“Each member is required to carry out hostel duties as directed by the warden”*
What do you remember about youth hostel chores? Washing up or dusting down?
The daily chore was the centre piece of staying in a hostel from 1930 until at least the 1980s. Everyone swept, mopped, polished, scrubbed, or did any one of the other countless tasks a member did. It was called a duty, a chore, a job or a task.
Every morning members lined up to ask for and be given a task. At some hostels the tasks were set down on cards. At others they were painted on bits of wood or listed beside the hostel shop.
Everyone did one. It was an article of faith that no one ducked or avoided, an idea imported from Germany when youth hostels first began.
Having signed the registration book, paid the fee for a night’s stay, a guest handed over his membership card and, to get it back before leaving, did a chore. Anyone wanting to leave early in the morning, asked for a duty the night before and had their card returned then.
Today it sounds quaint and admirable, a notion of self help and participation that seems far distant and impossible.
A rough equality
Youth hostels were a voluntary effort when they began. Some hostels had no staff, just a caretaker warden who came from up the road, took the payment for a night’s stay and left. Cleaning the hostel, preparing it for the next night’s guests, had to be done by someone so the guests did it.
The work brought a rough equality to hostels. No one was too fancy to get their hands dirty, scrubbing or cleaning.
Sharing the work meant meeting fellow guests on equal terms. Boys learned to do what mother had done for them and men shared in domestic duties when the house was the woman’s world.
Some duties were fun. At Buttermere in 1978, one or two guests went to the farm at the bottom of Church Brow and fetched the milk. Guests asked for the privilege. They met the farmer or his wife, saw the cows being milked and walked back, carrying milk in churns, a picture of idyllic rural life in which they shared for a few minutes.
At Gidleigh, in Devon, the warden, Margaret, looked out for fit men who could cut the hedges around the hostel. Enthusiasts volunteered for work they thought needed doing, like sweeping out the cycle shed. At another hostel, run by former sailor, guests polished the brass door handles, knobs and knockers.
Duties kept down costs, the argument went, when I started work at the hostel in Cambridge. But when everyone had done their duties and left, we did the work all over again. We cleaned all the sinks, swept all the floors and vacuumed the carpets all over again. The ritual was becoming a tiresome waste of time.
Duties turned many wardens into petty dictators. They acted like ladies or lords of the manor and bossed guests around like servants. Jobs had to be done to the warden’s satisfaction and if they weren’t, had to be done again.
From being a tiresome waste of time, for new members they became a puzzle, part of other quaint rituals, like making your bed with a sheet sleeping bag, or serving tables at meal times.
Bemused, having paid to stay for a night, when asked to sweep the floor, do the washing up or wait on tables, guests smiled quizzically. Guests from the United States were never sure if their leg wasn’t being pulled.
Rising concern about hygiene made it more difficult to ask members to wash up or make packed lunches. Language became an insuperable barrier. Try explaining the concept of a daily chore to a French man who speaks little more English than I speak French, which is none.
The voluntary, participative nature of hostels vanished and with it an idealism. Duties became a necessary inconvenience, a way of paying for your stay.
Gradually chores and duties slipped away. They clung like apples on a tree for a while at the small woodland hostel where I worked at the end of 1970s. Sometimes with more work than I could do myself I depended on all the help I could get. But a gale of change in the 1980s swept them away.
Memories of those duties and chores are going. I would love to gather a record of them. What duties do you remember from your hostel stays? Were you asked to wash windows or fetch milk? Were you given jobs that seemed a waste of time or were you a warden who regretted their passing?
I’d love to hear what you remember. You can write your comments below or send them using the contact form. Whatever you send will make a record of the essential part of hostel life duties and chores were, a bit of social history, a reflection of a more participative time that we all once inhabited, not just in youth hostels but in our lives.
*the quote is from the 1979 YHA Handbook.
The image, taken at YHA Goudhurst, is courtesy the YHA Archive.