Celebration of a British holiday institution

Images from the book Butlins 75 years of fun.  @ Copyright The History Press
Images from the book Butlins 75 years of fun. @ Copyright The History Press

THERE’S far more to Butlin’s than Red Coats, knobbly knee competitions and glamorous grannies, according to the authors of a new book celebrating 75 years of the famous British brand.

And while Filey and most of the original holiday camps have now gone, many of the ideas behind them were in fact ahead of their time. At least that is the view of Sylvia Endacott, who with Shirley Lewis wrote and compiled the lavishly illustrated ‘Butlin’s: 75 Years of Fun’, published this month by The History Press.

Butlins sfaff

Butlins sfaff

In fact, Scarborough still has its own piece of the Butlin’s legacy in the Grand Hotel, which Billy Butlin bought in 1978, ensuring it was not converted to holiday flats but refurbished and its fortunes reversed – thanks, it would seem, to the introduction of his well-known package. (It is now owned by Britannia Hotels.)

Sylvia, who worked as personnel manager for the company from 1958 to 1996, now lives in Bognor Regis and such is her affection for the Butlin’s brand that she and Shirley are frequent visitors to the 1960s-built attraction in their town, which underwent a substantial revamp in 1999, complete with £40million “mini-dome” entertainment arena. In about a week’s time they will be holidaying at Butlin’s Skegness resort.

“We both ended up at Bognor Regis and got involved in local history, then I started doing talks and we started acquiring information. We both had an interest in Butlin’s (Shirley worked her way up to become head of the nursery service), and over the years we got more, and talked to more people, so it grew like topsy.

“About five years ago we thought we’d write a book, and with the 75th anniversary coming up it seemed a golden opportunity to do it. The publishers have been fantastic because it’s a national subject and we’ve been blown away by the response to it.”

Images from the book Butlins 75 years of fun.'' @@ Copyright The History Press @@

Images from the book Butlins 75 years of fun.'' @@ Copyright The History Press @@

Sylvia, who has already published 12 local history books, said their aim was to get people to understand the breadth of the Butlin’s empire. “There’s a lot more to it than Red Coats. For example, Filey was used during the Second World War as a base (RAF Hunmanby Moor). I’m sure a lot of more recent Butlin’s holidaymakers will read parts of the book and think ‘I didn’t realise that’.”

Although, unlike Shirley, she never met him face to face, Sylvia described founder Billy Butlin as “an absolute character” and the Richard Branson of his day. “He’d go to the holiday camps and wander round without telling people who he was. He’d ask ‘are you having a nice time?’, then he’d see if they liked it, and he was very hands-on, whereas in this day and age managing directors and owners have a very wide brief and don’t see the shop floor.

“He’d be very much around when places opened – like Filey in May, 1947. I knew him as ‘Sir’ Bobby Butlin MBE, but I didn’t realise he got those for services during World War Two and all his work with the churches.”

As the book explains, each camp had its own church, post office and medical centre and pioneered the concept of on-site nurseries. “He said just because you’re going on holiday doesn’t mean you leave everything behind, and church was very important for a large part of the population.”

Filey was the third camp to open, after Skegness and Clacton, and was quickly followed by Ayr, Pwllheli in Wales and Mosney in Ireland. As the number of holidaymakers increased through the 50s and 60s, the Butlins empire was extended to Bognor Regis, Minehead and Barry Island, the last camp to be built, in 1966. At its height, 10,000 people a week came to Filey and some of the camps were even bigger.

“People became very attached to a particular holiday camp, and I know Filey had an incredible following. I worked there for about three months in 1969 – I was assistant personnel manager there. I was absolutely amazed at the size of the dining rooms which held 1,500 people per sitting. It wasn’t self-service and was very labour-intensive.

“Most of the camps didn’t have enough local people to work there, so students used to go there for their holidays and we had a lot of New Zealanders and Australians in the 60s and 70s who used to work there for a season before they went somewhere else.

“At one time the company used to bring in people from Europe. I was working in Bognor once when they brought in a flight from Iceland, so at 3am I’m trying to speak to 42 Icelandic people, explaining they’ve got to have these cards to get a meal. A lot of people came to learn English, and they’d have somewhere to live, eat and get entertainment in the evening.”

For my own mother, working as a waitress at Filey Butlin’s in the late 1950s was not much fun, and she remembers dropping plates of food as she attempted to balance four on each arm. According to the book, it was a camp tradition for the holidaymakers to cheer every time a plate was smashed. My mother walked out after three days, returning to her studies in Edinburgh.

But Sylvia said the vast majority of employees had happy memories. “Working at Butlin’s was good fun, and a lot of people met their husbands and wives there.”

As families started taking holidays throughout the year and overseas package holidays became more popular, Butlin’s started building and taking over hotels, even acquiring one in Spain. “The shift from camps to hotels makes a lot of people sad, but those same people go on holiday to a hotel, and I think it’s good that the company has moved with the times,” she said. “What else do they do? Run it down and close it or give the customers what they want?”

Becoming a Redcoat has always been a popular route to fame for aspiring professional entertainers, and even the stars themselves kept returning to Butlins to gain exposure. One of Sylvia’s favourite pictures shows the young Bill Roach (Ken Barlow in Coronation Street) as one of the judges at a glamorous grandmother competition. Other stars from the galaxy to have passed through Butlin’s include Vera Lynn, Bill Forsythe, Ringo Starr and a young Catherine Zeta-Jones.

In 2011, only three of the original camps remain under the Butlins banner – Bognor Regis, Minehead and Skegness. When Clacton closed, it became a housing estate; now, more than 25 years after its closure, the Filey site is a very different-looking holiday village, which is still under construction.

If the Butlins brand is losing some of its identity, part of the reason is its very success, according to Sylvia, as other operators have assimilated aspects of what they have to offer, from nursery provision to the package holiday itself.

The company is now owned by a much bigger operation – the holiday giant Bourne Leisure, which owns the Blue Dolphin, Primrose Valley and Reighton Sands holiday villages which, ironically, surround the former Butlins site in Filey Bay.