Billy Butlin

Billy Butlin was the ultimate showman. His dream of providing affordable holiday entertainment for the British public saw his business grow from a single fairground stall to a national holiday camp and hotel empire.

William Heygate Edmund Colborne Butlin (known as Billy) was born on 29 September 1899 in Cape Town, Cape Colony. He was the elder son of William Butlin and Bertha Hill who had emigrated from England soon after their marriage. Butlin’s parents came from different social backgrounds and when the marriage failed Bertha returned to her family in Bristol with her two sons.

Butlin lived with his aunt in Bristol until his brother died. He then joined his mother in her caravan, travelling around west-country fairs selling gingerbread, until she married Charlie Rowbotham in 1911 and emigrated to Canada. Billy was fostered until 1912 when he joined his mother and step-father in Toronto.

A travelling life had left little time for formal education, which for Butlin had begun at the age of eight, but art classes at night school in Toronto brought out his drawing skills. His job as a messenger boy for Eatons department store soon progressed to drawing advertisements. It was while working for Eatons that Butlin had his first holiday experience at the company’s lakeside camp for its employees. This camp was to be a major influence in his later career.

During the First World War Butlin served as a stretcher-bearer amongst the trenches of France for the Canadian Army. He resumed his drawing at Eatons at the end of the war but decided to return to England in 1921. He worked his passage across the Atlantic and arrived with £5 to his name.

With a hoopla stall provided by his uncles, Butlin joined the west-country fair circuit. But trade at the country shows was reducing due to the increased mobility of the public who preferred to spend their summer holidays at the seaside. From contacts made at the Christmas circus at London’s Olympia, Butlin learned of a resort in the Lincolnshire seaside town of Skegness where he established an amusement park in 1927.

The Skegness attractions, including a helter-skelter and haunted house, were expanded with the addition of a zoo, and a second park at nearby Mablethorpe opened soon after. But the turning point in Butlin’s business activities came in 1928 when he secured the exclusive licence to sell Dodgems in Europe and brought the first ride to Skegness.

With the profits from his amusement parks, the licences for Dodgems and Christmas fairs in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow, Butlin was able to realise his dream of opening a holiday camp. At Easter 1936 the first Butlins holiday camp, with accommodation for 1000 people, opened its gates in Skegness. In the following year the camp was expanded to cater for 2000.

The camp was designed to provide all the meals and entertainment visitors could require on a single site at a low price. Campers had full use of indoor and outdoor sports facilities and a swimming pool, entertainment was provided in the theatre and events were organised by the staff, or Redcoats as they were known. Beauty contents were organised from the 1938 season and arrangements for the supervised entertainment of children allowed their parents time to themselves.

Butlin lobbied parliament for the Holidays With Pay Bill, and its passing in 1938 enabled more people to holiday by the sea. A second camp at Clacton opened in 1938, and by the start of the Second World War construction of third camp at Filey was under way.

During the war the holiday camps were used as military bases. The Filey camp was completed for the RAF and two more, at Pwllheli and Ayr, were constructed for the navy. Meanwhile, Butlin worked for the Ministry of Supply tasked with increasing the morale of women in the munitions factories. He turned their hostels into residential clubs by improving their recreational facilities and was appointed MBE in 1944 for this work.

Butlins Ayr (1985)

Butlins Ayr (1985)

At the end of the war, Butlin bought the new camps back for 60% of their building costs and returned to providing much needed holidays for the British public. By 1947, the man who had arrived in England with just £5 in his pocket was a millionaire, but a disastrous luxury holiday venture in the Bahamas the following year almost bankrupted him.

After surviving an attempt to remove him from the company with the help of small shareholders, Butlin expanded his British business empire. He opened more camps in the 1960s, at Bognor Regis, Minehead and Barry Island, and bought hotel chains. A visit by the queen to the Pwllheli camp in 1963 was followed by a knighthood in 1964.

Butlin retired in 1968, handing over control of the company to his adopted son Bobby, but he took an active role in fighting off a hostile take-over bid from Phonographic Equipment. In 1972 the company was sold to the Rank Organisation for £43 million in a friendly take-over.

During his retirement at Blair Adam House, Jersey, Butlin started new hotel businesses and continued his charity associations with the Variety Club of Great Britain and the Grand Order of Water Rats. Billy Butlin died of stomach cancer at his Jersey home on 12 June 1980 and was buried in the island’s St John’s cemetery.

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