*Andrew Marr, in “A History of Modern Britain” (2009).
Image: Grey seals only started breeding on the Lincolnshire coast in the 1970s.
“In 1914, Billy Butlin was living in Toronto with his mother and stepfather, when he left school and began working for Eatons department store. According to Butlin, one of the best aspects of working for the company was that he was able to visit their summer camp which gave him an idea of what was to become a very big part of his life.
The onset of World War I led to his leaving Eatons and enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force serving in Europe, but seeing little if any action. After the war, Butlin returned to England where he used some of his last £5 (2011:£189.00) to purchase a stall in his uncle Marshall Hill’s travelling fair.
As a showman, Butlin ultimately created his own travelling fair. Butlin soon had fixed fairground sites as well as his travelling fair – the first was at Olympia in London outside Bertram Mills’ Circus. In 1925, he opened a set of fairground stalls in Barry Island, Wales where he observed the way landladies in seaside resorts would (sometimes literally) push families out of the lodgings between meals, and began to nurture the idea of a holiday camp similar to the one he had attended whilst an employee at Eatons.
In 1927, Butlin leased a piece of land from the Earl of Scarbrough by the seaside town of Skegness, where he set up an amusement park with hoopla stalls, a tower slide, a haunted house ride and, in 1928, a miniature railway and Dodgem cars—these were the first bumper cars in Britain, as Butlin had an exclusive license to import them.
During the early 1930s, Butlin joined the board of Harry Warner’s holiday camp company (now Warner Leisure Hotels) and in 1935 he observed the construction of Warner’s holiday camp in Seaton, Devon. Butlin learned from the experience of Warner, and employed the workers who had constructed the Seaton camp to come to Lincolnshire to build his new camp at Skegness.
One of Butlin’s original chalets preserved and listed in Skegness
Construction began on 4 September 1935; the local paper reported the first sod had been turned. Butlin designed the camp himself and said of the camp, “my plans were for 1,000 people in 600 chalets with electricity, running water, 250 bathrooms, dining and recreational halls. A theatre, a gymnasium, a rhododendron bordered swimming pool with cascades at both ends and a boating lake.” However, Butlin hired the architect Harold Ridley Hooper, to draw up the formal plans for the camp buildings. In the camp’s landscaped grounds, there were to be tennis courts, bowling and putting greens and cricket pitches. The total cost of the project was £100,000 (2011:£5.7 million) and despite having suffered a financial shortfall during construction, the camp opened on schedule in 1936. One of the original 1936 chalet accommodation units is still present and is now a grade II listed building, recognising its historical significance.
He opened his camp on 11 April 1936 (Easter Even). It was officially opened by Amy Johnson from Hull, who had been the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. An advertisement costing £500 (2011:£28,000) was placed in the Daily Express, announcing the opening of the camp and inviting the public to book for a week’s holiday. The advertisement offered holidays with three meals a day and free entertainment with a week’s full board, at a cost of between 35 shillings (£1.75) and £3 (2011:£167.00), according to the time of year. The advert proved successful, and over the first summer season the capacity of the camp had to be increased from 500 to 2,000, to cope with the demand.
When the camp opened, Butlin realised that his guests were not engaging with activities in the way he had envisioned, as most kept to themselves, and others looked bored. He asked Norman Bradford (who was engaged as an engineer constructing the camp) to take on the duty of entertaining the guests which he did with a series of ice breakers and jokes. By the end of the night, the camp was buzzing. From that point on, entertainment was the most significant element of Butlin’s and Bradford became the first of the Butlin’s Redcoats. That night Butlin decided that for his camp to work he would require an army of people to carry out the same job as Bradford, and the role of Redcoat was created.
In 1938, Butlin gained the contract to supply amusements to the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow. After the exhibition was complete, Butlin returned with some of the infrastructure. His Clacton camp and Sheerness amusement park each received miniature railways, while Skegness received a building in the shape of the “Butlin theatre” which was later renamed the “Gaiety”.
Butlin continued to increase the capacity of the camp until 3 September 1939 when the Second World War was declared. The next morning, the campers were sent home and the site was taken over by the Royal Navy for use as a training facility.
Once the Navy took over, the camp became known as HMS Royal Arthur and was used to train sailors for the war effort. In order to operate as a military base, many of the bright external colours were overpainted, the dance hall became an armoury, and the rose beds were dug up, to become sites for air raid shelters.
While the outside was repainted, much of the interior décor continued unchanged. Speaking of his time there, George Melly reported that Royal Arthur had “a certain architectural frivolity inappropriate to a Royal Navy Shore Establishment.” Melly mentioned how the main reception still had a sky scene with clouds painted on the ceiling and a large artificial (though realistic) tree in the centre of it. He also observed that their meals were served from an approximation of an Elizabethan inn named “Ye Olde Pigge and Whistle”.
By the end of the conflict, the camp had survived in a condition requiring only 6 weeks for wartime damage to be repaired and enabled Butlin to reopen the camp to the public on 11 May 1946. After reopening, some signs of military occupation remained with it being observed the blankets supplied to campers still had the insignia of HMS Royal Arthur.”