Women, history and hostels #4
We’ve many reasons to be grateful to Berta Gough (above left). She was one of the small band on Merseyside who opened the first youth hostels in Wales, and some of the first in Britain. She took part in early important meetings that set the tone for youth hostels to come.
She was irrepressible, a lively enthusiastic volunteer with a sharp sense of humour, ready to laugh at her own mishaps and the foibles of others.
Most importantly, we can be grateful to her because she kept a diary. Through her diary we glimpse vibrant times and the freedom youth hostels were bringing to a group of young people, intent on ordering their own affairs.
She wrote about adventures on the roads of Wales to find new youth hostels. She wrote about their mishaps, their arguments and fallings out.
She complained as youth hostels changed quickly, becoming less than she wanted. Some of those changes she liked and some she disliked, just like us, and she was not afraid to decide when the time had come to move on to other things.
Years later she returned to her diary and, from it, edited and took extracts that tell the story of youth hostels, ensuring that today we have a wonderful record and insights into those first, early years of youth hostels.
The backbone of youth hostels
When youth hostels began Berta was working for a shipping company in Liverpool*.
The city was then a “thriving international port”, one of Britain’s great ports, the guts of an empire. Goods flowed into and out of the docks, the sea connecting the city’s inhabitants with the world, giving those who grew up and lived there a striking perspective, of being on the edge of movement and travel, of surging masses of people, ships and goods.
Berta and her friend, Connie Alexander, were among the great mass of young people in Liverpool, the administrators, clerks, teachers, shop assistants and office workers, who became the back bone of youth hostels.
When the stock market crash of 1929 unleashed an economic slump and mass unemployment on Liverpool, Berta’s company reorganised and shifted its offices to London, leaving Connie and then Berta out of work.
YHA was fortunate. The impact of unemployment is sometimes seen as a difficulty for YHA at its beginning but for Berta and Connie unemployment had an unimagined consequence, as they were left able to give more time to youth hostels.
No time for the pompous
Berta was at the key meetings that helped set up youth hostels. She was there for the first meeting, when they formed the Merseyside centre of the British Youth Hostels Association. She was there when they were raising funds, a hard job in the midst of poverty and unemployment.
She used her skills from office work and typed notes for meetings and committees. She worked alongside Tom Fairclough, who became the central figure for youth hostels in Liverpool.
She was one of a group of friends including Tom, his wife Ena and Connie Alexander when they travelled, at weekends or on holiday to Wales, in search of buildings for youth hostels.
She was secretary to a hostels committee and then a delegate to the key national executive committee in 1936. She joined Edith Bulmer and a Miss Railton as the only women on the committee. They sat with 26 men including leading figures of the new association like Jack Catchpool, Barclay Baron, Rev Symonds, Edith Bulmer and Herbert Gatliff.
She worked alongside PJ Clark, later national chairman of YHA and then its president for many years, travelling miles with him and once embarrassed because she couldn’t keep pace with him while walking.
She had little time for the pompous. When she met “Herr Richard Schirrmann (the founder of the Youth Hostels worldwide)… [he] made a long speech, which would have been interesting except that he spoke in German (which had to be translated as he went along), and he spoke for an hour, so it got a bit tedious.”
Tedious unless with friends
She walked. She and her friends walked in shirts and shorts, or skirts, mid calf or above the knee, barelegged, with socks round their ankles or pulled up, in boots or light shoes.
She loved the company of others – travel on her own was tedious – and travelled with friends, with Tom and Ena Fairclough, PJ Clark and especially with Connie Alexander. She gave no idea of how much she had travelled before she became involved in youth hostels but, with the arrival of youth hostels, she travelled.
She went to Wales. She saw the hills of Snowdonia in snow for the first time. She was athletic and fit, once walking 21 miles over hills in Wales looking at potential sites for hostels.
She walked in the Lake District, in Yorkshire, on Hampstead Heath and around the walls of York. And always, she went back to Wales, backwards and forwards through Wales, attending meetings and looking over old buildings that may or may be suitable to be youth hostels.
For weekends in youth hostels, she was always with a changing gallery of others, with Alf and Jock and Ted and Tom, their names dropping through the pages of her diary like the rain that drenched them and sometimes seemed almost as constant.
Travels and adventures
Travel was an adventure. Cars broke down. They drove through blizzards. Flooded roads blocked their way. Snow left them stranded, often at hostels. They arrived late for meetings or were kept waiting, when they raced around trying to keep warm.
Berta accepted it all with equanimity and humour.
Through it all were the youth hostels, the wardens, the beds and the discomfort, of queer early hostels to which they had not got accustomed. Without drying rooms, they “knocked around in pyjamas” while they waited for their clothes, draped around fires, to dry out. Mattresses stuffed with straw “rustled terribly all night.”
Sometimes the beds were so cold they slept two in a bed for warmth and at Holmfirth, in Yorkshire, beds had been made “out of half-cartwheels with just wire nailed on, with the result that [they] kept falling in a ball to the middle.” She slept “in a loft with a current of air blowing straight through holes in the wall, which was decidedly draughty!”
A self admitted “light sleeper”, Berta complained about the beds and, also, the cold, the primitive sanitation, the drains stopping up and the lack of washing facilities.
She laughed about trouble in committee meetings, about considerable ructions that came to nothing, when, despite meetings going on until 10.30 at night, nothing was done and everyone carried on as before.
Love of the job
In 1937 it all came to an end. Her travels and the work had been fun but she wasn’t much interested by committees and the poses men took in running youth hostels amused her. After four years as secretary she resigned.
Committees were reorganising themselves and Tom Fairclough had become the first paid secretary of the Merseyside youth hostels.
He and others made speeches about Berta and thanked her for her work. She was embarrassed but proudly noted how much she had done in four years on the committee.
She did things for the love of the job, because she loved being involved and throughly enjoyed it all, with her the sense of fun and adventure, too anarchic and too fond of fun to stick around in the halls and corridors where YHA held meetings and conducted business.
She was one of those many who look back with nostalgia at the adventures of her youth and her first discovery of hostels. But she also knew the right time to move on, to leave youth hostels for others to discover and for their adventures.
In 1986 when YHA was preparing an appeal for funds for Maseshafn youth hostel, Ian Shaw, chairman of the Wales region, successor to the old Merseyside regional group, met Berta, by now Berta Andrews and living in Llandudno. He was able to copy 44 pages of her typewritten notes from her diary. Ian is another of those to whom I am grateful for ensuring that we hold this record.
*Berta mentions the African and Eastern as the shipping company she and Connie worked for, but I haven’t been able to find any records for the company.
Photo of Berta with Ena Fairclough on the Glyders, c1930, courtesy Gillian Hutchison / YHA archive, Special Collections, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.