Barclay Baron, first chairman of the Youth Hostels Association (YHA), in his later years recalled that YHA could not have chosen a more difficult time to start than 1930. His reflection of the beginning of youth hostels seems reasonable.
We have an impression of the years that followed, up to the second world war, as hard, very hard times of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and enforced idleness, the five evil giants the post-war Labour government set out to destroy.
The times between 1930-39 gave rise to the hunger marches, most famously the march from Jarrow to London. Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier confirms our picture of those grim times.
But Barclay Baron was probably wrong. The 1930s were not years of unending depression for everyone.
Youth hostels may have benefitted more from the times in which they began than they suffered.
Their success illustrates that youth hostel members were rarely from the poorest sections of society and more likely to be from those in full employment with limited cash, spare time and some leisure.
A bleak picture
The years between 1929-1931 hit British coal and steel production, ship building and cotton manufacturing and the numbers of men and women out of work in those industries soared as a result.
But the bleak picture of the cities, towns and people affected by collapsing industries can be distorted and by the mid-1930s even heavy industry saw some modest recovery.
Overall the economy was growing and “… the interwar years were marked by substantial economic growth” 
Even in the worst years of the slump, newer industries continued to grow, producing cars, plastics and artificial fibres, replacing old industries and bringing prosperity to places like the West Midlands.
A boom was underway building new homes and a revolution in retailing continued the growth of chain stores like Marks and Spencers. Service industries continued to prosper, increasing employment in clerical work for young people and women.
Standards of living were rising for those who had work and many survived the worst of the depression with only minor cuts in pay. With falling prices many may have been better off.
Additional purchasing power went on better food, clothing, housing and holidays too. “Civil servants, teachers, managers and clerks – enjoyed the real fruits of ‘affluence’ between the wars.” 
Catching the mood
Those in employment often enjoyed more leisure because of a shorter working week and the number of those entitled to paid holidays grew with “1.5 million employees … entitled to a paid holiday in 1925, rising to 4 million by 1937.” 
The Holidays with Pay Act 1938 extended the right to a paid holiday each year to over eleven million workers so that “most British workers had come to see [a holiday with pay] as their right.” 
Their holidays were modest, often only paid for through hard saving. “By late 1930s the cost of a week [of holiday] for two adults and two children was put at £10, a substantial sum when the weekly wage was around £3. 10s.” 
YHA’s second film, The Magic Triangle made in 1937, caught the mood with the story of a young couple saving for their annual holiday, the first they had ever taken.
More than two thirds of YHA members were under 26 years of age (68%) in 1938. The majority were men and roughly a third were women.
Beyond the breakdown of its membership by age and gender, YHA records give no accurate demographics. YHA aimed to be open to all and claimed amongst its members clergymen, MPs, architects, doctors and senior civil servants.
The YHA archive also holds at least 40 testimonies, records and holiday diaries of members from the period 1930-1950. Those I could consult during the COVID-19 lockdown showed that members worked as clerks and teachers. Some were students. Some were skilled workers in industry and one from Bristol worked in a bookshop.
This information is not enough to draw any detailed conclusions on the backgrounds of youth hostel members but it indicates that members were usually in work, in administration, services or retail with a few having skilled work in heavy industry.
Grapefruit and custard
They had money for hostel trips at weekends or for a longer holiday. They saved for their holidays. They spent money with care and carried food from home when they could.
To a modern mind their meals sound poor especially considering the distances they walked or cycled. “We cooked our omelette”, “Our breakfast was nothing, the remainder of our rolls … butter & lemon curd and coffee, also cornflakes: but we were rather hungry and wished we had eggs…” 
On a trip around Yorkshire, Margaret Southwell could account precisely for four eggs. “One went in the custard with 1/2 pt of milk tonight, 2 have been hard boiled for tomorrow lunch & we are sharing the 4th between us with the bacon for tomorrow’s breakfast”. 
Hilary Hughes, on a cycling trip from her home in Hampshire to the New Forest, recorded that she and her friend had “Just had our supper … Tomato soup Stewed meat and bread Grapefruit & custard.” 
Planning with care
Members planned their journeys with equal care. They took weekend trips, and sometimes their holidays, locally, with hostels reached on foot or, where the member had a bicycle, she or he cycled.
Local hostels could be reached by bus but for longer journeys, for holidays, members used trains. Unsurprisingly none recorded trips by private car, except Berta Gough and her trips by car were always on official youth hostel business when accompanying others.
Membership was 2/6 for those under 26 and 5/- for those over. A member usually paid a shilling for a night’s stay at a time when one night’s bed and breakfast in a temperance hotel in Windermere cost 6/- and when hotels in the same Ward Lock guide of 1928 quoted four to six guineas a week.
Whether they were affluent or not, what we can say about these early YHA members is that youth hostels meant the world to them and that they changed the world for them. At the end of her 1936 tour Hilary Hughes recorded that her first tour “was over and behind, leaving me stronger, fitter and bronzed, with wisdom that only experience could teach…” 
Her first youth hostel journey led to a life time of travel.
Fashion and leisure
Growing prosperity for key groups who would use youth hostels, such as young people, skilled workers and the lower middle classes, helped youth hostels in their early days.
Their beginnings also coincided with a time when young people had more leisure from shorter hours, a shorter working week and from paid holidays. Many probably were relatively well paid and could afford their increased leisure.
The dire unemployment and poverty in parts of Britain did not hinder youth hostels. Though YHA attempted to make its hostels attractive to the unemployed, through special programmes and lower prices, its offer was not widely taken up.
Rather than it being a difficult time to launch a new movement, YHA could not have begun at a better time, despite the hardship and the scarring the depression was leaving.
A time of increasing leisure and indulgence benefitted youth hostels more than austerity, but that was perhaps not a story Barclay Baron found easy to dwell on at a time of post-war austerity in 1950.
- The Rucksack, July-August 1950, p8.
- p109 Pugh, Martin, We Danced All Night, Bodley Head, London 2008
- p129 Ibid
- p233 Ibid
- p234 Ibid
- Hilary Hughes Y619019, YHA archive, Cadbury Research Library
- Margaret Southwell Y600019, YHA archive, Cadbury Research Library
Sources with catalogue reference numbers and image courtesy of the YHA archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
The photo is from Hilary Hughes’ album and diary, recording her 1936 cycling trip to the New Forest.