Herbert Gatliff

Herbert Evelyn Caulfield Gatliff was born at Stafford on 21 September 1897, the son of the Reverend and Mrs J S Gatliff. His father was vicar of Alveley in Shropshire and in later years of Breinton, west of Hereford. He had one brother, Frank.

He was educated at The Elms, Colwall, a prep school and then went to Rugby, where in due time he became Head Boy of School House (i.e. top classical scholar). It was at Rugby that he came under the influence of the Reverend H H Symonds, who was the Head of Classics and a formidable figure in later years in the emerging social movement for access to the countryside and its protection.

Symonds went on to be Headmaster of the Liverpool Institute, a boys’ independent school, and devoted an increasing amount of his time to the campaign for establishing National Parks, and especially to the protection of the Lake District, his over-riding passion. During the 1930s coniferisation of the uplands became a burning topic, and the afforestation of Ennerdale by the Forestry Commission became a cause celebre, bitterly opposed by those who walked the fells. Ultimately an agreement was struck with the Forestry Commission taming any imperialistic ambitions they may have had. Symonds was a leading light in the campaign. He also helped pioneer the growth of youth hostelling, and donated important farm land in the Duddon Valley to the National Trust. His book Walking in the Lake District was a classic in its day, and is still an excellent read, with its affectionate attention to detail, its whimsy and its classical asides. HHS was Herbert’s mentor and Symonds’ book has much in common with Gatliff’s own style.

Gatliff went on from Rugby to Balliol, where he was contemporary with Harold Macmillan and others who became well known in public life. Leaving Oxford he took a commission in the Coldstream Guards, quite an uncharacteristic episode in the light of his liberal and pacifist views. He was affected by a sense of debt to friends and school fellows who had gone to the Great War and been killed in their youth. But his career as a soldier (it was, of course, wartime) was short lived. The records show that having been gazetted on 15 January 1917 he relinquished the commission on 1 July 1917, on account of ill-health, and “was granted the honorary rank of Second Lieutenant”. Happily the ill-health does not appear to have over-shadowed his subsequent life, perhaps attributable to his outdoor pursuits and a wiry frame.

He then entered the Civil Service where he became an Assistant Secretary in the Treasury, serving there for many years until moving to the new Ministry of Town and Country Planning, set up by the Labour Government after the Second World War.

As a civil servant he seems to have settled in some ways to a conventional professional career, marrying Lois, subsequently a hospital almoner, on 20 September 1923, and living in a modern house built to his own design at Chipstead in Surrey, which was then beginning to succumb to suburbanisation.

During the 1920s Herbert Gatliff’s interests began to develop in the realm of left-of-centre ideas. These were the days when the Surrey Hills at weekends were alive to the sound of music of liberal sociologists and philosophers, with all sorts of programmes for a ‘Healthy New World’. He found camping and walking in the countryside (‘hiking’ was the current buzz word) much to his liking. Whilst never a specialist in natural history, bird watching or archaeology, he had a passion for landscape, which he often described in a pungent phrase, much repeated.

In turn this interest brought him into contact with a whole range of voluntary societies with idealistic objects for the environment. The Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings were grandparents to this movement, having started in Victorian times, and the Commons Society pioneers were midwives to the National Trust. Herbert became a keen member of both. In 1926 the Council for the Preservation (now Protection) of Rural England was formed, and active Ramblers’ Federations from all parts of the country, but notably in the north, came together in 1935 to form the Ramblers’ Association.

But the new movement which was to play the greatest part in the rest of Herbert’s life was the Youth Hostels Association, founded in 1931 with the aim of ‘to help all, especially young people of limited means, to a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside, particularly by providing hostels or other simple accommodation for them in their travels’. This was in essence camping with a more or less fixed roof, and it struck a dominant chord with Gatliff. He soon joined, though not at the very outset, and became an active member of the fast growing London Region, largest in the country. In later years he joined the National Executive of the Association. His financial background in the Treasury made him a ready choice as Regional Treasurer, and it was his rich and romantic presentation of the regional accounts to a YHA Annual Meeting which drew the writer’s fIrst interest in YHA affairs, which was to become also a long lasting love affair.

The National Trust also attracted Herbert’s attention and he was invited to join the Estates Committee, at that time largely composed of landed grandees. But this did not inhibit him from expressing the ‘voice of one’, and he had pointed views (from a Treasury bench) on the financial implications of land holding and its management. For the Trust establishment he was a rare non-conformist, but they had the wisdom to listen to him and benefit from, if not always to follow, his views. He espoused especially the cause of the lone lightweight camper seeking to bivouac in remote lonely places in the hills.

Indeed Herbert increasingly joined groups with which he was in sympathy, to be followed by his injection of heterodox ideas, often expressed forcibly by letter as well as in well rounded oratory. In the end it was sometimes said that his £5 annual subscription to a society represented a net loss to them because of the aggregate cost of stamps and time taken to reply to his many suggestions!

