This photo fascinates me. It’s one of the early hostels in the West Country but it looks more like a shack in the Wild West. Perhaps it’s the casual way the man in the photo leans against the building or something to do with his neckerchief. He looks like he might be hiding a gun or at least be about to commit a crime.
But he is entirely innocent and the reality more prosaic. A nature writer by the name of Reddie Mallet  owned the hut close to the Exeter to Bude railway at Thorndon Cross near Okehampton.
Mallet was generous, “a man with a keen appreciation of the work of the Youth Hostels Association, with a full understanding of young people, [and] a great appreciation of the dangers of a modern industrial civilisation”. 
His hut at Thorndon Cross and many other sheds and chalets littered the countryside in the 1920s and 1930s, owned by people trying to escape cities for the countryside.
Mallet gave his hut to the new youth hostels organisation in 1935. Everything about it seems crazy, ramshackle and jerry built. Other structures among the first youth hostels were similar, including a half built hut on a steep hillside and another set of huts in the woods above the Teign Valley. Best known is probably Black Sail hut in the Lake District’s Ennerdale.
The new Youth Hostels Association in the south west of England found success through its huts, shacks and chalets.
A chain in the west
The Plymouth and District regional group of the Youth Hostels Association (YHA) held their first meeting in Plymouth, at the time a crowded city with few open spaces, its flourishing commerce based on shipping, fishing and a Royal Navy dockyard.
Jack Catchpool, national secretary of the new YHA founded the previous year, encouraged the first supporters and drew together friends and fellow Quakers for their first meeting on 7 May 1931 at Swarthmore House, a Quaker centre and meeting house in Plymouth.
The group enjoyed quick success, despite starting later than many of YHA’s regions, opening their first hostel on 6 June at Bolberry Farm, in a small thatched cottage and hut near Bolt Head, South Devon.
By September five more hostels had opened, at Gara Mill, near Slapton, South Devon; at Brimpts Farm, Dartmeet, up on Dartmoor with “glorious views over the moor”  and at Week near Dartington. Two hostels around Plymouth, at Laira and Cawsand, opened in 1931 but were not included in the first handbook of hostels.
A Cornish Dream
With 78 members at the end of 1931, members of the group determined that if they were to extend and develop their work “more members must be enrolled”. 
They aimed to develop a chain of hostels “to complete the circle of hostels around Plymouth”  but the pair of hostels they had opened, outside Plymouth, soon closed. The group also wanted to open links with the neighbouring Bristol group’s hostels in Somerset.
The following year they opened ten hostels but only two were in Cornwall. When one of the group, Charles Allen, suggested they find more properties in Cornwall the chairman, headmaster of Plymouth Grammar School, Frank Sandon, retorted that such efforts “would be a waste of time and travel…” 
Youth hostels, at their beginning, were associated with big distressed, industrial cities and long, wet walks on moors and hills. But visitors came to Cornwall for the seaside and sun, not hills, and big industrial cities were miles away.
Sandon thought Cornish folk would be wary “about youngsters, especially mixed parties, staying overnight together in barns and other buildings.” [Ibid]
But Allen disagreed and persuaded the group to let him go scouting around Cornwall for possible hostels. He and a friend, Frank Kerswill, went out at week-ends and returned with reports that people with the required barns and buildings were interested!
It was now only necessary for the committee to give its blessings to get things going and hostels at Triggabrowne, Polruan, St Mawes, Kennack Sands (above, also known as Kuggar) and Port Quin were soon set up. All were in farms, in barns and above cowsheds. Youth hostels in Cornwall were launched.
Frank Kerswill had introduced Charles Allen to youth hostels on a cycling trip to the hostel at Street in Somerset. Allen hadn’t been impressed by the chalet, Britain’s first formal youth hostel – he thought camping was more fun – but he tried again on another trip to the Pool Mill hostel at Newton Ferrers which had just opened.
He enjoyed that more. The hostel was “delightfully situated … on the Membland Estate, at the head of the river Yealm” in a converted carpenter’s workshop approached through the farm yard. 
Allen remembered the hostel for its friendly atmosphere and from then on, because of the low cost, the possibility of meeting other young people and the chance of further adventures, he became an enthusiastic supporter of hostels.
He was honorary secretary for the Plymouth group and then a member of YHA’s national executive. Youth hostels began to take so much of his time that his cycling club made it clear he was no longer welcome, leaving him free to devote his time to youth hostels.
After the war he became the regional group’s first full time and paid secretary, a position he held until his retirement.
Allen left his memoirs and a wonderful picture of early hostels and their days in Devon and Cornwall in a spiral-bound typescript .
He acknowledged how important the people of the region were to establishing its hostels. He gave generous tribute to the many Quaker supporters of hostels, including Jack Catchpool, who had set up their work in the west country.
Others helped including a couple who were always ready to transport work parties or goods to hostels. A family of four young women, the Gards of Plymouth, dragooned boyfriends into helping too.
They found a hostel in Bude where the region was keen for a hostel and, with the help of other members from Plymouth, set up a hostel there that was so successful a larger building was needed. They found that in a former workhouse and two of the sisters, Loui and Alice, ran the hostel.
Enthusiasm “really got [YHA] on its feet in the West Country” Allen declared. [Ibid] One member convinced his parents to open a hostel in their boarding-house, and another induced her uncle to build a small hostel in the grounds of his house in Ottery St Mary where a hostel, in a single storey building, opened in time for the Easter weekend of 1936.
The two Gard sisters ran that hostel too. With a soft spot for boys, they confessed they would have liked to have had an all-boys hostel.
