A woman on her own

The Gummersons, far left, a married couple who ran early youth hostels, here at Stainforth.

In the years around 1950 youth hostels changed. Little shows the change as dramatically as the employment of women in youth hostels.

In the years before the second world war, many women had run youth hostels on their own. By 1938, 55% of those running youth hostels were women*. 26% were men on their own while the rest (19%) were married couples.

The figure is surprising because it did not reflect the demographics of YHA’s membership nor the make up of organising committees at national or regional levels which were overwhelmingly male.

Records from some of the early regional groups, show that women and girls had been about a third of those staying in youth hostels in the early years. They were not a majority of YHA members.

Numbers of women running hostels may have reflected a tradition in other areas of tourism.

Suggesting reasons why a woman on her own so often ran a youth hostel is not easy given these overall demographics but a few explanations can be offered.

Numbers of women running hostels may have reflected a tradition in other areas of tourism, like the landladies of guest houses at the seaside, or the Cooperative Holidays Association (CHA), where women had run centres as domestic secretaries, while men had carried out the work of administration.

But wardens’ duties in youth hostels were not domestic as they had been in the CHA. Members did the domestic work and carried out the daily chores like sweeping and dusting.

The nature of the employment of wardens in the first hostels may suggest a more likely reason why many women were running hostels.

Wardens often visited the hostel from a nearby house, to collect cash and supervise the cleaning.

YHA did not own many early hostels and had often turned to local people to run the hostels, part time, while pursuing other work. The work may not always have been paid.

That may have appealed to a woman; married to a farmer, working as a village postmistress or caring for children, she could earn valuable extra income by selling teas, snacks and meals to hostel guests.

Early reports of youth hostels show wardens visiting the hostel from a nearby home to collect cash and supervise the cleaning or guests going down the road to the home of the warden to sign a register and pay for the night’s accommodation.

Whatever the reason for the dominance of women running youth hostels, by 1950 this feature had changed; more than 50% of those running hostels were married couples while the number of women running hostels on their own had dropped below 30%.

Increasingly married couples running youth hostels became the norm.

YHA was turning to owning hostels directly and appointing wardens who lived in hostels, rather than finding local people to run them.

Mostly they appointed married couples. The approach had been there at the outset – YHA employed a married couple to live at the youth hostel in Street and to run it – but after 1950 it became the common way of running hostels.

The numbers of women, on their own, running hostels fell, ending a time when they had been a dominant influence on the management of hostels and ushering in a time of married couples running hostels.

*The numbers of women running youth hostels during the war years rose even higher (66% in 1943) but this may have reflected the trend in British society of the time when, with men conscripted and overseas, women took up work that, in peace time, men had denied them.

I’m indebted to John Martin, YHA’s honorary archivist, for his work gathering together records of the names of those who ran youth hostels. His records are available through the YHA Archive in the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham. This article is based on analysis of those records and could not have been completed without them.

Image courtesy YHA archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

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