Chapter 11: TEENAGERS AND STUDENTS: POST WAR HITCHING
I think it is fair to have entitled the last
chapter 'the hitch-hiking revolution'. By the end of 1945 no one over
kindergarten age from Caithness to the Solent could be ignorant of the
custom, except perhaps such as lived so remote from society that they hardly
realised there had been a war on at all. The most unlikely people, even
the martinette-ish Queen Mary, had accepted that they ought to temporarily
share their cars. More amazing still, when one considers the background
of the twenties and thirties, were some of the people who found themselves
asking for lifts. At the time of Munich what businessman or office worker
would have believed you, had you told him he'd be thumbing to work every
other morning a bare three years later? And yet in 1940-41 they did in
their droves. Mums from the East End hitching into the city centres to
shop, even pensioners trying their hand at it. If you poke into the past
of many a sedate, middle aged man today you'll find he's hitched -- in
the forces during the war -- and never since.
But for an upheaval to merit the name of 'revolution' it must have permanent
consequences. The end of the
last chapter which sets out the decline of lift giving in the latter
part of the war might appear to indicate that the practice was doomed to
near extinction. Of course hitch- hiking in the immediate post-war period
was, in numerical terms, minimal compared to the 1940-41 boom. There was
no longer any need for people living in the suburbs to hitch in to work
once public transport was back to more or less normal. Regular trains and
long distance coach services regained a measure of reliability and thus
many, who had before hitched out of absolute necessity, no longer did so.
The few car owners who had kept their vehicles on the road through the
six years of war felt they'd given enough lifts to last them a lifetime.
Anyway, as far as a lot of them were concerned, wartime lift giving had
been a matter of patriotism and once peace came they no longer got that
warm feeling inside when they picked somebody up. Most of the people who
had had their cars laid up during the war and now got them back on the
road were far too delighted with the luxury of individual travel after
years of crowded public transport to be bothered stopping for thumbers.
The real revolution was in the minds of the hundreds of thousands who
had hitched during the six years of war and of people who were teenagers
in 1945 and took the practice of hitch-hiking absolutely for granted. Many
of the young men and women who had learnt to thumb thanks to Hitler and
Co., were in the course of the following fifteen years to become drivers,
either as employees or as owners of their own private vehicles. It was
these people as lorry drivers, commercial travellers, executives or private
motorists, who were the regular lift givers in the post-war period. By
the early sixties, thanks to the swift expansion of car ownership, they
had certainly come to overwhelmingly outnumber the older generation of
pre-war licence holders.
The end of the war brought a wave of student hitch-hiking. An excellent
case history of this is Ian Rodger's book, A Hitch In Time. During
the war Rodger was evacuated to a little village between Worcester and
Hereford. His first hitch-hiking, at fifteen, was to get himself to Hereford
for the thrill of creeping into A films. Before the war was over he had
joined the RAF but too late for much action. Not however too late to hitch
when on leave. After being demobbed he became a student at Durham University
and regularly hitched down the Great North Road to get home to Surrey.
Many of his fellow students lived down South and a rivalry developed as
to who could thumb the journey quickest. A Durham-London record was established
of 7 1/2 hours.
This then was the beginning of large scale student hitch- hiking, which
today is one of the most prevalent forms. The demobbed, who had hitched
as a matter of course in the Forces, simply carried on when they went to
University. (The odd, individual student had hitched prior to 1939, but
students are not remembered as a noticeable hitch-hiking category by professional
drivers on the roads before the war.)
The main part of Rodger's book is devoted to a description of his first
hitch-hiking journey through rubble-littered Europe. The book is a major
piece of documentation and gives a vivid picture of what it felt like to
be one of the first wave of peace time invaders of Europe. The teenagers
and students who hitched out from Britain in 1946-47 set a travel trend
which has lasted for the last quarter of a century. The new 'continental'
hitch-hikers were probably the first sizeable group of English people who
unashamedly used thumbing as a way of travelling cheaply on holiday. Up
till 1946 hitch-hiking had to some degree or other been associated with
necessity. The need to get a job if you were unemployed, the need to get
to work if public transport had packed up, the extreme psychological pressure
to somehow get to the football match of the year, the necessity of getting
home double quick on a 48 hour leave pass, etc....
