The golden age of the holiday camp was in the 'fifties and 'sixties. After the War there was a great rush to the coast. Many people had not had a holiday for years and could not wait to get away. The holiday camp provided what they were looking for. Prices were reasonable, food was plentiful - for the time - and there was plenty to do, even when it was raining. The holiday camp sector expanded rapidly in the late 'forties and early 'fifties. Many camps used by the forces in the War quickly became holiday camps. Many holiday camps had, in fact, been taken over for military use and once again opened their doors to holiday makers. In some cases, the campers moved in almost as the soldiers marched out!
The first holiday camps
The holiday camp style of holiday began a long time before the 'fifties. Camping as a form of leisure activity had began to become popular in the late Victorian era. The first holiday camp was the Cunningham Camp for men on the Isle of Man, which opened in 1894. Campers at Cunningham's stayed in tents and conditions were basic. By the early 'twenties, a number of what became known as "pioneer camps" had opened, offering basic accommodation and a genuine camp atmosphere - the holidaymakers joined in with the daily chores of running the camp. The idea of camping and life under canvas was well matched to the inter-war fad for healthy outdoor living. These camps soon became more permanent, with chalets and communal buildings for eating and entertainment replacing canvas. The early entrepreneurs were also joined by trade unions and the Co-operative movement in the camp business, each offering exclusive facilities to their members. The most well known of these being for NALGO members and for civil servants.
One of the earliest camps was the Caister Camp which started in 1906. It was originally opened by John Fletcher Dodd as the "Caister Socialist Holiday Camp". Accommodation was in tents and the campers helped out with the chores. After the First World War, chalets replaced the tents. John Fletcher Dodd was still running the Camp in 1951. By then it could accommodate eight hundred in chalets and huts, all with cold running water. The camp also had a licensed bar and provided organised games and sport, as well as trips to the Norfolk Broads. It was situated right on the beach and had over ninety acres of land.
The Caister Holiday Camp is now run by Haven Holidays.
One well known name that started in the 1930s in the holiday camp business was Harry Warner. He opened his first camp on Hayling Island in 1932. In 1951, the Camp was still popular. "Holiday Camps" magazine's description was glowing:
Its spirit of friendliness, its setting in the beautiful countryside by the waters of Chichester Harbour, and the bracing Hayling Island climate have given Northney a popularity that has grown with the years.
Northney was not the only camp on Hayling Island at that time, there were three other holiday camps in 1951. They included the Civil Service Camp founded in 1924, but now also run by Warners. It was a feature of the holiday camp industry that several camps were often lived cheek by jowl. At Corton, Sufffolk, for example, there were three. The Rogeston Hall Camp run by the Worker's Travel Association, which opened in 1938 included some fine modern architecture; another Civil Service camp which was then (1951) being run by Warners - and in fact still is; and the Corton Beach Holiday Camp which opened in 1933.
The first Butlin's camps
The name, though, that is most associated with holiday camps is, of course, Billy Butlin. He opened his first camp at Skegness in 1936. Although his camps were by no means the first, they stood out by virtue of their size. Holiday camps, at the time, took at most a few hundred campers - Butlin's, from the beginning could accommodate two thousand. Billy Butlin's first venture in Skegness was a fairground. Whilst running that business he noticed that many of his customers were stopping in boarding houses in the town. They were expected to leave their accommodation in the morning and not return until the evening. When it was raining they often found little to do, especially if they had children. Billy Butlin had stayed in a holiday camp in Canada and saw the benefits of this form of holiday. When his first camp opened in 1936 - offering a week's holiday for a week's pay, it was a great success.
There was, however, one problem with his first camp. The campers were bored! The wandered around the camp buildings looking miserable. They had come to a holiday camp expecting company and were not finding it. It is often a problem of large institutions, that you can be part of a large crowd and yet very alone. Butlin's idea for Redcoats was a response to this situation. The "Hi-di-Hi" routine was also introduced from the very early days of Butlin's.
Billy Butlin's second camp was opened at Clacton in 1938. However, his expansion was brought to a halt with the outbreak of War in 1939. The first two camps were taken over by the services. Butlin had already started work on a new camp at Filey in Yorkshire, which was due to open Whitsun 1940. It was eventually opened, though, not for holiday makers, but for soldiers. Billy Butlin did a shrewd deal with the Government allowing him to buy the Camp back after the war. He built two other "holiday" camps during the War - at Ayr and Pwllheli with the same stipulation that he could buy them back after the War. When the end of the War came, Butlin was in a unique position of having five holiday camps ready for holiday makers just as soon as the military moved out. In 1948 they were joined by a new camp in Ireland at Mosney. Incidentally, his 1940s and 1950s adverts tended to refer to them as "Holiday Villages By-the-Sea". The numbers that Butlin's could cater for were staggering - Mosney could take 2,000; Clacton and Ayr each 2,500, but Skegness, Pwllheli and Filey could take a massive 5,500 visitors.
