When I first arrived in Bognor Regis to work for Butlin’s, I was made aware of the history and perception of the company from the local press.
I was repeatedly told that the holiday camp had opened in 1960. Even the local radio had this as one of their quiz questions a couple of years ago and the answer was the incorrect ‘1960’.
I was therefore very surprised when I found I had to look back to 1932 to find the time when William Butlin made his first appearance in the town with his Recreation Shelter, which was situated on the corner of Lennox Street and the Esplanade.
The Recreation Shelter was apparently the place to be seen, according to the press, where you could ‘meet the elite’.
This was to prove to be a popular entertainment venue, containing the very fashionable one-armed-bandits and dodgem cars.
This was eventually followed on July 5, 1933 by the Butlin Zoo on the seafront, which contained a formidable array of animals, including brown, black and polar bears, hyenas, leopards, pelicans, kangaroos, monkeys and ‘Togo the snake king’.
Within three years, Billy Butlin was opening his first holiday camp at Skegness and it was reported that this holiday camp was to be seen as a ‘prototype of a fresh approach to holidays which re-shaped public attitudes and ultimately revolutionised the nation’s leisure scene.’
Eventually, in 1958, Bognor Regis town council announced they had reached an agreement with Billy Butlin to take on the 39-acre Brookland site to build a holiday camp.
There were many reports, letters, condemnations, etc in the local press at the time.
Butlin himself obviously had to retaliate to some of the comments and in 1959 was heard to remark that he would be ‘spending more on advertising Bognor Regis than any other hotel in the town’.
At this time Billy Butlin ran an advertisement advising that it had been ‘agreed to remove their unsightly fun fairs from the middle of the promenade if they could create a sprawling camp half-a-mile to the east (of their prom sites)’.
Residents in Felpham were already asking ‘what will the buildings look like in 20 years’ time?’
I know many people in the town have memories of the plans and building of the holiday camp. Some perceived the building as being similar to a prison, with its grim blocks of chalets, complete with their green roofs.
Others felt ratepayers would suffer, and the town would benefit more from flats and housing.
Other memories include those of the people who were involved in the building of the centre, which took only a remarkable nine months to complete.
Butlin employed 500 local people to build the centre at an hourly rate of 8s 6d (421/2p).
I have heard numerous stories about the state of the land, and due to the nature of the area, apparently a number of vehicles were to be ‘drowned’ in the mud that existed during the building works.
Another memory is that of the new mattresses, still within their protective covers, being used to gain access around the centre in the wet weather.
Bognor Camp was to be the first one Billy Butlin had had the opportunity to supervise himself, and therefore he rented accommodation in the town, with his wife Norah, but I don’t know where this was situated.
Butlin would then be able to oversee all that was happening both with the building and also being able to attend all the discussions that were constantly occurring in the town.
One comment made was that the open Brooklands site was in fact preserving the residents of Felpham from the ‘fish and chips and candy floss of Bognor’.
Finally the camp opened on July 2, 1960, costing £2.5 m and 3,000 weekly campers arrived to this the newest camp of the Butlin empire.
That year there were press reports announcing ‘Butlin’s is good for you!’ Local traders and other venue owners were actually extolling the beneficial effects of the arrival of the centre.
The managers of the local cinemas remarked that they regularly saw people visiting the cinema sporting their ‘Butlin’s’ badges.
A new set of Butlin badges are now available at the centre and are selling fast, thus confirming the status this company’s memorabilia still holds for visitors.
The weather in 1960 was not helping local traders, but the arrival of Butlin’s was.
As one member of the local Chamber of Trade remarked, his ‘business was breaking even’, without Butlin’s he would have expected to be down £30 per week, because of the weather.
It is quite interesting to view the history of the whole Butlin’s empire over the years.
In some places it was welcomed and in others it was rejected, but whatever the locals thought, one thing is quite certain; Butlin’s has a ‘cult following’ today.
In recent years I provided talks to Butlin’s holidaymakers on the history of the company, and it has been enlightening to hear their stories, good, bad, happy and sad.
Some of the guests have been enjoying their holidays at various centres since the 1940s and have superb memories of the early days.
I have met families who have two or three holidays a year here in Bognor; one family travelled regularly from Worthing.
Many people have shared their memories with me of when they were younger,telling of the times when they arrived and girls were in one row of chalets and boys in another, and if you were not married, you were not allowed to share a chalet with a member of the opposite sex.
Many thousands of people have holidayed at Butlin’s and hundreds of people, including myself, have worked at or are working for the organisation today.
Butlin’s today is one of the largest employers in the town, which is lucky for those seeking employment following the demise of some of our other historically major employers, such as Lec Refrigeration, Weir Electronic and Rosemount.
This is in direct contrast to one of William Butlin’s pledges, in that he promised ‘not to absorb local labour’, which was just one of the concerns at the time when it first opened.
The camp is now called a centre and has changed considerably in its 54-year history, however, so have we the holidaymakers.
Originally the camp catered for people who could afford only one week’s holiday per year.
Now many of the visitors come several times a year, while also going abroad.
There is no longer an Olympic-sized swimming pool, but there are the modern flumes.
There are no large dining rooms ringing to the sound of 1,000 holidaymakers on first and second sittings, but there are today’s familiar restaurant chains.
However, what is consistent is that the holidaymakers continue to arrive, use the centre and, of course, the town.
I am sure the discussions will continue for many, many years to come, as the guests continue to arrive, and now of course there are the new hotels available.
Over the years I have provided a history presentation of the Butlin’s organisation, both here in Bognor Regis and around the county, and it has been interesting to hear all the comments and memories of this organisation.
What of the future? There are now three hotels here in Bognor Regis, there is a timeshare scheme in Minehead and a health and fitness club at Skegness.
All a long way from the original concept of Billy Butlin, but these changes are to suit a more modern world.
Since the 75th anniversary, the publicity produced is interesting as it now encapsulates bygone images, logos and original strap lines to promote the modern facilities.
However, whichever path the company takes, it cannot take away the memories of so many holidaymakers who over the years enjoyed the Billy Butlin era.