Although always an individualist Gatliff was very sociable and found the Southern Pathfinders (later the Croydon YHA Group, the first of many to be established) much to his taste. His reflections on ‘not going cosy’ and the philosophy of rambling are referred to below.

For the bodies who had Herbert Gatliff as a member their first, and time consuming task, was to decipher his spiky idiosyncratic handwriting, which became quite famous. A facsimile copy is shown on this webpage. The letters were invariably written in small triplicate copy books bought at Woolworths, so that the carbon copy could be retained for future reference. All incoming correspondence was carefully stored in comflake packets.

Almost certainly much wisdom went undeciphered, but once the decoding had been mastered there was always something meaty to consume. It was not uncommon to receive by fIrst post a letter marked ‘URGENT’ describing a critical phase which had been reached in some problem or campaign; and in the second post a shorter letter saying that the issue now seemed even more vital than earlier in the day!

Gatliff’s remarkably individual mind and outlook became equally well known in Whitehall. It was not uncommon to find a rucksack and primus stove in his office, and possibly a bicycle propped up against the wall.

Official memoranda were often adorned with disrespectful or pungent marginal notes, and some of these have raised eyebrows since the 30 year ban on official documents has passed. Thus he was much involved with the Ramblers’ Association’s campaign for public access to all open country, but as a civil servant his marginal notes showed him heretical to those with whom he had worked in the voluntary movement. In some quarters his ‘alternative view’ made him regarded as a maverick.

For Gatliff often espoused the minority cause almost on principle, especially when he disliked or distrusted the establishment view. Yet he was equally at home working out a compromise in words. In youth hostelling affairs, when its Council decided to impose a nominal extra charge on those travellers who made use of the members’ kitchen to cook their meals, Herbert was bitterly opposed in principle, as was the Northumberland and Tyneside Regional Group. So he proposed to pay from his own pocket the sum which they would have received from the levy so that the Geordies could persist in their dissent.

It became increasingly clear that Gatliff was not popular with establishments in both governmental and voluntary circles. But fortunately there were always those around willing to listen to his heresies and admire the way in which he put them forward. Maurice Mendoza, who retired as a civil servant in the early 1980s writes of his earliest days as a Junior

“Although I did not meet Herbert Gatliff face to face I have not forgotten his name since ; I first saw his characteristically spiky signature over fifty years ago. I was then a clerk ~ in the Office ofWorks and he was an Assistant Secretary in the Treasury. The Civil Service was, of course, much smaller than it is now and Treasury control of expenditure was much more detailed. The Gladstonian ethos of saving the candle at both ends was then still with us. I therefore often had to draft letters for my seniors to seek Treasury authorityfor even minuscule increases in rent or to explain a cost over-run on a building project. Gatliff’s replies were a revelation. They were lucid and succinct; he was an absolute master of the one paragraph response that said everything. But it was the style of his writing which made the greatest impression on me. At a time when most official correspondence was rotund and not a little pompous Gatliff’s was not only as natural as if his words were spoken, but also enlivened by humour. Somehow he left a sense ofpersonality through the medium of the most official correspondence.”

The setting up of the new Ministry of Town and Country Planning in the late 1940s was of obvious interest to Gatliff and he became a Regional Officer for the North, based in Leeds. He later returned to London and took early retirement in 1953.

For some years he had been living alone, since his marriage had broken up. One of his daughters became a doctor, the other a health visitor. The latter, Liz, is still a member of the Gatliff Trust. They had been educated at Dartington in Devon, a notable progressive school, though it is said that their journey there was a bit uncertain and they may have ended up at the Quaker Sidcot School.

Whilst living at Hampstead Garden Suburb and working in Whitehall he was a familiar sight standing in a Northern Line tube train with Homburg, umbrella and rucksack, perhaps in deep discussion with a fellow countrylover. Later he moved to Kensington.

Having shaken off the shackles of officialdom Herbert Gatliff was free unhindered to pursue his chosen causes in the countryside. Not that he did not have other concerns, notably for small struggling social charities working for disadvantaged groups and cherished churches. The schedule of his papers in the Bodleian Library at Oxford gives a clue to some of these: the Society forAutistic Children; Birthright; Ely Cathedral; St Ives Help Centre; Friends of King sway Community Centre; Friends of Lewes; Border Bothies Association; Society for Psychical Research; Richmond Fellowship; Prevention of Addiction; Release; Disablement Income Group and many more. He always claimed that this was the most rewarding part of his life.

But the discovery and appreciation of the countryside remained paramount. And just as he readily parted company with the establishment, so by way of corollary he was critical of his own generation and saw most hope in the new thinking of the young. This led him to hit on the idea of awarding each year prizes for essays by school pupils of youth hostelling trips they had taken. At his own expense these were reproduced, circulated to hostel common rooms and those judged best awarded cash prizes. One schoolboy from the East Midlands showed an outstanding fluency for words and subsequently became a distinguished academic in the field of forestry; others produced short pieces or poems, some of which Gatliff promoted to the level of Major Insight and were much invoked by him. This was a novel experiment which continued for a number of years.