The 'continental' hitch-hikers, instead, set off on their summer holidays
in the hope of seeing Europe and enjoying themselves. Theirs was a new
kind of tourism. Naturally it aroused a pretty violent reaction in the
older pre-war moulded generation, who had just about got round to accepting
lifting as a pis-aller in time of dire distress, but who found it intolerable
that anybody should actually hitch from preference. Before we look at the
feelings of the old, let Rodger speak for his contemporaries:
Suddenly you could go anywhere. After six years of war the frontiers
were open and the armies had gone home. The bridges were still broken and
the shell shattered masonry still lay crumbling in the streets. There was
dust everywhere, but slowly it was beginning to settle.... Gradually I
realised that places like Florence and Venice actually existed outside
the war's time scale and that there were in such places relics of the civilisation
which had been fought for so brutally.... It became an obsession to get
away from the island and see this legendary Europe.... We were like prisoners
on release, excited but uncertain. We were almost totally unsure of our
destination. To get to France or Holland or Italy seemed enough in itself,
to cross the Channel at all was a victory.
Once on the Continent Rodger found a kind of young community of the road
-- students from all over non-Axis Europe bumped into each other and formed
transient groupings as they thumbed along the roads to the Mediterranean.
There were hitch-hikers from as far North as Sweden and Fiinland, all bound
like Rodger, to find out about the Europe access to which had been denied
to them for six long years. The only people who did not fit into this new
international hitch- hiking community were the few Germans who had the
courage or insensitivity to show their noses outside their own frontiers.
The hitching fraternity dossed where they could, in youth hostels, on
the backs of transcontinental lorries, in bus termini, along the beaches.
At this early stage, though, they did not come in great numbers and except
at log jam spots for hitch-hiking like the Fontainbleau obelisk on the
road from Paris to the South, people were not made particularly aware of
them. Speaking of the Cote d'Azure Rodger says:
We were not especially numerous and because hitch-hiking was more
difficult if we congregated, we slipped along the coast like Blake's stranger;
silently invisibly and alone. It was thus hard for people in those Riviera
towns and villages to realise we were there.... Our numbers had not yet
made us a public scandal or aroused the rage of hoteliers who saw potential
customers in the rolled blankets on the beaches....
The older generation back home had not yet realised that their young compatriots
were 'scrounging their way round Europe'. But eight years later by the
mid-fifties the middle class British were once again taking their holidays
in Europe and motorists began writing irate letters to the papers about
the scandal of hitch-hiking abroad. In May 1954 the Daily Telegraph
ran an 11 letter correspondence on the subject. It led off with this thunderbolt
from a Mr Faulkner:
British tourists in France have again been humiliated by hordes
of cad compatriots (euphemistically styled hikers) who shamelessly display
the Union Jack on their rucksacks and fall to a fortnight's sponging on
their embarrassed hosts. On the road to Amiens I heard a group of these
shabby mendicants, both male and female, screaming after a French motorist
who had denied them a free ride into the city.
But the paper also printed letters defending the practice of hitching abroad.
On May 17th an Oxford student, Peter Evans, explained that since he was
studying modern languages summer trips to Europe were essential. He goes
Jobs during the vacation are a necessary supplement to my scholarship,
but cannot subsidize a trip abroad. Hitch- hiking would seem to solve to
an extent my problem, as indeed it has done.
It is interesting that the Telegraph, which at that time must have
shared the most conservative and old- fashioned readership in the country
with the Times found itself printing almost as many letters defending
or condoning hitch-hiking as damning it.
Holiday thumbing on the continent during the decade following the end
of the war was not confined to university students. School boys and post
school the Teenagers had been bitten by the same bug as their seniors.
