Today hostels cover the world. You can find them in cities, in the countryside and beside the sea, on every continent of the world. Official and unofficial, hostels, backpackers, bunkhouses, call them what you will, they’ve conquered the world. In the UK the history of independent hostels starts with the YHA but quickly sees the independent sector grow into the network we have today.
One man began them. Richard Schirrmann, a school teacher in Germany, invented them. Caught in a thunderstorm when walking with his pupils in 1909, they sheltered in a school.
While his pupils slept, Schirrmann lay awake, listening to the storm. He dreamed of a chain of simple shelters, spread across the countryside, where young people might stay.
He opened the first permanent youth hostel in Germany in 1912. His idea thrived, hostels boomed and, despite the horrors of the first world war, spread beyond Germany.
Hostels opened in Britain in the late 1920s and the official youth hostels association opened its first hostels in 1931. With a simple guidebook and easy to understand pricing, official youth hostels dominated travel by young people for the next 50 years as they spread around the world.
But by the 1980s they were losing their appeal. Young people disliked their rules and regulations. Their old fashioned facilities put off young people.
Australian youth hostels felt the changes more than most, as more and more young people travelled there. By 1990, two-thirds of those staying in Australia’s official youth hostels came from overseas. New hostels sprang up to accommodate the new young travellers. In one city alone, in Cairns, Queensland, 46 hostels, independent and unofficial, opened.
Independent, profit-orientated, entrepreneurial backpacker hostels competed with official youth hostels. They offered double rooms, mixed dorms, swimming pools, discos and cheap meals. They allowed or sold alcohol. They sold bus tickets. They packaged trips and tours and proved popular.
The independent concept found its way back to Britain where independent hostels also began to flourish, offering greater freedom to young people. For a while they were called pirate hostels, a reference to the pirate radio stations of the 1960s which competed against official stations, but the name didn’t stick.
They became known as private or independent hostels. Official youth hostel associations invested and reinvigorated themselves too so that both sectors have benefitted.
Sam Daley, a young graduate and youth hostel member, came across a small number of independent hostels during her travels around Britain. She kept a list of those hostels she had used or heard about and supplied it to others when they asked.
In 1993, having learned word processing while writing a thesis and waiting for her results, Sam produced a small booklet listing independent hostels. The Independent Hostels Guide began.
The first listing of 17 hostels has grown to 400 and a bigger network than the official youth hostel associations. Often small, locally owned and run, independent hostels have met a demand for diverse budget accommodation with a wide mix of hostels where anyone can stay.
When the official youth hostel organisations sold hostels, enthusiasts bought them, keeping some old and special youth hostels going, like Thorney How in the Lake District and Bridges in Shropshire. Both had opened as youth hostels in 1931, among the first in Britain. The Old Red Lion at Castle Acre, another ex-YHA Hostel and one of the hostels from that first Independent Hostel Guide, is still open and offering a warm welcome to guests from all over the world.
Here you can see a list of ex youth hostels in the Independent Hostel Guide. They and all the others in the Independent Hostel Guide owe their origins to Richard Schirrmann and the hostel movement he began.
You can read more about hostel history along with a biography of Richard Schirrmann here. There are also two books available on Amazon “Open to All – how youth hostels changed the world” and “Richard Schirrmann – the man who invented youth hostels”.