Billy Butlin spotted two things in the 1930s:
First, holidaymakers were routinely turfed out of their boarding houses and not allowed back in until teatime. So whatever the weather, they had to entertain themselves all day – and pay for it.
Second, the long-running campaign to give workers holiday pay had so much momentum in Britain at the time that it would soon succeed.
So in 1936, Billy bought a turnip field in Skegness and turned it into the first Butlin’s holiday camp.
As Billy predicted, the Holiday with Pay Act was passed in 1938. One of Butlin’s first slogans was, “Holidays with pay, holidays with play”.
Guests could go back to their chalet whenever they liked and have three meals a day and free entertainment from 35 shillings a week.
The chalets were not luxurious. They had a bed, a wardrobe, and a sink with cold water (hot water was available from a nearby tap which you collected in a jug). There was no heating, no carpets, and the bathrooms were communal.
But the luxury came in the size and quality of the entertainment.
Everything was onsite – swimming pools, theatres, gardens, children’s playgrounds, bars, shops – and 10,000 happy holidaymakers could be housed at once.
Butlin’s success enabled him to expand further until he ran a total of nine camps, including Clacton, Pwllheli and Bognor Regis. In 1946, Fred Pontin had opened a rival firm, beginning with a camp in Somerset.
Success was almost immediate once Billy realised that people needed encouragement to enjoy themselves and invented Red Coats.
From the first “Wakey, Wakey” at 8 am over the famous tannoy to the last “Goodnight campers” at midnight, there was fun for every generation, organised and supervised by the Red Coats.
Red Coat “Aunties” and “Uncles” would organise the children in Beaver Club. A favourite was dressing up as pirates and chasing the hated Captain Blood.
And Butlin’s was all about joining in. The list of contests available was extensive – Miss Lovely Legs, Holiday Princess, Picture of Health, Grandest Grandad, Knobbly Knees, and Glamorous Grandmother, to name just a few.
Children could be left in the chalet at night because patrols went around listening for crying. If they were concerned, it would be announced over the tannoy, and the chalet number would be flashed up in the main entertainment buildings.
Dancing in the lavish ballrooms was at the heart of the evening entertainment.
Three top British pop acts started at Butlin’s: Cliff Richard made his professional debut at the Clacton camp in 1958.
Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt met at the Minehead camp when they were both playing summer seasons with other bands and decided to form Status Quo.
Butlin’s ultimately couldn’t compete with cheap foreign holidays as they became popular in the late 60s and early 70s, and one by one, the camps closed or changed hands.