Cold showers, cycling and girls: 1950s hostelling at its best!

Last modified on August 19th, 2015 at 1:27 pm

October 24, 2013

Here at Hostelling International we do love a bit of nostalgia, so when we discovered that a former YHA (HI’s England and Wales network) member had put together a website full of photos and stories from his youth hostelling days in the 1950s and early 1960s we jumped at the chance to talk with him about his experiences.

John Rogers is now 74 and during his teenage years, along with West Ham YHA, he also belonged to Hornchurch YHA and the YHA folk dance and song group. Hostelling played a vital role in John’s life and even led to him meeting his wife Laurette.

The HI network has evolved over the years, as has YHA England and Wales, but what remains the same is that one thing holding hostelling together – people. For John, in the 1950s, YHA hostels introduced him to people of different classes. He says, ”Back then, being from East London, working in joinery works, you didn’t meet people that were different to you but going to the hostels gave us the chance to meet the daughters of doctors and surgeons.”

For John and many teenage boys, cycling was the only way out of London in the 1950s. The West Ham YHA Group was a cycling club in all but name. Initially, they were all male and the group did most of the things that cycling clubs did; racing each other to village-signs and county boundary signs, visiting cyclist cafes and completing timed challenges.

John (far left) with the West Ham YHA group

John and his fellow group members would cycle all over England and Wales stopping at YHA hostels along the way. John says, “Back then hostels were rather rickety but cheap and cheerful and that was all part of the fun. For us, hostels were all about a love and appreciation of the countryside too.”

High Roding was one of John’s favourite hostels

Much to the young lads’ delight, the group didn’t stay male-dominated for too long – girls soon arrived as walkers, with the majority quickly swapping their boots and rucksacks for bicycles. Love found John when a friend persuaded him to come along to a new members’ recruitment day in the summer of 1959. One of these newbies was John’s future wife Laurette, and by Christmas, the two were officially an item.

Laurette and John at a folk song evening

John’s life-long friend and fellow YHA member David Twitchett wrote an article for The Fellowship of Cycling Old Timers magazine, which joked about the YHA standing for Your Husband Assured as it was a good way for girls to meet potential husbands as they had proved they could help around the house after carrying out chores around the hostels! You can read David’s full article here.

HI has been around since 1932 – back then HI was known as the International Youth Hostel Federation (IYHF). Founded by German school teacher Richard Schirrman, his vision was to provide young people with cheap accommodation enabling them to travel more and interact with other teenagers that they wouldn’t usually get the chance to meet. In the early days hostels were very basic with guests having to help with chores during their stay such as washing up and sweeping floors.

Christmas party at High Roding YH, late 1950s

In 1959 an IYHF rally was held in Germany and this celebration brought together teenagers from all over the world with more than 2,000 YHA groups in attendance. John was there along with his fellow folk dancing group and even met Richard Schirrman who was apparently dressed in Bavarian clothes and a big hat! John says, ”It was one big party, with everyone getting along and having fun.”

Fast-forward over 80 years and not even Mr Schirrman himself could have predicted what the hostelling movement would become. Today, hostels are more popular than ever and are now not just for ‘youths’ but people of all ages, from solo travellers to families. Gone are the days of having to complete chores and take cold showers; instead guests today can expect high-quality accommodation with fantastic facilities all still at affordable prices.

This is a hostel today – Grinton Lodge, Yorkshire

John and Laurette continued travelling and staying in hostels well into the 1960s, visiting Denmark and Norway on John’s Lambretta. They also visited Sweden with their two sons in 1981 and stayed in hostels, John recalls, “We were very impressed with how Swedish families used hostels and how advanced hostels had become.”

Laurette in Norway, 1962

John made life-long friends from his hostelling days and even went to a reunion in 2000 where more than 30 past members attended.

John, Laurette and David, in May 2013

In today’s modern world hostelling further enables guests to meet a wide variety of people from all over the world. Bear in mind that friendships (and perhaps even romances) formed from shared experiences and adventures are what tend to stick – just ask John.

Take a look at our amazing range of hostels worldwide, who knows, perhaps in a few decades time, HI will be talking to you about your best hostel moments.

If you have any hostelling stories from yesteryear, we’d love to hear from you! Please leave us a comment below.

Special thanks to John Rogers and David Twitchett for taking the time to talk to us and providing us with lovely photos.

5 Comments. Leave new

And I have my best remembrances for the youth hostel in Finningham. A very small house. And I’m very curious if it still exists. It was really small, with a kind of winding staircase in it. Beautifull, I loved it immediately, and sure the old landlady has to do with that. But nowadays very probably impossile anymore.
In those days one ought to say “father/mother” to the “owners” of a youth hostel, ha, ha. I don’t know I did say this to this woman by the way.
In the fifty’s I had no other possibility than to cycle from Holland through Belgium and then from Dover to the area Holland to join an International Working Camp between Wisbich and Kings Lynn. I still dream very nice about this holiday. The way back with a severe lack of money I stayed for one night at the Salvation Army in London. They were very helpfull and for me it was also quite an experience.

Loved this report. I first went youth hostelling when a friend and I cycled from Wellington to Foxton as 16 year olds (I’m surprised our mothers let us!!) We stayed in the then Foxton hostel (now non-existent) and started on the way to Wanganui. We got a lift on a vege truck with a friendly young man! and stayed in the Wanganui hostel for a couple of days. Oh the adventure but we decided it was too difficult cycling and stayed in Wanganui rather than continue on to New Plymouth. Bikes weren’t the streamlined models of today!
Cora Wilding first set up hostels in NZ and I have always been a hosteller, although less so now.

I backpacked thru Europe in 1973 staying in hostels. Yes, cold showers (pay for hot) and wait outside the doors until they opened at 4pm. I remember entering one female dorm and washing my feet in the sink in the center of the room, only to be told later it was a bidet! To this day, I still don’t understand why it was surrounded by 4 sets of bunk beds…
I’m 60 and I still stay in hostels, especially in California!

I travelled to europe back in 1970 and 1971, staying a YHF hostels for 5 months on the continent and than staying at the Saney Guruji International hostel in Holland Park in London. I worked in London so I could see the rest of UK. It was the best time of my young life. Meeting friends from all over the world. Unforgettable experience. My bible was Frommers, budgeting on $10.00 a day. It cost me $2000.00 which included my ocean crossing from canada and return airfare from London.

I am 65 now and still hostelling. My latest venture was going to Australia and making new friends,My age group and older, are still travelling in full force.. they have awesome hostels there. Planning on going again with my daughter and seeing more of that beautiful continent.

I have a photograph of Jerusalem Farm YH on a post card. On the back of the card is written the date of my visit – 17th Nov 1951, at which time I would have been 14 years old.
Unfortunately I have not been able to paste the photo with these comments.
If anyone visited about this time no doubt you will remember the gypsy caravan parked outside and Diane !
It was a very basic hostel but that was all part of the enjoyment . Now they all seem to be five star.

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