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More than 100 years of hostelling

How it all started

The founder of the youth hostel movement was a German teacher, Richard Schirrmann. He was a believer in learning by direct observation and often took his classes on excursions and hiking trips. The hiking trips could last several days, and Schirrmann and his pupils would find accommodation in farm buildings.

On one of these excursions, on 26 August 1909, the group was caught in a thunderstorm. They finally found shelter in a school building in the Bröl Valley. The headmaster let them use a classroom and a farmer gave them some straw to sleep on and some milk for their evening meal. The storm raged the whole night. While the boys slept, Schirrmann lay awake. That was when he had an idea…

"The schools in Germany could very well be used to provide accommodation during the holidays. Villages could have a friendly youth hostel, situated a day's walk from each other, to welcome young hikers."

That stormy night was when the worldwide youth hostel movement was founded. In 1910 Schirrmann wrote an essay setting out his ideas for "Volksschülerherbergen" (hostels for pupils of ordinary state schools).

"Two classrooms will suffice, one for boys and one for girls. Some desks can be stacked away thus freeing space to put down 15 beds. Each bed will consist of a tightly stuffed straw sack and pillow, two sheets and a blanket… Each child will be required to keep his own sleeping place clean and tidy."

In 1912 the first real youth hostel opened in the old castle of Altena. The castle was restored and equipped according to Schirrmann's design, with two dormitories with massive triple-tier wooden bunks beds, a kitchen, washrooms and a shower bath.

The youth hostel movement grew rapidly. By 1913, already 83 youth hostels and 21 000 overnights were recorded. By 1921 the number of overnights stays had already reached 500 000. By the summer of 1931 there were 12 youth hostel associations in existence in Europe, operating a total of 2 600 hostels, but there was very little contact between the associations. This all changed on 20 October 1932 when the first international conference was held at a hotel in Amsterdam. It was attended by representatives from 11 hostel associations: Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, England and Wales, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Switzerland.

The conference marks the birth of International Youth Hostel Federation – the organisation today better known as Hostelling International.

Richard Schirmann

 

Sign at the Castle Altena Youth Hostel