Finding our future in our past: 90 years of YHA

In YHA’s 90-year history, Coronavirus is the most severe crisis ever to face YHA (England & Wales) and led us to close the entire hostel network for the first time

James Blake, Chief Executive, YHA (England & Wales) writes, much remains uncertain and there will be some difficult choices ahead. However, this has only reinforced my view that we must use our history to inform our future.

We have faced adversity before. In the Second World War, less than 20 years after being established, a third of YHA’s hostels were requisitioned for soldiers on leave, ambulance training camps, makeshift schools, emergency meeting rooms, feeding stations, refuges for the sick, the vulnerable, refugees and those made homeless as a result of air raids.

Half a century later, YHA had to close the majority of hostels for a summer as the countryside battled against Foot and Mouth disease.

At the time YHA’s leaders in both crises faced upheaval that brought into question YHA’s long term future. But in both cases YHA emerged stronger: the need for our mission enhanced; the case for organisational reform more urgent.

Right now, history feels like it is repeating itself. In the short term many of our youth hostels have been repurposed to provide support for key workers or those who are homeless.

In the longer term, YHA will have a key role to play in the national effort to rebuild society. And that’s when our new strategy – ‘Adventure. For the first time and a lifetime. Our 10-year strategy for connecting people and places’, inspired by our history’ – will be even more important.

We are fortunate to have a well-preserved archive, housed in the Cadbury Research Library in the University of Birmingham, and lovingly brought to life by two dedicated volunteers. My visit there early in my time as CEO had a profound influence on the development of YHA’s new strategy.

At that stage YHA was facing a crossroads. Our previous strategy had focused on putting YHA on a firm commercial and operational footing. It had been a real success. But there was a sense amongst staff, members and guests that something was still missing. Where should our focus be as a national charity? How should we balance income and impact? How loud should be our campaigning voice?

Over the years we’d been seen variously as a countryside organisation, an environmental charity, a youth body or less charitably an imitation of Travelodge or Premier Inn.  And, of course, all had an element of truth. Views differed as to what was the right way forward. Our 90-year history, and especially our foundation, provided a guide.

In 1930, we were born of social reform. A determination to improve the loves and life chances of young people drawn through rapid urbanisation to the slums of the cities, but increasingly lacking access to activity, adventure, fresh air and countryside.  We were always a social enterprise – relying for the majority of our income on trading our hostels

Our first Chair talked about our ultimate goal being ‘the health of body and mind’. And in our first National Council in 1930 it’s clear how close our links were to schools, to youth work organisations, to Government and to organisations working internationally. 

Our history was also a guide to the way we work. We were never a radical campaigning organisation, but we didn’t lack boldness. YHA’s first CEO, Jack Catchpool, used to organise working parties of volunteers who would come together to build youth hostels from scratch. In the 1930s, he sailed to New York on the invitation of some American friends, and was granted an audience with President Roosevelt, who agreed to help set up youth hostelling in the United States, and to work on a plan for international travel without passports for young people. Imagine flying to Washington and getting a similar audience with President Trump!

Of course. no organisation should be imprisoned by its past, and there will be aspects of many charities’ history that feel uncomfortable or even inappropriate, when judged with hindsight today.

But looking to our roots can give us an important guide to our direction and our style, and precedent is a powerful tool to overcome any doubters.

So, we are pressing ahead with YHA’s new Strategy. Plans and timetables to deliver it will of course change. But as and when we emerge anxiously from lockdown, the case for our vision – that every child can access the benefits of adventure, for the first time and a lifetime – will be even more urgent.  In YHA alone, more than 200,000 young people will miss out this year on the chance for a life changing stay. Sadly, in many cases this will be the only chance in their childhood to see the sea, visit a museum or roll down a hill. 

As we emerge from the ravages of COVID-19 and look forward to the next 90 years of YHA, we will redouble our efforts to fulfil this vision and play our part in the recovery of society.

Find out more about BETA member YHA (England & Wales) here