A correspondent in the Times Educational Supplement complained in
One hears of adolescents getting about France by hitch- hiking and
from the appearance and conversation of some cross-Channel fellow passengers
last summer I am certain that our continental neighbours cannot be very
happy about the new type of tourist.
But the following week (23.2.51) the paper replied to this letter editorially,
suggesting that the whole point of travelling was freedom and adventure,
and that since young hitch-hikers tasted of these, their journeyings whatever
the shortcomings, had distinct educational value.
So far we have looked at student and teenage lifting abroad, but numerically
certainly there was a great deal more of it happening at home. Scouts took
to it enthusiastically and a 1951 Punch cartoon series shows a single
bescarfed and begartered brat stopping a car with a caravan in tow. In
the last picture of the series you see what looks like a whole troop of
scouts rushing out of the bushes by the roadside and into the unwary motorist's
caravan. This kind of publicity worried the scouting authorities, indeed
they had been uneasy about hitch-hiking for several years. Writing in The
Scouter back in 1946 'Gilwell' had said:
What has happened to our scouts that every time a car passes they
must start thumbing it for a lift. I know it is a habit that has grown
out of the war, but it remains a bad and objectionable habit and one, surely,
that scouts should not indulge in.
But semi-official pronouncements did not stop the hitch- hiking surge in
the movement. Many of Britain's half million or more scouts (under 15)
and scouters (over 15) went on thumbing, in and out of uniform. So in Autumn
1950 the scouting authorities solemnly added regulation 349 to the Rule
Book. This said:
Hitch-hiking by scouts and scouters is prohibited except in cases
But the practice went on and in the sixties The Scouter printed several
letters openly disagreeing with rule 349. When I interviewed an official
at scout headquarters in 1968 he told me:
Practically speaking we don't mind if boys hitch-hike out of uniform.
The post-war wave of teenage hitching surprised and caused resentment not
only among crusty scout masters and Daily Telegraph correspondents.
Lorry drivers too, sometimes got fed up with protruding thumbs. One such,
writing in the road haulage workers' magazine, Headlight (April
1953), summed up what quite a number of waggon drivers and working class
people certainly felt:
I suppose many of these youngsters who scrounge lifts have caught
the habit from the Forces who were glad of this form of travel to get home
for short spells during the war. There is no excuse for it now. Most of
them actually set out with the avowed intention of seeing the country for
nothing. They carry a tent, (in the summer) and after their free ride,
and quite often free meals at the driver's expense, camp out for the night,
again for nothing. When I was a youngster we had to save our coppers if
we wanted a day at the seaside, and when we went we really appreciated
it, even though it was just for a day. These present day youngsters seem
to want all they can get for nothing, and take it for granted that lorries
and private cars are on the road especially for their benefit. If they
cannot afford train or bus fares then they should stay at home.
Lorry drivers objected to certain thumbers on class grounds. They felt
they were subsidising young people who were much better off than themselves,
and resented it. Headlight of May 1953 expressed precisely this
be giving a lift to such a nice, pleasant young chap -- a student --. You'll
have put up with him quite politely for perhaps a hundred miles or so,
and you'll have bought the cups of tea on the way. Keeping the conversation
going you'll ask him if he's had his holidays yet, and where he's going
etc.... When you hear that next week he's flying to Singapore for a month
(Daddy's in the army there) and the total cost of the holiday's going to
be £150, which, as he will explain, is rather a lot out of a chap's
pocket money, then I expect you'll stop and kick him over the nearest hedge.
Just think of it, Les, -- £150 -- more than you'll see in one lump
in all your life, and he's stopping a poor old lorry driver to beg a lift
from York to London!
By the end of the fifties hitch-hiking had become an accepted way of getting
from A to B for teenagers and students. Some people in both the working
and middle classes objected to this normalcy but their opposition had no
marked effect. The post-war teenagers and students were able to hitch in
the numbers they did precisely because the war, which had taught them to
hitch-hike, had taught the new generation of drivers a willingness to offer
lifts. Thus drivers in their thirties and forties picked up teenage hitch-hikers
without the attitudes of people in their fifties and sixties having much
more than a peripheral influence.