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 7½ 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 on:
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 February 1951:
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 of emergency.
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 feeling:
You'll 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.