FEATURE: Eighty years of Butlin’s happy campers

Butlins, Skegness.
Butlins, Skegness.

This April, Skegness’ famous holiday resort Butlin’s turns 80. The resort and its sister camps have been providing families across the nation with a fun, entertaining place to go on holiday. We have been exploring some of the resorts’ history.

It’s 80 years since the first Butlin’s holiday camp opened in Lincolnshire – and the resorts remain as popular now as they were then.

On the diving boards at Skegness in the 1930s. Photo: supplied.

On the diving boards at Skegness in the 1930s. Photo: supplied.

Sir William ‘Billy’ Butlin’s vision of an affordable place where families could relax together and enjoy good times come rain or shine still holds strong and, even though the Glamourous Granny and Knobbly Knees competitions have been replaced by spas, exciting activities and West End-style shows, the Butlin’s name is still a byword for family fun.

The story began in South Africa where Billy was born in 1899, the son of a well-to-do country gent and a travelling showman’s daughter. After spending his childhood in England, South Africa and Canada and a stint in the Canadian Army he landed in Liverpool with £5 in his pocket.

His first venture was a successful hoop-la stall, which he took to fairs and it wasn’t long before he’d built up a mini empire of amusement parks and zoos. But it was a wet holiday weekend that gave him his big idea – to create a holiday camp where families could take a break from their daily lives, where they could come and go as they pleased and where fun was guaranteed whatever the weather.

He designed the first camp at Skegness himself on the back of a cigarette packet and the grand opening took place on a freezing Easter Saturday in 1936.

Billy Butlin outside of some of the resorts chalets. Photo: supplied.

Billy Butlin outside of some of the resorts chalets. Photo: supplied.

It was an immediate success – the location was home to a long stretch of golden, sandy beach and was ideal for tourists coming from the north and the midlands. It wasn’t long before more resorts followed, and at its peak Butlin’s attracted more than one million guests each summer.

A week’s break cost the equivalent of the average weekly wage in 1938 – around £3 10s (£3.50) – and for that campers were promised ‘all the amenities of a first class hotel’.

One of the things that made Butlin’s unique was the sheer range of activities on offer – and the fact they were all included in the price. The original 1936 brochure for Skegness promised something for everything, including free tennis, bowls, bathing, putting green, boating and billiards, orchestral and dance music, theatre and more.

In the early days a lack of money meant shows were provided by volunteers, staff and the guests themselves, but as time passed some of the biggest show business names of the time performed at Butlin’s resorts. Today’s entertainment also includes a mix of celebrity names from TV shows such as X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent and home grown performers.

The renowned Redcoats were created to help guests settle into their holiday surroundings, mix with their fellow campers and to help inform and entertain people and are synonymous with the camps today.

Ten Butlin’s resorts were built between 1936 and 1966, including one in Ireland and one the Bahamas, but tough competition from overseas package holiday operators, rising operational costs, and rapidly changing demand, forced many to close in the 1980s and 1990s.

As well as Skegness, two other original camps remain open in Bognor Regis and Minehead.