A new era, the 1940s and 1950s
Many new camps were started in the late 1940s and 1950s. One particularly distinctive building was the Middleton Tower Holiday Camp near Morecambe. The Camp itself was established in 1939, but was given a new look for the 1949 season. The whole building was designed to replicate an ocean liner on land. The Camp had a "Sun Ray Room", several bars, a separate children's cinema and all the usual holiday camp style entertainment. It rivalled Butlin's in terms of numbers - being able to accommodate 3,000 visitors in 1949.
A notable newcomer to the scene in the late 1940s was Fred Pontin. Pontin had experience of running camps gained in the War - he ran catering services for the Admiralty and camps for industrial workers. His first holiday camp was at Brean Sands near Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset, opened in 1946. By 1949 he had six camps in England - "Sussex Ideal" at Bracklesham Bay, Chichester; Brean Sands at Burnham-on-Sea; Sand Bay at Weston-super-Mare; Osmington Bay at Weymouth; "South Devon" at Paignton; and Buckleigh at Westward Ho! in North Devon. He also had a camp in Ireland - Trabolgan. Fred Pontin's camps were described as "Small Unit Holiday Camps for the Connoisseur" in his advertising. They were quite small by holiday camp standards, taking no more than 250 campers. Buckleigh only had room for 60. This made Pontin's camps significantly different from Butlin's.
By the 1950s, there were hundreds of camps throughout the whole country. An annual publication "Holiday Camps - Directory and Magazine" listed many of them and described the facilities. In 1949, this form of holiday was so popular that the magazine encouraged people to book early and to avoid the popular months of July and August. This call to stagger holidays was a common refrain. It was felt that if people were to spread their holidays over the period from June to September, there would be less stress on the holiday industry and it might be better able to cope with the increasing numbers. Needless to say, the campaign failed and most people still took holidays in July and August.
Holiday camps in the 60s
To start the new decade Billy Butlin opened a new camp - a completely new modern building, at Bognor Regis. He had run a funfair along the Esplanade at Bognor for some time, but the Council and many Bognor residents considered it an eyesore and it stood in the way of their plans to redevelop the Esplanade in a modern style, with new hotels and flats. In 1958, the Council struck a deal with Butlin. He was to give the Council the funfair sites along the Esplanade in return for a lease on a site to the East of the Esplanade. This site, known as Brookland, was as yet undeveloped. This site was to be the location of the new Butlin's Bognor. The local residents were to be given the use of the Camp's facilities out of season for nominal charge.
The Holiday Camp opened its doors for the first time for the Summer of 1960. It was built in a modern style, with chalets on two stories. The overall impression of the Camp was very much in the Butlin's corporate image. Two further camps were added at Minehead (1962) and Barry Island (1966). Butlin's camps in the 'sixties looked much the same. The decor was very "novelty". They used the same umbrellas, the same Marley tiles on the floors, the same plastic seagulls hanging from the roof of the swimming pool. An exciting modern feature of the camp at Minehead was a monorail. The monorail was considered a very modern form of transport in the 'sixties. In Seattle, USA, the World's Fair (1962) had a permanent monorail taking passengers from the centre of Seattle to the exhibition site. It is still a tourist attraction today.
Butlin's at Skegness, pictured in the 1960s (right) shows the same style of corporate image. Compare this with the picture of the same Camp above from the 1930s (above). By the 'sixties all Butlin's camps had this style.
Butlin's was not the only organisation to use modern design to boost the image of its camps in the 'sixties. This building (left) is Pontin's South Devon Holiday Camp at Paignton in the 1960s. New buildings from the 'sixties represented the style of the time - flat roofs, large picture windows, an uncompromisingly modern appearance - the unmistakable look of the decade. It is a style that was, for a long time, regarded unfavourably. However, in my view it was tune with the times. There was tremendous optimism in the 'sixties about what technology could do. Everything was modern and forward looking. People did not want to be reminded too much of a past that began with the depression and ended in war. On holiday people wanted clean, modern, stylish accommodation.
