Women, history and hostels #5
During the first years after the founding of YHA, Edith Bulmer was the most prominent of YHA’s pioneering women. As editor of The Rucksack magazine, the association’s magazine for all its members, she guided and shaped YHA’s new public voice until a scandal shifted her from the scene.
A claim to the forefront
She came to youth hostels through the Northumbrian Trampers Guild, from the north east of England. It was there “the Youth Hostel idea had caught hold before the Youth Hostels Association itself was actually in being”.
The guild ran a simple scheme to provide shelters for those walking the border with Scotland. Six shelters opened before 1929, including one at Wallington Hall, but the shelters were only open to men.
The guild affiliated to YHA, bringing its socialist MP, owner of the estate at Wallington and its president, Sir Charles Treveleyan; £90 in cash; and the existing hostel at Wallington, to YHA.
The guild and its hostels’ existence before YHA, give Northumberland a claim to be at the forefront of the start of youth hostels in Britain and its hostel, at Wallington, a claim to be the first hostel in Britain. Those claims are often overlooked in favour of the group on Merseyside and its first hostel, at Pennant Hall.
Rising to prominence
Edith rose to prominence as chair of the group, once it was constituted within YHA. She was the group’s delegate to YHA’s national council and was elected to the leading national committee, the national executive, in 1933.
On that 28 strong committee she was one of a tiny minority of women, never more than five, mostly two, for the next ten years with a brief gap in 1935.
She was the second editor of Rucksack. Under her editorship, the magazine, with its slogan ‘Keep abreast of youth hostels news’, promoted holidays and visits to different parts of England and Wales.
Sometimes, articles promoting destinations further afield in Europe were included along with a wide range of pieces, on plays, music and songs, news from regional groups and from other countries.
It published regular news of hostels in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland. The magazine also included articles by its editor and a range of writers, including Sir Charles Trevelyan, and his brother, the historian and first national president of YHA, G.M.Trevelyan.
A zest to everything
Edith was Sir Charles Trevelyan’s personal secretary and was also reckoned to be intimidating, business-like and forthright, masculine in her approach. Despite her terrifying demeanour, she was approachable, and “there was gold beneath her austere surface.”
She brought a zest to everything she did. She believed YHA should be run with an accent on youth and was in favour of simple (and comfortable) hostels and of encouraging juveniles to stay in them. She believed that in any well-ordered society Youth Hostels should have the financial support of the state, with a first call on the National Exechequer.
Where the water is always warm
Her views, in line with her employer’s, were socialist. She twice travelled to Russia in the company of Sir Charles. “First in 1935, when I visited Leningrad and Moscow, and again in 1939 when I spent two months inside the Soviet Union and saw a good deal of the superb holiday facilities which the Russians enjoy, in the Caucasus and on the Black Sea coast.”
On her second visit, she and Sir Charles travelled 2,000 miles, seeing, doing and talking (especially talking), as she remembered it. They spent a week within sight of Mount Elbruz, Europe’s highest mountain and ten days at Sochi, on the Black Sea “where the water is always warm and… the hostels of every kind most comfortable.”
She wrote with admiration of the physical fitness and “keeness” of the young people they met in hostels. Writing in 1942, her praise of the Russians and the Soviet state was in keeping with the British view of its ally at the time.
Better and longer holidays
In 1942 she wrote that she lived “in hope that enough of us in the YHA will survive to see our world organised on a basis of better and longer holidays, so that more of us may visit our Russian comrades in their vast land, when the present horrors are at an end and the work of building-up again has begun. Who knows? It may even be our privilege to help in the building-up, as some slight return for what they have already done for us.”
It was not to be so. In 1943, when she was 39, her career within YHA came to an end with the birth of a son, Martin. The father was her employer and lover, Sir Charles, with whom she had been carrying on an affair for years. He settled Edith and her son in a house on his estate, despite the anger of his wife.
“If he were an obscure person living in a small street, it would not matter,” his wife wrote angrily. “But he is a very prominent person, living in a great house and in the public eye. His good name will suffer…” * Sir Charles never acknowledged the boy as his own and the rest of the family remained silent on the presence of Edith and her son in their midst.
Sir Charles died in 1958, having never acknowledged Edith’s son as his own, and she died soon after. By then she was gone from YHA affairs. No mention was made of her departure though her passion was recognised with an obituary in the magazine she had once edited.
She was also a keen photographer and some of her photos are still in the YHA archive, a wonderful record of the pioneering years of youth hostels in Northumberland.
Tom Stephenson, promoter of the Pennine Way and a leading campaigner for walkers’ rights, followed her as editor of The Rucksack.
*Spartcus Educational https://spartacus-educational.com/TUtrevelyan.htm
Other quotes are from Rucksack, Midsummer 1942 and Youth Hosteller, March 1958 p5, courtesy YHA.
Image of Edith Bulmer with a crowd of friends at Wallington, courtesy YHA archive, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.