Mary Lander

Women, history and hostels #6

Mary Lander was one of the few women at two meetings which established youth hostels in Britain and Europe, and played a central part in the revival of youth hostels during the second world war.

She was one of eight, among 28 men, at the first meeting of a youth hostels association for Britain, in London in April 1930. At that meeting she represented the Association of Headmistresses.

Two years later, in Amsterdam, she was among those who formed an international association of youth hostels which went on to establish youth hostels around the world.

For more than 20 years she was a key worker in the effort to build up youth hostels and then to keep them alive during the second world war. When war ended, from London, she helped young people arrange their travels and adventures in Europe.

Youth hostels in Germany

Mary Lander was a BSc graduate of London University. She spoke fluent German and French, and knew about youth hostels from her travels in Germany.

By 1930 she was working, probably in an administrative role, in the Association of Headmistresses, founded in 1874 to push for more education for girls. On behalf of the association, she attended a meeting on 10 April 1930 at the offices of the National Council for Social Services in Bedford Square, London.

Other women at that meeting included Elizabeth Haldane, a trustee of Carnegie UK, Miss Thompson of the YWCA and Miss Picton Jones of the Sunlight League, an organisation founded in 1924 to promote health and the benefits of sunshine.

Haldane was a key figure in the Carnegie Trust and one of a generation of women from prosperous families who led so many efforts to improve lives.

She was on the board of the Carnegie trust, one of the biggest charitable funds in the UK which, through generous funding, was the biggest supporter of youth hostels at that time.

Phenomenal growth

At times especially once the Carnegie Trust gave funding, phenomenal growth threatened to overwhelm the little office YHA had established in Welwyn Garden City, near London.

The executive appointed Mary Lander as a shorthand typist in December 1931. She worked in an old hut in a park in Welwyn and, as more people joined YHA and more youth hostels opened, YHA took more space in the huts, eventually using two large rooms and five smaller ones.

The office was always busy. By 1933 it was dealing with a daily torrent of letters, several of of which could be in foreign languages. Correspondence took two thirds of the day.

There were also telephone calls to answer and and proofs to read, leaving little time for the routine of compiling reports, memoranda and minutes. At busy times, volunteers helped, staff worked overtime and the office needed more typists and more clerks.

An invaluable participant

YHA’s first national secretary, Jack Catchpool, had already begun linking with youth hostel organisations in Germany and the Netherlands when, in October 1932, he and Mary travelled to Amsterdam.They went to explore linking with other associations in Europe.

A young Cambridge student, Terry Trench, went with a colleague from the Irish association, An Óige. Belgium sent one delegate from its Flemish association. Czechoslovakia sent another and Denmark sent two. Three from France attended.

The Dutch secretary, Heer Deelen, and his assistant, Leo Meilink, were there along with delegates from Norway, Poland and Switzerland. In total 22 attended, including Richard Schirrmann, the founder of youth hostels, and Wilhelm Münker, another key figure from Germany.

Mary was one of only three women, with Miss Krebs, from Denmark, and Miss Dambuyant, warden of the hostel in Paris.

They held their meetings in German, out of respect for the originators of the youth hostel movement, making Mary, with her fluent German, an invaluable participant from England and Wales.

On October 20th, 1932, they created the Internationale Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Jugendherbergen (IAJH). Poland, hosting a later meeting, translated the title as the International Union of the Youth Hostels Associations. When the union created an international guest membership in 1935 it became the International Federation of Youth Hostels.

Emergencies and publicity

When war broke out in 1939 it looked like youth hostels would not survive. Many were requisitioned for military use. Others were taken over for use by refugees or schools escaping the threat of war in cities.

In 1940 Mary took up work as YHA’s liaison officer, paid with a government grant, from the Board of Education, of £250 a year plus expenses. Government saw the benefits of youth hostels for young people and gave them support, bringing the organisation back from the brink of disaster.

Her job was to liase among the 22 autonomous regional groups, which made up YHA at the time, ensuring they worked together, bringing back youth hostels from requisitioning and promoting youth hostels to a public that knew little of the opportunities they offered.

She worked among volunteers who stood addressed lunch time meetings in factory canteens, promoting youth hostels, and encouraging young workers back to youth hostels and outdoor holidays.

Mary made inventories at requisitioned hostels, helped with book keeping, contacted local authorities and acted as an emergency warden at a hostel where the regular warden was ill. She was around the country, speaking at schools, factories and youth clubs.

After requisitioning took the YHA office, Catchpool moved everything, and everyone left of the office staff, into his family home, Meadow Cottage.

There, Mary drew up reports, compiled statistics and researched the history of YHA, ensuring youth hostels would be ready for peace, sunshine and holidays, when they came. She continued as liaison officer until 1946, supported throughout by the Ministry of Education.

Travel to Europe

Peace brought success for youth hostels and new opportunities for young people. Before the war many of those going to Europe had been students. Now a less privileged group of office staff, nurses and skilled manual workers began crossing to Europe, eager to make up for time lost during the conflict. Many of them knew no foreign languages.

YHA set up a small foreign travel office in London, at 5 Tavistock Square, to help them and Mary went to work there with Graham Heath, who had been assistant national secretary to Jack Catchpool before the war.

They answered enquiries in person or by post, and arranged pre-booked tours to the Netherlands, Switzerland and France. Those trips were then abandoned, as they were too complicated, and they turned to booking passages on services to Norway, Denmark, and Holland and Switzerland.

As air travel began to shape the way that people travelled, they chartered flights to Amsterdam, Basel, Copenhagen, Munich and Oslo, until lobbying from established airlines and regulation brought an end to the flights. Young people would have to wait until the 1980s for the return of such cheap flights.

The office in London grew into a busy shop on John Adam street, forerunner of the YHA Adventure Shops, eventually bought out by Karrimor, the outdoor equipment company.

Snippets and slips

Mary remained a friend of the Catchpool family for years, continuing her links with the early days of youth hostels, when she had been one of a small group of often unrecognised women who pioneered the way for youth hostels.

Much of her life is unrecorded, except for snippets that slip from notes, of her presence to take minutes, to support this or that venture, or to record her appointment for an annually renewed contract as liaison officer.

Her contribution and of others to the success of youth hostels during the war, is worthy of more recognition and understanding, as they paved the way for young women and their travels and adventures.

You can read more of the story of these years in Youth Hostel Pioneer: peace, adventures, travel and the life of Jack Catchpool.


Freedom to travel might have allowed me to uncover more information about Mary Lander’s role at the Association of Headmistresses but that was not possible during the Covid-19 outbreak when this was written.

Elizabeth Haldane deserves a biography of her own

Sources and more information in Youth Hostel Pioneer: peace, adventures, travel and the life of Jack Catchpool.

Image shows Mary Lander, right, with the delegates from An Óige, Terry Trench, centre, and Ó Lochlainn, left. Courtesy the YHA archive, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

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