A REVOLUTION began 75 years ago today, with help from Shakespeare. John Woodcock revisits Butlin’s at Skegness.
On a bitterly cold Easter Saturday 75 years ago, in a former turnip field near Skegness, snow threatened to make a mockery of Billy Butlin’s dream. April 11, 1936, felt like midwinter when Amy Johnson, Hull’s legendary aviator, officially unveiled his concept of package holidays for the masses.
There were also teething problems. Not everything was ready for the first customers and tradesmen among them were invited to help out which made a bit of a mockery of the welcome – taken from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – neon lit and mounted above reception: Our true intent is All for your delight.
Butlin was offering a week’s holiday for a week’s wage. The package translated into three meals a day and free entertainment for 35 bob (£1.75). He saw himself giving people a brief escape from drab lives via collective fun. It was a “you will enjoy yourselves” philosophy. From an initial capacity of 500, the Skegness camp expanded to accommodate nearly 10,000. It was the start of an empire and Butlin’s Redcoats invaded the coastline from Filey to Minehead, Clacton to Bognor, Ayr to Pwllheli. Just three of those sites have survived subsequent revolutions in the leisure industry and the marketing people long ago said bye-de-bye to Hi-de-Hi!.
For those of us who first went to Butlin’s in the immediate postwar era – and there were numerous elderly returnees among the 3,493 staying there in a bracing Skegness week in late March – the past doesn’t perish so easily. Make the mistake of still calling it a holiday camp and Jackie Peech-Corssen shudders. “Camp! Camp! Aagghhh! We’re a resort now, and we don’t have campers but guests.”
She arrived as a teenager for a summer season job and is still there, 35 years later. She’s PA to Chris Baron who became hooked on the Butlin ethos and has served versions of it for 21 years, the last 11 as resort director. “I was a boring accountant until I saw the error of my ways. Sir Billy had a gift for promotion and providing a package of family holidays and entertainment at an affordable price. If he was still around I’m sure he’d be delighted that his fundamental idea has endured.”
It’s meant adapting to changing times, and some of the changes don’t please those who view the original Butlin’s with nostalgia. They miss things like the Glamorous Granny, Mr Debonair and Knobbly Knees contests, all sacrificed to the pursuit of more challenging (and in some cases more profitable) attractions.
“Don’t forget,” said Jackie, “that in the early days people didn’t have much experience of enjoying themselves. A holiday away from home was a novel concept and once here they weren’t sure how to respond. They had to be encouraged to mix with others and relax. Billy Butlin recognised that and introduced the Redcoats, the morning rallying call over the loudspeakers, and communal events. Coercion? Let’s call it enthusiastic persuasion with the best of intentions.”
Since then, her boss chipped in, “people have become more sophisticated. They have a lower boredom threshold. Entertainment has to be sharper, more demanding now.” So-called progress sometimes backfired. For a time, the Skegness site was renamed Funcoast World, but a combination of insufficient investment, a clash of cultures and negative publicity persuaded new owners to restore the Butlin’s name and focus again on families.
Alongside en-suite accommodation, they also introduced designs based on clapboard homes in New England, describing them as apartments and with addresses such as Oyster Bay, Ocean Point, Pacific Wharf and Lagoon Bay. Across the road from Starfish Quay there’s a solitary structure which in this upgraded environment is bound to resemble, well, a fish out of water. It’s one of the original chalets from 1936, a white and blue-trimmed Butlin’s icon now preserved as a Grade 2 listed building.
A plaque explains that Billy Butlin himself drew the design on the back of a cigarette packet. Each pastel-painted chalet was ten feet square, cost £10 to build, and stood in its own “grounds” surrounded by flower borders. “The idea was that chalets would be basic but homely”. Basic true enough. Behind curtains with yachts printed on the fabric the camper found a single 40watt bulb, some storage space, a small rug on varnished floorboards, bedding in pink or blue embroidered with the letter B, a cold-water tap, and a small mirror beside which was a notice forbidding the use of stoves or spirit lamps. At the end of each line of chalets was a block of lavatories labelled “lads” and “lassies” and a score of baths with hot water.
There are still one or two rows of modernised “standard rooms” harking back to the chalet era, and providing an appropriate backcloth to the week of 1970s themed shows starring Chicory Tip, Paper Lace, The Rubettes and Brotherhood of Man. For those who couldn’t face the prospect of hearing Save Your Kisses for Me ever again, the answer was a self-catering Gold apartment providing two flat-screen TVs, sofas, cooker, fridge, microwave, washing machine and ironing board.
You could view it as an anti-social cocoon far removed from the Butlin belief in togetherness, but today’s Britain is in many ways another country. In his time, could he have imagined that his “baby-listening” service provided by Redcoats patrolling the chalet lines would be banished by child-protection laws? Or that 20 per cent of the 1,200 staff at Skegness are recruited from Eastern Europe? “We have nothing like this in Lithuania,” said a young woman greeting premium diners as a colleague from Hungary administered the wine list in the Yacht Club restaurant.
Its menu is a cosmopolitan feast compared to what was available at the launch of Butlin’s camp at Filey on June 2, 1945. It had been due to open at Whitsun 1940 but war intervened. It became RAF Hunmanby Moor instead and they had to dismantle air raid shelters and Nissen huts, remove barbed wire and concrete defence traps from the beaches before the first campers arrived with their ration books, post 1945.
Powdered egg was used for making cakes and sandwiches, Spam dominated the menu, and whale meat was put in pies, its flavour masked by onions, and presented as “Canadian wind-dried steak”. Even so, campers like Margaret Wilson regarded the fare as luxurious after the hardships of wartime. By 1947, the camp was serving bacon and eggs every morning, and there were second helpings. At home, Margaret recalled, they had to make do with bread and dripping six days a week.
Pam Spiby, 76, and a regular at Butlins, finds much to like in the modernised formula but she does wish they’d bring back the beauty and talent contests – “I’d fancy my chances as a glamorous gran!”. “Things have changed greatly here over the years. My age group tends to miss out entertainment-wise now. It’s all about young families. There are times when you fancy having a dance but you can hardly move for kids. My great-granddaughter loves it. She had the chance to go to Florida last year. Know what she said. ‘I’d rather go to Butlin’s’.”
For information about Butlin’s then and now visit www.butlins75.com
WET WEEKEND WAS THE LAUNCH FOR BUTLINS
* Billy Butlin’s first business venture was a travelling hoop-la stall, until a wet weekend at the seaside gave him his big idea. Landladies turned out their guests during the day whatever the weather and Butlin saw the potential for a self-contained holiday world. His Skegness camp was a huge success, helped by social progress that included workers having the legal right to a holiday with pay.
* When war came the Skegness site was taken over by the Royal Navy and was attacked 52 times by the Luftwaffe. Afterwards Butlin bought war surplus from the government. He put bomber seats around swimming pools, converted shell cases into bar stools, turned searchlight parts into ballroom mirrors, and used parachute silk for suntops.
* He hired top acts for his variety shows – Laurel and Hardy appeared at Skegness during the 1948 season – and several of his Redcoats went on to become top entertainers. In the early 60s a group called Rory Storm and the Hurricanes was playing the summer season when a couple of other musicians turned up to see the drummer. With two weeks left on his Skegness contract, Ringo Starr quit, and the Beatles were on their way.