Desirable havens

Youth hostels found new roles in the pandemic. Some housed families at risk of domestic violence. Others housed the homeless or distributed food to their communities. The period echoes the Second World War when youth hostels also turned themselves to other ways.

Lands End Youth Hostel

The outbreak of the Second World War caused confusion. People feared that with so many gone to military service there would be no one to use youth hostels or to run them.

Almost immediately, about a third of hostels were “requisitioned”, legally taken by authorities for use by schools, refugees or the military, bringing a fear that with so few hostels still available there would be no point in carrying on.

YHA’s executive took the opposite view. G M Trevelyan, president of the association, said that “war makes the need for our service greater, not less.” [1] And YHA carried on with the hostels it had, and with the staff it had left to run them.

Hostels were requisitioned because they were close to the coast or in places where the armed services could use them. Lands End in Cornwall closed and didn’t operate at all throughout the war.

Lands End was typical of hostels, like Litton Cheney, Scarborough, Whitby and others, on or near the coast or in other areas of military importance.

One member wrote in 1943 that ‘The army and air force, schools, refugee committees and private folks, all thought Youth Hostels were desirable refuges, and our buildings got commandeered.

“Land’s End Hostel was taken, and a dozen kiddies of all ages from 4 to 14 were sent there unescorted, leaving the wardens to attend to all their physical needs and prevent them falling over Cape Cornwall. By the time billeting officials and their friends had finished with us, we only had a few isolated hostels left.’”[2]

The authorities requisitioned hostels for use by schools. Ravenstor in the Peak District was among them. In early 1939 Ravenstor housed Czech refugees fleeing the Nazis. When the war began it took 80 schoolchildren from Manchester, and from June 1940 the London County Council used it as a school. YHA regain the hostel in 1943. [3]

Many hostels operated throughout the war but the way they were used changed. As war went on, people from the armed services or war work used them when on leave. Some escaped the horror of nightly air raids, and the rocket attacks of 1944-45 by escaping to youth hostels for a break.

The rigours of war drew support to youth hostels from people who wanted to use them, most obviously at Tanners Hatch in Surrey where volunteers converted a ruined cottage into a youth hostel. [4]

Government also recognised what YHA was doing, and threw its support behind them, helping get hostels out of requisitioning. It paid for a member of staff to help in that work, and to promote youth hostels to the public as places for holidays.

An old film was edited and recut, and shown as Hostelling Holidays in factories and offices to promote YHA. Through the later years of the war, membership numbers rose, as youth hostels found a new role and hope, in adversity and war. [5]


Image of Lands End Youth Hostel courtesy YHA Archive, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham. Y050001-Lands End.

Open to All, 2nd edition, 2020 covers the period in a single chapter pp 131-143

You can read about youth hostels and the pandemic in YHA’s Covid Stories, published here

[1] YHA Annual Report 1939, also quoted in Open to All, 2nd edition p132.

[2] Lands End Historical Profile by John Martin, available on this site.

[3] Ravenstor Historical Profile by John Martin, available on this site.


[5] 153,751 members joined YHA in 1945, almost double the number of 1939.

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