Members in the area also gifted property. Mr Mallett’s hut at Thorndon Cross was one of those gifts. His hut, as a wooden building, presented many problems lit as it was with oil lamps and candles and without a resident warden, but it survived the risk of fire, having housed evacuees during the war, until it was sold in 1946.
Dr Ransom Pickard, chairman of the region, gave another wooden hut, sometimes called a chalet or bungalow, at Steps Bridge in Devon above the Teign river. He was a keen walker, a GP and eye surgeon and had been mayor of nearby Exeter. He loved walking on Dartmoor and was said to have never worn a rain coat and never owned a car.
Farms, food and flowers
As well as huts and shacks, many early hostels in the west country were in farms or farm buildings. Agriculture had been in decline in Britain for years, leaving buildings vacant that, helped by opportunistic and willing owners, could be converted with little effort into rudimentary places to stay.
The West Country had also enjoyed a long tradition of “farm” tourism and Catchpool and others encouraged the approach as a way of opening youth hostels quickly.
In 1932, nine out of ten hostels in Devon and Cornwall were in farms or farm buildings. By 1938, half of the total of 22 were in farms.
Farms provided idyllic surroundings for visitors and farmers and their families brought youth hostel members closer to rural life.
One hostel at Lelant farm, near St Ives, run by a Quaker couple, overlooked fields of polyanthus, flax and other flowers “too numerous to mention”. [Ibid]
“Adjacent to the hostel was a large flower packing shed, which was always a source of interest to members, especially the males, because a number of young ladies were employed with the packing”. [Ibid] They were always eager to help ready the flowers for shipping by train to London.
Guests endured rough conditions. They washed in the river at Gara near Slapton in Devon, because that was easier than carrying water up a steep hill to the hostel.
They also enjoyed the abundant food of rural life: cider tastings at Ebford, large roast dinners and cream tarts at Gidleigh, and Devon clotted cream at Pool Farm.
We know most about one of the farm hostels, at Kennack Sands, from memoirs written by the owners’ son, Courtney Rowe, and found at Coverack youth hostel in October 2013. The hostel began in a barn, partitioned into two dormitories with a nearby hut for a common room.
“There was no electricity and no mains water or sewage … Lighting, cooking and heating was by oil-lamps and oil- stoves; washing was in a bowl … with water carried from the nearby well. Toilet facilities were a bucket under a seat in a small corrugated-iron privy.” 
In 1937 the Rowes expanded their hostel into a permanent and purpose built house with flush toilets, though all water still had to be pumped by hand as there was no electricity on the farm.
Hostellers ate in the thatched farmhouse where the standard of food was generous, including breakfasts of eggs, bacon or sausages, with plenty of home-made jam, marmalade and toast.
The hostel continued until 1952 when the Rowes needed the hostel building as a house for a helper on the farm.
Success and the geography of the west country’s long peninsular brought problems. In its long distances, finding and overseeing hostels from Plymouth proved difficult. Keeping in touch with wardens, particularly at the more distant hostels, created constant difficulties for committees, partly solved when the region set up a regional sub-committee in Exeter in 1932. Another followed for Plymouth and the region renamed itself the Devon and Cornwall Region in 1934.
The sub-committees appeared to provide less of the social activities of sub-regional groups in other regions and instead had a clear operational role, finding, running and overseeing the hostels in their area.
The annual report of 1938 recorded 733 members for the region, almost ten times the number of members in the first year but the group remained one of the smallest in YHA.
The London region, YHA’s largest, had more than 28,000 members and only the regional groups in Wiltshire and East Anglia were smaller than the Devon and Cornwall group.
But, in contrast, only the Lakeland and London regional groups had more hostels than Devon and Cornwall, an astonishing achievement with so few members, proving the success of Charles Allen’s idea for hostels in Cornwall.
In 1932 only two hostels out of ten were in Cornwall but by 1938, almost half of the group’s hostels, nine out of 22, were in that county.
The group was fairly unusual amongst the early regions as it only had its first ‘fully controlled’ hostels, ones that it owned or ran with its own staff, as late as 1938; Exeter (1938), Salcombe (1938) and Land’s End (1939).
The group still had its eyes on completing a chain for the west country. Its most immediate problem was thought to be “the provision of new hostels to fill gaps which remain in our chains” with hostels anticipated at Lands End, Bedruthan Steps, Brigham and Kingsteignton,  with further possibilities at Lyme Regis and Boscastle.
The group’s success was built on ramshackle, jerry built foundations, on the enthusiasm of Charles Allen and the many who assisted him. The association would turn its back on some of those foundations as it sought more secure properties, higher standards and a better funded future.
But for that time in the 1930s, in Devon and Cornwall, the ramshackle and jerry built had become an outstanding and popular success, ready for the boom in holiday making that would follow the second world war.
You can read more about some of the youth hostels mentioned above in John Martin’s ten profiles so far competed of the youth hostels of Devon and Cornwall here. John’s profiles do contain far more detail and more lovely images than I’ve included here and are recommended.
- Differing accounts are given for the name of the donor of Thorndon Cross. I have stuck to the name in the Annual Report of the Devon and Cornwall Regional Group 1938 Y215001-38-01.
- Annual Report of the Devon and Cornwall Regional Group 1938 Y215001-38-01.
- Frank Sandon, Headmaster, Plymouth Grammar School, quoted in Y900003 Gara Mill, thanks to John Martin.
- Y215031 1931 Plymouth and District Regional Group 1st Annual Report.
- Y410012 Memoirs of Charles Allen.
- Now in the YHA Archive, thanks to Roger Gaffney who passed the document to John Martin. Y410012.
- Y0500001 Kennack Sands Youth Hostel
All sources (with catalogue reference numbers) and images courtesy of the YHA archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.