Breaking a mould

The original idea of youth hostels had been for small groups in big cities to open chains of youth hostels stretching into the countryside. A group based in Oxford took that further by opening a hostel in its own urban base, reshaping the idea and origins of hostels.

YHA’s first handbook in 1931 showed towns and cities where regional councils had already formed and others were planned, with territories mapped for each group. Oxford was among those planned.

In December 1931 a provisional committee began establishing a group in Oxford. The chairman was Dr HT Gillett, a local GP, Quaker and social reformer, later Mayor of Oxford, making the group another of those with Quaker connections.

Meeting at the city’s YMCA, the YHA regional group for Oxford and District formed on 3 February 1932. YHA figures, like William Temple, the Archbishop of York and a YHA vice president, and national chairman, Barclay Baron, gave their support.

As the crow flies

By then at least 14 other groups had formed. The Oxford group squeezed into a crowded map, fitting a space left by surrounding groups based on Winchester, London, Rugby, and Bristol and Gloucester.

The Oxford group offered no plans for a chain of hostels, as other groups had done.

Probably reflecting the way it fitted among existing groups, it referred simply to its territory and its borders, “along the Ridgeway on the Berkshire Downs as far as Ermine Street, … to Cirencester, thence by the Fosse Way to Stow-on-the-Wold, … to Banbury, … the Chilterns, and along the watershed … as the crow flies to Goring.” [1]

Its area was a complex mix of wolds, downs, open country and fertile river valleys, of different identities and landscapes.

A second group started up in Oxford, at the university, and complicated matters further, making the original group “a sort of twin” but there was “such complete harmony between the two that in many ways they [were] as one.” [1]

The group opened its first youth hostels in time for Whit weekend in 1932, with one in a Victorian farm house near Cassington, about five miles north west of Oxford, and another on the Market Square in Watlington.

The hostel at Cassington closed soon after, not unusually for no clear reason. Hostels in those first few years could close almost as soon as they opened.

Further south, plans for a hostel near Swindon also moved swiftly. In July 1932, Sir William Beveridge, architect of plans for the national health service, officially opened a hostel at Bishopstone, east of Swindon, convenient for the Ridgeway path and the Vale of the White Horse.

The hostel was in a thatched house with a dark common room and a kitchen was across the yard with the men’s accommodation above where, two years later, a visitor recalled there were still no beds, just mattresses on the floor. The hostel endured until the war. [2]

Schemes possible and impossible

The group opened other hostels, at Shipton Downs and near Banbury, with voluntary help while the hostel at Watlington moved next door on the market place and, the following year, to new premises in an old brewery.

In 1935 the group took the hostel at Stow-on-the-Wold from the Gloucester and Bristol group and the Oxford University group opened their own hostel at Chilton, near Didcot in Berkshire.

After the loss of the hostel at Cassington, the Oxford group turned its back on the surrounding countryside and focused its main effort on opening a hostel in Oxford. The group offered no explanations. The idea must have seemed obvious to them with the numbers of visitors wanted to stay in Oxford.

The group pursued many possible and impossible schemes including an old isolation hospital and a house in Iffley. The search was protracted. Funds were short.

When a suitable building, unoccupied for four years, in Jack Straws Lane, came on the market, with funds from the Carnegie Trust and the Cadbury trust and a loan from its own bankers, the group bought it.

Necessary repairs and renovations included a new boiler, new lavatories, three new showers and electric lighting. Volunteers decorated. Donors, including university colleges, gave tables, chairs and other useful furniture but when the hostel opened for Easter 1936 it was still incomplete.

Adapting and adopting

It was an unusual approach. Few other regional groups had opened hostels in their urban bases.[3] Though a youth hostel had opened in London in 1933 in the Alexandra Palace, the London regional group had refused involvement, preferring to concentrate on hostels in the countryside surrounding the capital that its members wished to visit. It left YHA’s national executive committee to run the hostel.

Groups like the one in London opened their hostels to make a way for their members to venture into the countryside, to escape their crowded urban centres, as the Merseyside group did in North Wales.

That the Oxford group and others opened hostels that would not be of use to their own members was an unexpected shift from the original template for opening hostels.

The growing association was showing itself capable of breaking its own templates, of adapting to different circumstances and providing for the differing needs of young people in their travels, wherever that might be, unhindered by dogma.

Notes

  1. Y260001 1932-02 Annual report of the Oxford and District regional group
  2. The youth hostel at Bishopstone was outside the Oxford group’s boundary, an anomaly solved when one of the Oxford group’s founding members, Dick Knapp, formed a Wiltshire regional group in 1936 taking the hostel with it. Knapp succeeded Jack Catchpool in 1950 as YHA’s national secretary, a position he occupied for 17 years.
  3. York and Cambridge as urban bases for regional groups were other exceptions.

Sources with catalogue references and images courtesy the YHA archive at the Cadbury Research Library.

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