75 years of Butlins

In a newly austere Britain, business at Butlin's – which this summer celebrates its 75th anniversary – is booming. As a major exhibition celebrating the leisure empire opens in Sussex, Angela Wintle packs her shorts and heads to Bognor Regis

It wasn't, perhaps, the most auspicious of starts. When, in 1960, the first excited campers unpacked their bulging suitcases and surveyed their freshly-painted chalets at the new Butlin’s holiday resort in Bognor Regis, they discovered their ‘all inclusive’ package didn’t quite live up to its luxurious billing. Weeks of heavy rain had hampered construction work on site and their accommodation left a little to be desired. Some chalets even lacked the most basic of amenities – like doors and windows.So instead of rushing off to the Viennese Ballroom for a spot of old time dancing or stripping down to their vest and undies for the Miss Venus and Tarzan contests, holidaymakers found themselves levering doors into position and screwing on window catches. At least there was one consolation – Billy Butlin rewarded their efforts with a free bottle of Champagne. Who said he was a ruthless businessman?Butlin’s celebrates its 75th anniversary this summer and the milestone isn’t going unnoticed here in Sussex, home to one of the leisure empire’s three remaining holiday camps. At Butlin’s in Bognor, they’ve been hosting 75th birthday breaks for old campers keen to take a trip down memory lane, and at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester an exhibition opens this month featuring the work of leading documentary photographer Anna Fox, who has spent the past two years chronicling life at the camp.  But what of Butlin’s beginnings a lifetime ago? Well the story, possibly apocryphal, is that Billy Butlin – who rose from poverty to become a multi-millionaire – built the first camp at Skegness after a Damascene moment in Barry, South Wales, when he was turned out of a boarding house and had to walk around in the rain trying to find something to do. In a blinding flash, he saw the need for chalets where you weren’t turfed out and entertainments to keep holidaymakers occupied in the wet weather. Billy Butlin’s connections with Bognor actually dated back to 1931, when he opened a recreational centre on the promenade emblazoned with the slogan: ‘Our true intent is all for your delight.’ As well as housing a 26-car dodgem track, mirror maze and rifle range, the building boasted the largest display of slot machines on the south coast. A zoo and aquarium followed in 1933, which was entered through a towering pseudo rock facade. Local advertisements claimed that polar bears could be seen alongside leopards, hyenas, monkeys and kangaroos, though the main attraction was Togo the Snake King, who gave frequent shows in the snake pit.But in the late Fifties the town council decreed that the facilities should be moved to the far end of the promenade. Despite fierce local opposition, construction work began in October 1959 at a cost of �2.5million. Five hundred Butlin’s staff laboured through the winter, building no fewer than 1,600 chalets, planting 2,000 trees, 20,000 rose bushes, and even diverting a nearby river.  Though their efforts were hampered by flooding, the camp opened on schedule on July 2, 1960, though not, as we’ve seen, without a few teething problems. Billy Butlin himself motored down for a personal inspection and the publicity paid off because 30,000 campers descended that season.The Sixties and early Seventies – before package holidays in the Med did their worst – marked Butlin’s heyday, and the age is evocatively captured in the idealistic, colour-saturated images produced for postcards from the camps.The photographs, taken just 40 years ago, feel a world away. The people look different for a start – thinner, reserved and more formally dressed. And by modern standards, the activities seem staid and innocent.But what Butlin’s offered must have seemed like paradise compared with previous working class holidays spent in crumby B&Bs. Even the chalets were luxurious for the time, with running water, electric lighting and a veranda where campers could soak up the Bognor sun. What’s more, all the amusements and entertainments were included in the price. There were floodlit tennis courts, boating lakes, colourful gardens and acres of lawn for sunbathing, as well as an array of sporting activities such as table tennis, snooker and netball.Competitions included the famous Knobbly Knees, Bonny Babies and Glamorous Grandmothers contests, as well as the downright bizarre, such as those to find the camper with the ugliest face, the loudest snore or the shiniest bald head. There was even a prize, sponsored by Philishave, awarded to the male camper who deposited the most beard shavings in an envelope by the end of the week.But Bognor’s biggest attraction was its indoor swimming pool, adorned with imitation parrots and monkeys, which proved popular not only with campers but locals when it opened as a winter social club.Entertainment was the Butlin’s hallmark, however, with well-known names from the world of Variety rubbing shoulders with resident Redcoats. Many aspiring performers saw the talent contests as a springboard for their talents, including comedians Dave Allen, Jimmy Tarbuck, Les Dennis and Michael Barrymore. Butlin’s even nurtured the future career of one Catherine Zeta Jones.Roger Billington, who joined Butlin’s as a Redcoat in 1963 and is now the archivist at Bognor, reveals that new Redcoats received an advice sheet which said a Redcoat was a guide, philosopher and friend to the  holidaymakers. They had to ensure the same ready breakfast smile was still there at night, after a tiring day.But by the late Seventies, Butlin’s popularity began to wane, undermined by cheap air travel and the affectionate ridicule of the TV comedy show Hi-de-Hi. In 1972, following several take-over attempts, Butlin Holidays Ltd was sold to the Rank Organisation.But while many camps closed, Bognor underwent a �16.5 million facelift and reopened in 1987 as Southcoast World. In 1998, a further �45 million was pumped into the site – the centrepiece, a large undercover structure known as the Skyline Pavilion, which allowed for year-round operation. But come the millennium, Butlin’s was up for sale again – this time snapped up by Bourne Leisure, which rechristened it a ‘family entertainment resort’ and built the �10 million Shoreline Hotel.It’s easy to be snooty about Butlin’s: the neon-lit arcades, the bingo, the burger bars. As one commentator noted: “This is a brash, breathless, noisy and frequently tattooed working-class holiday, where people staying on full board start queuing outside the huge Coral Beach restaurant with their vouchers at 4.30 in the afternoon.”But here’s a fact: Butlin’s (or Butlins, as it’s now known) is booming. Visitor numbers and revenue are up, thanks to the drop in the number of British holidaymakers going abroad. In these impecunious times austerity and value for money have become the new watchwords.– suddenly it’s chic to holiday in Britain again. And with 75 years of experience under its belt, who better than Butlin’s to show us how to have a good time. Who knows? You might even win the Knobbly Knees contest.

Anna Fox: Resort runs at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester from June 25 until October 2. For further information, visit www.pallant.org.uk or ring 01243 774557.

Butlin’s: 75 Years of Fun by Sylvia Endacott and Shirley Lewis is published by the History Press at �12.99 (thehistorypress.co.uk).As well as charting the history of the Butlin’s camps and hotels, including all the things we associate with this most British of establishments, the book is packed with nostalgic images, many published here for the first time.

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