In his enthusiasm for special causes Gatliff sometimes failed to realise that others with more mundane preoccupations might not effectively carry out his wishes. He provided funds for special purposes and directions to YHA on their dispersal. The funds produced a rate of interest, but not always the necessary other ‘interest’ to effect their proper use. So the pump-priming aspirations were not always realised.

All these attempts to finance defined purpose funds had their limitations, because it was not easy to persuade others to see the .inspiration so clear to Gatliff. So in 1961 he decided to set up the Gatliff Trust, to perpetuate his various interests, in particular the enjoyment and care of the countryside in England, Wales and Scotland by the young, especially through youth hostelling. As founder, he provided all the basic funds (relatively modest because Gatliff was not a rich man) and donations have since been received from public and private sources, especially in response to specific appeals.

The Trustees, the original ones all known to the founder over very many years, have tried to continue grants to a number of societies as they believe Herbert would have wished, but the major business has been concerned with sustaining a chain of small crofters hostels in the Outer Hebrides. Gatliff had a special affection for the islands ever since being introduced to them by John Cadbury of the chocolate from and a former Director and Chairman of the YHA.

Small hostels had always appealed most to Herbert, whether in the Devil’s Punch Bowl, Surrey, Mid Wales or the Pennines, but the romance of the west coast of Scotland beckoned even more strongly. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s he made the same trip to the Western Highlands and Islands each September always ending at lona. The Scottish YHA (separate from England and Wales) were very conscious of the Gatliffian pressures, cajoling, admonitory and congratulatory, concerning the fascinating little hostels on the coast of Wester Ross, such as Achininver, Craig and Inver Alligin. He loved all of these. But the Outer Islands were virtually virgin territory. This was a momentous opportunity to establish simple hostels.

The aim of the Gatliff Trust hostels is twofold: to offer basic overnight accommodation to young hostellers exploring ‘the edge of Europe’ , many of them from the Continent and the Antipodes; and by generating some income to help sustain the crofting economy.

These little hostels have certainly evoked a remarkable reaction and enthusiasm from the cognoscenti who have found their way there, as is evident from many of the log book entries. There are now four of these hostels, at Rhenigidale, Isle of Harris, Howmore, Isle of South Uist (found by Herbert), Berneray, Isle of North Uist and Garenin, Isle of Lewis. There have been hostels on Scarp, Isle of Harris and Claddach Baleshare, Isle of North Uist and it is very likely that there will be a hostel on Barra in the not too distant future.

In 1988 a separate Gatliff Hebridean Hostels Trust was set up, with some Scottish based members to join existing Trustees, to concentrate on the hostel work. Supervision of the Outer Hebrides hostels has never been easy from addresses 600 miles to the south of them. There remains a basic problem of securing the right level of publicity so that the traveller is aware of the hostels, without their becoming overrun by success. The Scottish YHA operate hostels at Stockinish, Isle of Harris and Lochmaddy, Isle of North Uist and cooperation between the two organisations over the years has been very good. Both the SYHA and the Gatliff hostels appear in the International Youth Hostels Federation’s Handbook

Herbert Gatliff’s last years in Kensington were somewhat sad. The running of the Hebridean hostels would necessarily pass to younger trustees and although he had strong views on policy visits these were beyond his capacity. He moved from his hotel accommodation in Lexham Gardens to a room off Kensington Church Street, where he lived in a condition of Dickensian privation. Surrounded by racks of cornflake packets as filing boxes, there was a gas ring and a warm welcome for his many visitors who might be offered a meal of spaghetti or baked beans and animated debate on countryside politics.

But he was not unhappy there until his health failed. His letters continued to pour out, with recipients ranging from schoolboys to cabinet ministers. If they lacked a reply he was not usually discouraged, but occasionally it was otherwise. The flow of advice, comment and advocacy was always worth reading (if you could) even if policies were not always practicable.

When at the age of 78 his health began to fail there was also a progressive loss of mental activity. This was not senile dementia, but a degree of repetition and loss of memory which in anyone else would have gone unnoticed, but for someone with such a good mind the deterioration was the more marked. Removal to a succession of nursing homes and hospitals was not a happy period, as he felt the power of self determination was slipping from him -something he prized all his life. The letters were still full of passion and despair alternating with’optimism that ‘the young would get it right’. At the end of a battle with the doctors who had been reluctant to agree to the tablets he favoured for treatment of his eczema is a triumphant P.S. ‘ All parties have now agreed to the Anti-itch pills!’.

Herbert Gatliff died on 19 April 1977 and was buried in the family grave at Breinton overlooking the river Wye, next to a delightful corner of National Trust land, and a truly English eccentric had rejoined the English countryside.

Gatliff had his faults: he could be exasperating in his obstinacy, wheedling in his negotiating for compromise. But his eyes were on the same stars as his many friends and others who knew him. Those who found inspiration from this remarkable character would like to pass on something of their testimony and experience for the young youth hostellers and campers whom he believed ‘would get it right’.