Butlin's Holiday Camps - a British Institution
Created | Updated Mar 12, 2010
There's something quintessentially English about going on holiday to a windswept seaside resort, being woken up bright and early by loudspeaker announcements about vigorous exercise and enforced hilarity and then going back home a week later. But for a country that was recovering from major social upheaval at a global level throughout the 20th Century, the concept of holiday camps was just the tonic to raise Britain's spirits... for a time at least.
Birth of an Empire
Some of the first holiday camps in the UK were the masterplan of entrepreneur William 'Billy' Butlin, who had seen some lakeside holiday centres during a visit to Canada during World War I and realised that they were something that could easily be introduced to his native Britain. Butlin selected the seaside town of Skegness, Lincolnshire, for the location of his first holiday camp, which was opened on 11 April, 1936, by celebrity aeronaut Amy Johnson1. The camp was, compared to modern standards, a basic affair. Guests would stay in self-contained prefabricated chalets2 with three meals a day served in the canteen.
As the camp's first week's intake of holidaymakers settled in, Billy was concerned that they tended to stay huddled in their own family groups and didn't socialise much. Many of them just sat around and appeared apathetic or even bored, despite the many facilities the camp offered. He turned to a man called Norman Bradford, a cheery fellow and a natural comedian who just happened to have been Billy's senior engineer for the building of the camp. After dinner one evening, Norman stood up and began cracking jokes to the enjoyment of the campers. Then he asked them all to turn to the person next to them and say hello. Having warmed the room a little, he began to give them all a run-down of the camp's facilities and encouraged them to try everything out the next day. By all accounts, the ice was broken and the socialising became more natural for all concerned.
Norman's style suited the campers, but Billy realised he'd need a legion of 'Normans' to maintain the jolly spirits of his campers. He asked one of his staff - Billie Ditchfield - to choose a nice, distinctive uniform for his new army and she came back with a bright red blazer and white 'slacks' (trousers), a colour scheme which has remained with Butlins ever since. Billie, along with Kay Berry and Norman himself, became the first of a long line of hard-working people who would run the camp, organise entertainment and activities, help campers to adjust to the Butlin's way of life and generally act as hosts for the holidaymaker's week away. And as they all lived in the same chalets, that just added to the whole communal aspect, all mucking in together to make sure everyone had a good time. Of course, thanks to their smart uniforms, they quickly became known as 'Red Coats'.
The Post-war Years
The camp was closed during World War II and taken over by the Royal Navy, and reopened on 11 May, 1946, just six weeks after the Navy had moved out. The newly-refurbished camp offered such facilities as a launderette, tennis courts, two swimming pools, a ballroom, theatre and sports stadium. Holidaymakers could also ride ponies or enjoy exercise classes as well as taking part in such inventive activities as 'Knobbly Knees' competitions, 'Glamorous Grannies' and 'Miss Skegness' pageants. In the surrounding area, the camp had small railways or monorails for people to travel round and round on, a post office (so that people could send 'tasteful' postcards to their loved ones back home that would no doubt arrive some days after the holidaying family had already returned), and on Sunday the church would provide a place of worship for those of a religious persuasion.
However, the camp also had communal bathrooms, wire fences and ear-shattering loudspeaker announcements throughout the daytime, which gave it the air of the wartime military barracks it once was - and the British public loved it! Such things as hot running water and three meals a day were rare luxuries in post-war Britain.
The Butlin's empire eventually expanded to nine camps; joining Skegness were Ayr, Bognor, Barry Island, Clacton, Filey, Mosney, Minehead and Pwllheli. All of them had similar facilities, brightly-coloured chalets and exotic-sounding attractions such as Skegness's 'Viennese Ballroom'. But Butlin's was no longer the only company offering such luxuries. Their nearest rival, Pontin's, offered near identical facilities at different locations around the country; the major difference was that their staff wore blue blazers - and were called 'Bluecoats'.
... and Fall
As Billy Butlin's success grew, so too did his tax bill and after leaving the country to become a Jersey-based tax exile in 1968 (despite accepting a knighthood from the Queen just four years earlier), his son Bobby took over the management of the Butlins Empire. But in 1972, an offer from the Rank organisation to buy the Butlins family out was accepted. The empire was sold for just over £40 million.
By the early 1970s, the British holiday camp industry in general - and Butlins in particular - were struggling against a change in the holiday trends of the British public. Since the late 1950s, Brits had more disposable income, and such concepts as foreign holidays were no longer the exclusive privilege of the rich and famous. Fortnights spent in camps on Spanish or Greek Islands became easier to afford and so more and more common, and not just for families but for young couples and groups of friends. And though much of the entertainment at these sunny villas tended to be of a similar (if slightly more bawdy) nature to those at Butlins and other camps, the one thing Skegness couldn't compete with was - inevitably - the weather. Despite modernisations (such as indoor bathrooms added to all chalets, and a reduction of the 'military camp' aspects) and the odd name-change, the decline in British holiday camps continued unabated.
In the early 1980s, Butlin's Mosney, Clacton and Filey camps closed for the last time due to falling profits. Barry Island was sold in 1986 (shortly before it was used as the location for three episodes of the similarly declining Doctor Who TV series). Just over a decade later, the Pwllheli and Ayr camps were absorbed into the empire of Butlin's sister company, Haven, also owned by Rank, leaving just Minehead, Bognor and the original Skegness as the last mainstays of the old Empire. After just two years, though, the parent company decided to cut their losses and sold up to Bourne Leisure to the tune of £650 million.
As for Billy Butlin himself, well, his exile to Jersey effectively put him in retirement from the entertainments industry. In 1972, he was awarded the Variety Club's annual Humanitarian Award for his services to the nation. He died on 12 June, 1980, due to stomach illness after a series of heart attacks. The epitaph on his gravestone reads 'Skegness is so bracing'.
'Hi De Hi!'
Taking its inspiration from Billy Butlin's empire, the BBC sitcom Hi De Hi was set in the fictitious holiday camp Maplins (the brainchild of the unseen Joe Maplin, who was not in any way based on Mr Butlin - honest!). Broadcast in the 1980s, but set in the late '50s and early '60s, the show took viewers on a nostalgic trip back to a time when Maplin's eager Yellowcoats endured slapstick humiliations and mini power games all for the entertainment of the happy campers. Featuring characters such as the Welsh vamp Gladys, rotund Northern comics Ted and Spike, and ambitious cleaner Peggy, many elements of the series have now been absorbed into British culture, not least of which the Maplins greeting, 'Hi De Hi' (to which you reply 'Ho De Ho!').