Hello campers! Looking back on 75 years of Butlins

Girls flock to Butlins
Girls flock to Butlins
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A glamorous grandmother poses proudly in tiara and sash among a group of celebrity judges.

William Roache, Ted Rogers and Gloria Hunniford are among the showbiz names who have selected the beaming – and rather young-looking – gran for the coveted title.

Author's Shirley Lewis, left, and Sylvia Endacott

Author's Shirley Lewis, left, and Sylvia Endacott

In other images, holiday-makers line up for morning exercises and children in tank tops and shorts or cardies and frocks race each other in wooden pedal boats,

These are images from the glory days of the British holiday camp and they’re among the photographs used in a new book to celebrate the birthday of Butlins.

Butlins 75 Years of Fun marks this year’s anniversary of the iconic holiday brand and takes a nostalgic look at a world of glamorous granny competitions, organised games, chalets and dining halls.

The book has been written by two women who know all about it because they were there. Sylvia Endacott and Shirley Lewis are now local historians living in Bognor Regis but they worked at the holiday camps for many years, Sylvia as a personnel manager and Shirley in the nursery service.

‘We’re still fans of Butlins, even though we don’t work there any more,’ says Sylvia. ‘We had a lot of information and pictures and know a lot of people from our days there so with the anniversary coming up, it seemed natural to write a book. Because Butlins is such an iconic thing, it’s also really a history of the British seaside holiday. We thought that people would look back and say someone should have written a book about that, so we did.’

Since Billy Butlin opened the first camp in 1936, his holiday resort empire has been through many changes and had its share of ups and downs.

For several decades, holidaymakers enjoyed the golden days of fish and chips, beauty pageants, organised fun and bubbly staff in equally loud jackets shouting ‘morning campers’.

And then there was the decline, when people took advantage of cheaper flights and the rise of the package holiday.

These days, things are very different at the Butlins resorts. In 2009, the complex at Bognor Regis opened its £20m Ocean Hotel, complete with spa offering massages, facials and a whole range of health and beauty treatments.

For the youngsters visiting these resorts, there are appearances from telly favourites like Dora the Explorer and Angelina Ballerina.

The book features information and images of the activities and entertainment of the past, and looks at the life of founder Billy Butlin.

And it charts other aspects of Butlins history, including the provision of a chapel in every camp and the organisation of adventure weeks in the countryside for schools and youth groups.

‘The history of Butlins is also a social history, it shows how much people have changed,’ says Sylvia. ‘People did more things in groups and teams and were happy to do competitions and organised games. They went on holiday in groups, all catching the train together.

‘Today, people are far more likely to want to do their own thing. And there are a lot more sports and other outdoor activities available.’

An old postcard given to Sylvia by a friend shows how meal-times have changed. On the back is a scribbled menu, which includes a meal of tomato soup, spam and veal loaf with peas, carrots and potato and golden pudding with custard.

Sylvia and Shirley have plenty of their own fond memories of Butlins past. Sylvia worked in several of the resorts and at head office. Out of season, recruitment of staff would often be temporary for the weekend and she remembers her team dealing with the recruitment of 5000 staff in a 12-month period.

She says: ‘They would arrive on a Friday morning and the guests would come on Friday afternoon and it was expected that they would know what they were doing. They were challenging but fun times.’

Shirley also worked in several places as a nursery nurse, matron and then in charge of nursery provision.

She says: ‘I always feel very sorry for people who don’t like their jobs. Obviously I had bad days and times when things weren’t going right but I loved my work. We had great teams too, I’m still in touch with some of the girls I worked with in the 1950s and I still feel like I’m a part of Butlins. If someone is talking to me about Butlins I have to remind myself I’m not there any more.’

The Nursery

There was a time when large teams of nursery staff at the Butlins camps would look after hundreds of under twos while their parents had their meals.

And there was even a chalet patrol service so mums and dads could go out for the evening entertainment.

Parents would register their child and chalet number with the nurses and list the venues they intended visiting during the evening.

If a patrolling nurse found a child crying, a ‘Baby Crying’ message was sent to the appropriate venue to alert the parents.

This service was discontinued in the early ‘90s with new government legislation. Butlins then introduced a babysitting service.

Shirley Lewis worked for Butlins, in various resorts and at head office, from the late 50s until the 90s.

She says the service moved with the times. ‘There used to be a nappy washing service and of course that went when disposables came in, and obviously the chalet patrol couldn’t continue.’

Entertainment and The Famous

Taking pride of place in the book is a picture of a very young Catherine Zeta Jones, taken in 1979 when she was a competition finalist at the Pwllheli camp.

The Hollywood star isn’t the only one to have early links with Butlins. Famous former Redcoats include Cliff Richard, Shane Ritchie and Francis Rossi.

Ringo Starr was working in a resort band when he got the telephone call to join The Beatles and the first song Paul McCartney sang in public was Long Tall Sally in a Butlins talent contest.

A section of the book is devoted to entertainment and the rise of the iconic Redcoat – the Butlins band of entertainers, who still exist today.

But Bognor historian Sylvia Endacott says things are very different from the old days when there were less telly opportunities for rising stars and performing at a holiday camp in front of thousands of people was a golden opportunity.

‘It seems to be the other way round now. You have people becoming famous on things like Britain’s Got Talent and the X Factor and then going to the holiday camps,’ she says.

But the Redcoats still provide plenty of entertainment, as well as helping holiday-makers and joining in activities. And for the 75th anniversary year, they are wearing a new look inspired by the 1936 uniform.

Details from the original

Billy Butlin

‘He was the equivalent of today’s entrepreneurs,’ Sylvia Endacott says of Billy Butlin, the man who changed the face of the seaside holiday.

The first section of the book is devoted to Butlin, who was struck with the holiday camp idea after spotting despondent families sheltering from the rain at seaside resorts. The fact that they were unable to return to their guesthouses until evening gave Billy the idea of providing accommodation, catering and entertainment under one roof.

He had worked in travelling fairs and set up amusement parks by the time he opened his first holiday camp at Skegness in 1936.

‘A week’s holiday for a week’s pay’ was the publicity slogan and the idea proved a success – a second camp opened in Clacton a year later.

But this was the ‘30s and Britain was heading for war. The book also covers an important aspect of Billy Butlin’s life story – his work during the Second World War.

It is generally known that he was asked to allow his sites at Clacton and Skegness, and those under construction at Ayr, Filey and Pwllheli to be used by the Armed Forces.

But he was also involved in the provision of facilities for troops and their familes and the establishment of clubs for women working in munitions factories.

Business continued after 1945 but he received an MBE for service during the war, and later a Knighthood for ‘Services to the Church’.

There was far more to Billy Butlin than great ideas and business acumen, but on that front he had some special qualities.

‘I think some of his success was down to the fact that he always listened and paid attention to what holidaymakers wanted,’ says Sylvia. ‘The best way to describe it is this – if he found people walking on the grass, his first thought wouldn’t be to encourage them to use the path, it would be to move the fence that had been put up to stop them.’