jack Catchpool, first secretary of the new organisation, and Barclay Baron, its first chairman, to look over the old mill.

It had stood empty for years, beyond a bridge on the road from the city to London, until a group of volunteers bought it and gave it to the National Trust. The trust, at the time far more interested in protecting landscape than old buildings, with no idea what to do with the empty structure, encouraged by Catchpool, passed it to the YHA.

Everywhere was thick with dust and cobwebs.

Tomkins remembered her first visit there. “The great gable end of the old mill with its red brickwork glowing in afternoon sunshine; the neat casements; and the river rushing through the weir…

“We viewed the loft among the beams, the two little rooms which were ear-marked for the girls’ dormitories, and the colder, more forbidding stable accommodation for the men. We admired the walled garden projecting into the river which is perhaps the most beautiful and unexpected part of the Mill.”

Catchpool asked Tomkins if she would “undertake to furnish the hostel and put it into shape for a hostel”.

Ingenious and capable, she gathered help.

She visited Army surplus stores, buying beds, blankets and chairs. She turned the for sale sign, covered in linoleum, on trestles, into a table. She bought pails, bowls and brooms from Woolworths.

Four coats of creosote were needed to paint the common room, backbreaking work over six weeks. She mustered help from friends, persuaded a carpenter and his wife to do essentials, and a greengrocer to carry everything she had bought, in his lorry down, to Winchester.

She swept out thirty years of dust and neglect

But she was never lonely with the sound of rushing water continually in her ears.

The neighbours looked on her as a little mad and could never understand how [she] slept alone, as they were sure ghosts walked in the mill at night. But she worked so hard that not even the water rats disturbed her.

Good sports and backbreaking work

Some of the work was backbreaking but she persuaded any visitors to help, including a girl who became so engrossed in the work, she forgot the time; a sailor and his wife; and a newspaper reporter, who was a good sport and, for a man, worked really hard.

The sailor’s wife proved to be the most useful, able to make her own furniture from orange boxes.

After six weeks the work was done and the hostel was ready to open as YHA’s first city hostel and one that would accommodate thousands throughout its long life as a youth hostel.

We’ve no photos of Dorothy Tomkins, only an old photo to show what she achieved from an empty old mill nobody wanted.

We also have an account of a stay in 1933, when “there were university students, public school boys, boys from the East End, girl cyclists from Kent; musicians, clerks, shop assistants, errand boys, factory hands” all staying and “some of the townsfolk dropped in to help pour out and wash up and join in songs and games.”

All, without knowing, paid testament to Dorothy Tomkins and her tough minded, resourcefulness.

Sources

Coburn, Oliver, Youth hostel Story; all quotes.
Catchpool, Jack, Candles in the Darkness.
Rucksack magazine.

Photo; Winchester Youth Hostel, courtesy YHA Archive, Special Collections, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

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