Billy Butlin

Billy Butlin

Sir William Heygate Edmund Colborne ("Billy") Butlin, (29 September 1899 – 12 June 1980), was the founder of Butlins Holiday Camps.

Early life

Billy Butlin was born in South Africa. His father, also called William Butlin, was the son of a clergyman but his mother, Bertha Hill, was a member of a family of travelling showmen. Their marriage was considered something of a disgrace in Leonard Stanley, Gloucester, UK, where they lived, and they were encouraged to emigrate to South Africa. When the marriage failed, Billy’s mother returned to England with her children and rejoined her own family in Bristol.

For a time Billy joined his mother in travelling around the fair circuit but, in 1911, his mother remarried and emigrated again, this time to Canada. For a couple of years Billy was boarded with a widow in Bristol. Then his mother and stepfather asked him to join them in Toronto, Canada.

He was very unhappy at school in Canada and was always being mocked because of his English accent, so he left school at fourteen. Eventually he got a job as a messenger boy at Eatons, Toronto’s largest department store. One of the best aspects of working for the company was that he was able to visit their summer camp, which gave him his first taste of a real holiday, indeed a taste of what was to become a very big part of his life.

Early adulthood

Butlin volunteered somewhat reluctantly to the Canadian Army in World War I but saw very little action. After the war he returned to England and worked for a time running a hoopla stall for his mother’s family, discovering that he was quite successful at it. He moved to London and set up a very successful stall in Olympia outside the Christmas Circus run by Bertram Mills. By the end of the season Billy had been so successful that he could now afford to bring his mother (now widowed) from Canada.

Fun fairs

Over the next few years Billy toured the country with the Hills Travelling Fair, leaving his mother, Bertha, to run the Olympia site. In 1927 he leased a piece of land from the Earl of Scarborough at the seaside town of Skegness. He set up a holiday fun park with hoopla stalls, a tower slide, a haunted house ride and, in 1928, a scenic railway and dodgem cars -- the first in Britain. Later on he rented disused bus garages in Whitechapel, Brixton, Tooting, Putney, Hammersmith and Marble Arch in London and turned them all into fun fairs. His mother, Bertha, died in 1933 and so never saw his first holiday camp.

The first holiday camp

For some time Butlin had nurtured the idea of a holiday camp. He had observed the way landladies in Skegness would (sometimes literally) push families out of the lodgings between meals, regardless of the inclemency of the weather. Butlin toyed with the idea of providing holiday accommodation that encouraged holiday-makers to stay in the premises and even provided entertainment for them between meals.

He opened his first Butlins camp at Ingoldmells, adjoining Skegness on 11 April 1936 (Easter Eve). It was officially opened by Amy Johnson from Hull, who was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. An advertisement was placed in the "Daily Express", announcing the opening of the camp and inviting the public to book for a week's holiday, enclosing a ten shilling registration fee. The advertisement offered holidays with three meals a day and free entertainment. A week's full board cost anything from 35 shillings to three pounds a week, according to the time of year.

More camps and more ideas

The camp was a huge success and soon other Butlins were constructed at Clacton (1938) and Filey (1945), Pwllheli and Ayr (both in 1947), and still more at Mosney (1948), Bognor Regis (1960), Minehead (1962) and Barry Island (1966). The growth of his business was spurred by World War II when a number of camps were requisitioned for use as military training camps, generating revenues for a post-war boom.

In the 1950s Butlin began acquiring hotels in Brighton, Blackpool and several in Cliftonville. In later years they were joined by further hotels in Scarborough, Llandudno, London and Spain. The camps at Ayr and Skegness also had separate self-contained hotels within the grounds.

Later life

In 1972 the company was sold to the Rank Organisation for £43 million. Butlin was knighted in 1964 and retired in 1968. Billy Butlin was not the first Butlin to have been knighted as his great uncle, who lived from 1845 to 1912 was the eminent surgeon, Sir Henry Trentham Butlin. Billy Butlin died on 12 June 1980, aged 80.

----Much of the material for this article comes from the [ "Butlin Memories"] web site.

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