The finest ever

A visit by Tom Fairclough, one of the founding members of YHA, to Germany in 1929 is well recorded. That visit inspired him to found the first youth hostel group in Britain at the end of 1929.

Less known are earlier visits by others, that help to show the widespread, grassroots nature of YHA at its beginning.

The earlier parts played in the beginnings of YHA by members of Toc H, the social service charity, and particularly by Barclay Baron, who became YHA’s first chairman, emerge from recently digitised Toc H records.

In Germany

The German youth hostels association, DJH, issued memberships to 785 trampers, and 38 leaders from England in 1929. Toc H reckoned that a quarter of those had been for their members [Toc H Journal Feb 1930].

Germany was recovering from the turmoil caused by defeat in the First World War. Inflation was so great that Barclay Baron reported anyone with cash had run to use it as its value fell daily.

A youth movement, begun in Germany before the war, gathered impetus among young people. They determined not to repeat the mistakes of their elders, and aspired to live more simply, to celebrate nature, culture, and fellowship in tramping tours.

Germany’s youth hostels benefitted as their use grew massively. They recorded half a million overnight stays in 1921. By 1924 two thousand youth hostels were open there.

The finest solution

In England times could be hard too, making holidays and trips abroad difficult for many. But for the “average Englishman”, who complained he couldn’t afford a holiday on the continent, youth hostels in Germany offered a solution one Toc H member declared.

He wrote in the Toc H journal of May 1928, about the finest holiday he ever had, going up the Rhine, walking in the Taurus mountains, and among the lofty peaks of the Black Forest, meeting delightful Germans, and sleeping in youth hostels, all for £8 for 16 days.

Barclay Baron was the editor of the Toc H journal. In August he also had a wonderful week walking with a group of five Toc H members, nine Germans and a couple of Americans.

They stayed in a “Jugendherberg” on the Sauerland, slept in double bunk beds, fed well on plain good food, and tramped “through the valleys, and fir-woods, over the hills and high-lying downs”. [Toc H Journal October 1928.]

An emphatic need

Baron returned with praise for the spotlessly clean hostel, the hospitality of the house father who ran the hostel with his family, and the young people staying in it. “[T]here is emphatically need and room for a similar development in England” he wrote. He was already in touch with people about it. [Toc H Journal October 1928.]

Some of those he talked with, in the East Midlands, organised a series of visits for Toc H members to Germany in 1929. Six parties and 137 participants went from June to September. Their visits would have coincided with the one by Tom Fairclough. [Toc H Journal November 1929.]

Baron returned to Germany in August with boys from four English schools, who were entertained by girls and boys from a co-educational German school. The confidence of the girls surprised and impressed the less enlightened English boys.


Visits to Germany by members of Toc H, and the reports they brought back of youth hostels helped drive the formation of a British youth hostel movement.

When a meeting in London convened in March 1930 to discuss starting youth hostels in Britain, members of Toc H attended, and Barclay Baron was called on to talk about youth hostels in Germany. He reckoned later that his speech caused him years of hard labour as he was elected as YHA’s first chairman, a post he held for 20 years.

He oversaw the growth of YHA nationally, and fulfilled his ambition to see something like German hostels in England. Through that time he continued as an active Toc H member and editor of its journal.


The image shows Barclay Baron, centre, at YHA Hartington Hall, 1934, at an international youth hostel meeting. He is flanked by figures from the international youth hostel movement, Heer Deelen, right, from the Netherlands, and Richard Schirrmann, left. Schirrmann opened the first youth hostel in Germany in 1909.

At least two of the first youth hostels in England were set up by Toc H members, at All Hallows in London and Hope, in Derbyshire.

Evidence from the Toc H journals continues to show that at its foundation YHA was a grass roots effort, from many people in many places, much of it very localised. Research into the local and community aspects of this endeavour continues.

Thanks to Steve Smith for his work, making the journals of Toc H available on line. They can be found here and an account of their development is here

One thought on “The finest ever

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  1. Hello Duncan, Pleased to see that you are still journalistically active, even tho you have abandoned the best National Park in the Country!
    Pity w e never made that second cup of tea>

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