Another phenomenon of the 'sixties was that caravan parks became more like holiday camps. Many had social clubs, bars, swimming pools and entertainment. It became very difficult to tell the two types of holiday apart. On the right is the swimming pool of the "White Horse Caravan Camp" at Selsey. Compare this with the picture of Pontin's above. Twitchen House and Morthoe Caravan Park, at Morthoe, North Devon offered self-contained holiday flats, chalets or caravans. It was an old manor house divided into flats. The caravan park was in the grounds. Unlike a holiday camp the facilities were not "all in". You could pay 2/6 per week for membership of a social club. This included use of the swimming pool, licensed club bar, games room and entertainment - which consisted of a "Camp Concert", bingo, table tennis competition and "Social and Dance". There was also a film show which was a further 2/6 for adults and 1/- for children.
What were holiday camps like in the 60s and 70s?
So what was it like to stay at Butlin's in the 1960s and 1970s? One reader of this site remembers Butlin's at Minehead in the early 1970s:
What great times we had there. I remember the little chalets we had, with the loos and baths in a separate block! Radio Butlin's would wake you up in the morning ready to go the dining hall. We were in Gloucester House, my Dad was on the house committee. I remember the monorail, which would stop over the swimming pool, the chair lifts that were really high. The Butlin's Beaver Club (I was a member) with all your Redcoat aunties and uncles who would take you off to be pirates for the day, or whatever activity was going on. At the end of the week there would be a sports day, with all the dads taking part. Our parents would only see us at mealtimes, as it was perfectly safe then to go off and do your own thing with your brothers and sisters. And yes, there were knobbly knees and glamorous granny competitions. Happy days!
She makes an important point about meeting the parents at meal times. At Butlin's parents and children could do their own thing without worry. This was one of the great attractions of a Butlin's style holiday. At night the Redcoats patrolled the chalets to listen for children waking up - so parents could go out in the evening and not worry about the kids. Another reason for choosing a holiday at Butlin's or indeed any holiday camp was that there was always so much to do. It might rain all week, but you could still have a good time. In this era people booked up holidays early. They could not wait to see what the weather might be like - but had to take a chance. At Butlin's the weather would not ruin the holiday.
I spoke to a couple who were regular visitors to Butlin's in the 'sixties. They had no complaints and thought that until flights to Spain became more affordable, it was the best place to go on holiday. They told me that the food was plain, but always good. They were served in massive dining halls in two sittings. Breakfast was always porridge or bacon and eggs. Mealtimes were busy for the staff. The waitresses brought several plates in a rack so that they could serve people quickly. The accommodation was plain - but clean and adequate. The chalets generally only had cold running water. In the afternoon they went to tea dances. There were various competitions including "Glamorous Granny" and "Best Head of Hair". There was never any trouble or rowdy behaviour at Butlin's. Anyone causing trouble was discreetly asked to leave.
They stayed at several of the Butlin's camps - Minehead, Skegness, Bognor and Pwllheli. At Pwllheli, there was a chair lift that took you from the camp to the beach. The children liked playing in rock pools by on the beach. They had a particular recollection of the Beachcomber Bar at Minehead. It had a Hawaiian theme. Bar staff were in grass skirts. Butlin had stayed in Hawaii and noticed that the weather could be pleasant - sun shining - birds singing but that, all of a sudden, it could change. This bar was designed on a similar theme. It was pleasant with bird song. Suddenly the weather would change and a volcano would smoke - water would run around a stream - as if imitating rain. The children thought it was like something from Dr Who!
[The Hawaiian theme was also used in pubs in the 60s see Watneys pubs in the 50s, 60s and 70s.]
The main complaint that was levelled against Butlin's by commentators at the time was that of "regimentation". The campers were essentially told how to have a good time and the Redcoats made sure they did. Many holiday camp advertisements stressed "no regimentation" in their advertisements. From people I have spoken to, I do not believe that Butlin's was regimented either. Many people, in fact, felt paradoxically that they had more freedom at Butlin's because everything was paid for and they could take it or leave it as they pleased. However, regimentation or not, Butlin's could never be quiet. Those who sought out remote, unspoilt Cornish villages would not have sought out Butlin's.
"Sun, Sea and Sand" has a section on holiday camps in the 1920s and 30s. It also traces the early development of the holiday camp.
Good-night, Campers!: History of the British Holiday Camp (Series No 9: Studies in History Planning & the Environment Series) "Goodnight Campers - The History of the British Holiday Camp" by Colin Ward and Dennis Hardy is an excellent reference for holiday camps. This book contains everything you ever wanted to know about holiday camps. (Published by Mansell 1986 ISBN 0 7201 1743 7 (paperback) and ISBN 0 7201 1679 1 (hardback).
Article by Steven Braggs, 2003.
The British seaside holiday