Mr Tyler, our speaker at the April meeting, started his talk on Billy Butlin with a rousing ‘Hi Di Hi’ to which we all replied ‘Ho Di Ho’. The great era of the holiday camp, he told us, was the 1950s, but the idea started long before that, back in the 1890s, when austere socialist or Christian camps made their appearance. However Billy got the first germ of an idea for his version when holidaying on Barry Island. Once you have been to Barry Island in the rain it seems you have no fear of hell and Billy began to dream of somewhere completely different from the drab bed and breakfast he stayed in with its overcooked food and its ‘out by 9.00 a.m.’ rule. He imagined a place where food and entertainment would be inclusive in the price which would be no more than the average week’s wage.

Bill’s father was a bank manager and he had surgeons and ministers of the church in his family; his mother, however, came from fairground people and eloped with his father to South Africa when she was seventeen where Billy was born. The marriage did not work out and the teenage Billy soon found himself in Canada where he had gone to join his mother and a new stepfather. At the outbreak of World War I he signed up at the age of fifteen to impress a girl and became a stretcher bearer on the western front. After the war he returned to England with £5 in his pocket and ran a hoopla stall at Olympia where he dressed his assistants in blue and yellow uniforms and gave away budgies as prizes instead of goldfish.

Summering at Skegness in 1934 he saw a plot of land for sale, borrowed £3000, and set up his first camp, which opened at Easter in a snowstorm, a day early than intended because one guest had mistaken the date. This coincided with the passing of a law giving every worker a week’s paid holiday – a lucky piece of serendipity. His camps soon got a somewhat unsavoury reputation, probably undeserved, as what went on there must have been really quite innocent, single men and women being strictly segregated and the chalets rigorously policed. Many famous entertainers passed through Butlins’ portals including Des O’Conner, Ringo Starr, Dave Allen, Jimmy Tarbuck, Cliff Richards and even prime-minister Anthony Eden. A honeymoon couple paid £14 all in for a week in the 1950s. We are all familiar with the kind of jollity that went on in the camps by watching the television series ‘Hi Di Hi’, Mr Tyler says that Ruth Maddock brings him out in a sweat, but there were some curious traditions such as guests having to pay a forfeit if they turned up late for a meal.

By the 70s the glory days of the holiday camp were over, supplanted by cheap holidays in the sun, but I am sure that a lot of older people have enduring memories of youthful vacations spent at Butlins or Pontins or Warners or any of the many other imitators of Billy’s original successful formula.

V E Bines


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