Bought, begged, borrowed, stolen

A short history of Tanners Hatch

Volunteers, two thirds of them women, built a hostel from a ruined cottage in the middle of the second world war.

Tanners Hatch is a hostel with one of the proudest histories of any of YHA’s, its location one to of YHA’s best and it owes its origins to the desire for a new hostel and a new future that arose in the darkest days of a war.

Noel Vincent was one of those volunteers. He joined YHA in 1937. When war broke out he found himself in a reserved occupation. As a ‘boffin’ in a small back room he had a job he couldn’t leave, even if he had wanted. His wife was warden at the new youth hostel in Leatherhead.

On a Sunday afternoon, cycling up a muddy lane towards Ranmore Common, Vincent and his wife came across an apple tree, with apples, in an abandoned garden.

A hard-headed businessman

They climbed through head-high nettles, in shorts, and found not only a fruitful tree but an abandoned cottage. “It really was a mess – roof full of holes, bushes growing in the fallen plaster inside, glassless and occasionally frameless windows, wide cracks in the walls.”

The cottage was part of the Polesden Lacey Estate. William McEwan, one of the most successful brewers of his generation, had bought the estate in 1906. He was a shrewd, hard-headed, hard-working businessman. Offered a title, he turned it down because he would rather be first in his own order than last in someone else’s.

On his death in 1913 his daughter, Margaret Greville, inherited his fortune. She remodelled the original Regency house at Polesden Lacey with the architects of the Ritz Hotel and became a famous hostess. King George VI honeymooned there.

During the blitz Mrs Greville lived in hotels in London and, after a long period of disablement, died on 15 September 1942 at the Dorchester. She left Polesden Lacey to the National Trust. The trust agreed to lease the derelict cottage as a youth hostel and threw in another nearby, where a warden could live, for one pound a year for each building.

Vincent took charge of work to create a youth hostel from the ruined cottage. He lived at Leatherhead and could be out at the cottage, called Tanners Hatch, every weekend.

An embarrassing response

He found enough volunteers to run a working party every week-end for two and a half years. He also left a detailed record of the creation of the youth hostel, The Tanners Hatch Story.

“…Sometimes the response was embarrassing and we had to find worth-while jobs and tools for forty enthusiastic volunteers.” Two professional building tradesmen, George the plasterer and Tom the carpenter, also appeared. Both were fine workmen and excellent teachers with a great capacity for suffering fools gladly, Vincent remembered.

Volunteers stayed on Saturday nights at the youth hostel in Leatherhead. After breakfast they cycled or walked up the long muddy track to Tanners Hatch, loaded with tools, food and materials.

“We worked all day with lunch supplied on the job (the only freebie we got), then cycled or walked and trained home in the evening. If we needed heavy supplies – sand, gravel, cement, bricks, etc – a group who could get there early on Saturday afternoon would take a three-ton lorry, hired with driver, load it at the local builder’s yard and try to see how near they could get to Tanners before it bogged down and could go no more.

“Sometimes we actually got there, but too often the mud won and Sunday’s gang spent their day ferrying a ton or two of sand in rucksacks and wheelbarrows from wherever we had to unload.”

The wood was of poor quality

Both buildings had almost to be rebuilt. Vincent bought heavy building materials, except timber, without much difficulty. Britain imported timber at a great cost in shipping and lives lost. Civilians needed permission to buy it.

The team at Tanners worked out their needs with care and great parsimony, and requested their license. An official summoned Vincent to put his case. “The official who heard me out seemed to be so stunned by the fact that we were going to do all this with no paid labour at all that he gave us a license at once. Later on we wished desperately that we had asked for more but we hadn’t got the nerve to go back.”

The wood was of poor quality. “There was no picking and choosing of nice bits without cracks and knots, or even of any particular sort of timber. It was all just wood.

“To fill that modest order we got larch, spruce, hemlock, Parana pine, Columbian pine, Quebec spruce, and something that in my battered working notebook is called ‘Reb. spruce’.

“And some of it looked and felt as if they had only just scraped the leaves off. But in it had to go, camouflaged with a hopeful lick of creosote, and out the ruins of the old roof rose the skeleton of the new.”

The work went on. They laid concrete floors to replace the old timber ones, “scraping rotting wood off the outside of massive timbers to find out how much sound wood was left (and this was often a surprisingly large amount on an apparently hopeless beam) and then splicing in bits from a beam that really was hopeless to mend the worst holes, cutting away all the loose brick and flint work that bordered the great cracks in the walls so that we could rebuild from a sound(?) base, and then building in with brick and flint right up to roof level again.”

The importance of food

The team carried water from Polesden Farm using an old timber yoke, probably once used by milkmaids to carry two buckets. “Some unlucky chap or girl would spend Sunday as a water-maid, staggering half a mile uphill with two galvanised buckets, each with twenty pounds of water in, to feed teams of concrete mixers and plasterers and bricklayers…”

Vincent recognised the importance of food in bringing volunteers. “Special rations were issued to registered catering establishments, which could then serve meals without asking their customers for ration coupons, so that every sensible person took every opportunity to eat out and save coupons for meals at home.

“The rations to catering establishments were of exactly the same quantity per meal for a Youth Hostel or, say, the Savoy Hotel, though I believe that unsuccessful attempts were made to convince the Minister that Hostellers were likely to be a lot hungrier than customers of The Savoy.”

Two thirds were women

Help came from other sources as the work went on. The International Voluntary Service for Peace (now the IVS) sent volunteers who bivouacked in the ruins. A lecturer at the Architectural Association brought young architects to learn about handling materials the hard way. A group came from the London School of Building. But youth hostel members were the backbone of the work-force.

Two thirds of them were women. They dug and laid drains. They mixed and poured concrete. They cemented bricks and set flints. They carried the water. They tiled roofs, carpentered and plumbed. They needed another youth hostel and saw building their own as the best way to get one., showing that they could do without men.

When war ended in Europe in May 1945 the youth hostel at Tanners Hatch still wasn’t finished. It would finally open for Easter 1946, after two and a half years of steady work. The first paying customers included one from France.

You can read the story, one of the many from YHA’s long history, in Open to All.

Image of Tanners Hatch, dated October 1945, is courtesy YHA archive, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

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