From its founding, the Youth Hostels Association (YHA) of England and Wales made great use of individuals and communities to open and run hostels on its behalf. These hostels, often known as adopted hostels, created vital links with local communities and rural life for hostels and their visitors.
It’s an approach that helps make YHA an early example of sustainable tourism, especially at this time when local communities often feel overwhelmed by visitors.
But when it was able, YHA began switching its approach and buying property. According to records  it first purchased property at 9 Swan Hill, Shrewsbury on 3 March 1934.
YHA, run through up to 19 devolved and autonomous regional groups, established a trust to hold property on behalf of the regions. A trust offered protection against legal and financial liabilities for the regional groups, run as they were by enthusiastic amateurs with little experience of management and low appetites for risk.
But as the trend to owning property continued, as the organisation gained experience and achieved established status, purchasing its own properties became the way forward and undermined its involvement in local communities. The number of adopted hostels dwindled from at least 104 in 1938 to less than half that number by 1950. 
War and peace
By 1950 despite the war, YHA’s annual handbook listed 296 youth hostels, 32 more than in 1938, achieving that growth with increasing numbers of hostels owned freehold. 
Youth hostel trust records show that buying these properties went in three waves. During the first wave from 1934 to 1939, the YHA Trust on behalf of the regions, purchased nearly 40 properties freehold.  The declaration of war brought property buying to an end and in 1940 the trust bought no properties.
In a second wave, from 1940-45, the trust purchased 51 properties, a surprising figure in conditions of total war. The end of war caused another decline, presumably as everyone struggled to adapt to the new conditions of peace, and the number of properties purchased dropped from 20 in 1944 to five in 1945.
The challenges of peacetime soon abated and a further wave, up to 1950, swept 56 properties into the YHA domain, a wave that continued into the future.
Ownership of property demonstrated the increasing wealth and swagger of a growing organisation, riding a modernist tide of increasing demand for leisure.
By 1950, YHA owned freehold at least 46% of its total hostels. In 1938 that figure had been 9% and the percentage of adopted hosels had dropped from 39% in 1938 to 15%.
Despite a decline in the overall numbers of adopted hostels, regions continued to open adopted hostels after the war. The Gloucestershire, Somerset and Exmoor regional group opened three new adopted hostels between 1945 and 1950, the South Coast group opened two, and East Anglia and the North Midlands each opened one.
But other regions had abandoned the approach by 1950 in favour of their own fully controlled properties. The Merseyside, West Riding and Wear Tees and Esk regional groups opened no new adopted hostels after 1945.
By 1950 every region owned more freehold properties than in 1938. London, Lakeland, Merseyside, North Midlands and Devon and Cornwall regional groups led the way, holding the most properties freehold, not surprisingly as these were the largest groups in terms of hostels they operated, on their way to being the most financially successful and busiest of YHA’s regions.
But the Oxford regional group, with only five hostels, was as striking because, by 1950, it owned every one of its properties with none leased or rented and none adopted.
Support and more
Regional groups did not purchase hostels entirely from their own resources. At least a quarter of hostels purchased by 1950 had received financial support, in one form or other.
In some cases the funding received was more than the cost of the purchase. One hostel at Ashton Keynes, near Swindon in Wiltshire, purchased for £950 received £1,100 of funding from other sources.
Funding could be substantial. The Ministry of Education provided provided £2,000 towards the total cost of £4,800 for purchasing the hostel at Capel Curig in North Wales and the Carnegie Trust provided £240 more to equip the hostel. 
Between 1934 and 1950 funding for the purchase of hostels came from sources including the Ministry of Education, the King George Jubilee Trust, the Special Areas act, HM Treasury, the National Fitness Council and the Carnegie Trust.
Individual charities like the WA Cadbury trust also gave support as did donors such as Esther Clothier Bright (Crowcombe), CV Thomas (Lands End) and PJ Clarke, a leading figure from the Merseyside group and later YHA president, funded at least two hostels.
Funding from such a wide variety of sources demonstrates how youth hostels and their modernist pursuit of leisure had garnered widespread social support by 1950.
The reasons for YHA’s shift from its early laudable use of local ownership need to be explained. Pragmatism, the pursuit of standards and control by YHA, and the reluctance of individuals to offer property after the second world war may offer some explanations. But more clarity is needed.
And the puzzle remains as to how the regional groups afforded buying property on such a scale. More work is needed to fully understand the finances of regional groups underlying the shift to ownership in these years.
If the reasons for the shift to property ownership and the financing of it can be understood, important lessons for us in our efforts to develop community involvement and sustainable tourism may be learned. And it’s also worth remembering that YHA maintains an approach of using adopted hostels and working with communities to this day, though the method is now called its Enterprise scheme. 
Image at the top of this article shows guests outside Jevington Youth Hostel, an adopted hostel, open from 1935-46 near Polegate, Surrey, courtesy YHA from the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
As always this article relies extensively on information from John Martin’s Historical listing of all youth hostels available here courtesy the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
- Y700001-1 Property book 1934 – 1968 held in the YHA Archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
- Numbers are given for properties with a known adopted hostel status, but records are vague and the number was probably higher.
- YHA also increased the number of hostels it held on short term tenancies and through leaseholds, but records for these are often uncertain and I have relied on the certainty of ownership of properties bought freehold. Confusing and changing property terminologies also mean I have had to exclude leasehold property. In many cases leasehold was long-term ownership which could be bought and sold, differing little from freehold but in other cases leasehold referred to short term tenancies. On this basis property in which YHA held long term interest and “ownership” is probably higher than I have allowed.
- Regions did not vest all their property in the YHA trust. Some regions chose to also own their own property. Records for these were less available to me at the time of writing.
- YHA owes a debt to Jack Catchpool, its energetic first national secretary, and his drive to gain state support for youth hostels. He believed YHA was doing the work of the state and should therefore be supported by the state. He dreamed of community ownership of youth hostels and of local pride in a community’s own youth hostel, a more European approach to the ownership of youth hostels. You can read more in my biography of Catchpool, Youth Hostel Pioneer.
- While writing this, YHA New Zealand announced it will close all its managed hostels. Its franchised hostels, adopted hostels in modern terms, will continue.
Leave a Reply