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!
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.