Holidays are something which we take for granted as a right in the 21st century. But you may be shocked to know that until 1938 holidays were not available to the UK’s working classes.
The Holidays with Pay Act of 1938 was the culmination of 25 years of hard lobbying by trades unions and other workers rights organisations. For working-class people in Britain, the advent of holidays with pay was a significant step forward in changing the balance between their work and leisure time.
When the Act was passed, entitling all workers to one week’s paid holiday per year, it caused an explosion in tourism. Workers flocked to the UK’s seaside resorts by train, often on special trains chartered by their employers. Boarding houses were run by the often notorious landladies, and everyone crowded into amusement arcades, pubs, cafes and onto the beaches, often in their “Sunday best” clothes. Strange as it may seem to us now, it was quite common for men to wear suits to the beach.
Not all the swarms of holidaymakers could be accommodated in boarding houses, and so new forms of mass accommodation also began to spring up. This was the time of the birth of the Holiday Camps – Butlin’s was the pioneer in 1936 , offering fairly basic accommodation and catering for one fixed price which many families found they could now afford. Customers had their own chalets to stay in, and meals were provided as well as recreational activities and amusements. In its day, it was revolutionary.
Billy Butlin, the founder of Butlin’s had started as a fairground stall operator who quickly rose to running fairgrounds, helped enormously by gaining the exclusive license to operate Dodgem cars in the UK, which allowed him to upscale his business to running entire fairgrounds. He later took the opportunity to work at the UK’s first holiday camp established by Warners in 1932, which gave him the perfect opportunity to observe and research his own offering sometime later.
In his many years observing seaside holidaymakers, he particularly noted their inconveniences, the main one of which was being turfed out of their accommodation during the day (often in the pouring rain!) by the (often formidable) seaside landladies who ruled the boarding houses with a rod of iron. Butlin realised that if people were treated a little better, and given good service in spacious surroundings for an affordable price, then UK holidaymakers would jump at it. He was right – in 1936, the year the first camp-at Skegness- opened, saw the camp hugely over-subscribed, and the size of the camp grew exponentially year on year, as well as encouraging the establishment of many other Butlin’s camps up and down the UK, starting with Clacton which opened in 1938.
Families could get a week’s full board holiday with three meals a day and free entertainment included – all from as little as 35 shillings a week ( approximately equivalent to £99 today).
A massive 10,000 bookings immediately flooded in from eager holidaymakers.
The Skegness resort, mostly built on land which had previously been turnip fields, cost £100,000 to build (around £5million at today’s prices). The camp sported the slogan: “Our true intent is all for your delight”, a Shakespeare quote from A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Billy had first seen the phrase painted on the side of a fairground organ and decided to adopt it for his camps, painting it across the front of one of the main buildings facing the pool and lake. He also pulled off a coup by getting the renowned aviatrix Amy Johnson (the first woman to fly solo from the UK to Australia) to perform the opening ceremony in 1936.
During the first season, the camp was a huge success, and within the first year the capacity of the accommodations expanded from 500 to 2000. Every yard of the massive 200-acre site was working hard.
The first Butlin’s camp had dining halls, bars, a swimming pool, a boating lake, gymansium, theatre, funfairs and special events for the children, gardens – and, of course, that bracing Skegness sea air, as well as scheduled activities, entertainments, talent shows and competitions – all designed to satisfy the needs of a very diverse audience who wanted things to do, and pleasant surroundings to do them in. Anything and everything was brought into service as a diversion – from beauty contests to Glamorous Grandmother competitions to Knobbly Knees competitions for the men.
The staff at Butlin’s needed an identity, and so Butlin came upon the idea of dressing them in red blazers, so that they would be easily, instantly identifiable to guests- and so the name “Redcoats” was coined. These folk were everything the customers wanted them to be- minders for the kids, organisers and leaders for events, entertainers for the shows and bars, information finders as well as helping to maintain the general happy atmosphere of the camp and the guests. Over the years, many famous entertainers have talked about starting their careers as Redcoats at Butlin’s.
It wasn’t long before rivals copied Butlin’s idea, including Pontins and several other independents, all with their own take on the successful formula. In their first few years after the advent of paid holidays, holiday camps were massively oversubscribed – at one point, it is reported that Butlin’s itself had to turn away 3 out of 4 applicants! With three meals a day included as well activities and events laid on, it was an inexpensive way for hard-working families to get away for a few precious days.
Of course, the outbreak of World War Two scuppered the camps for the conflict’s duration, but post-war was the heyday of the holiday camps – which then lasted well over 20 years, until a new sort of package holiday began to become available -and affordable- to working-class families. This was the foreign package holiday, where the weather was usually guaranteed and exciting and exotic destinations beckoned Brits to expand their horizons.
The holiday camps could not compete on weather, and began a slow decline in popularity. A few holiday camps still exist today, redesigned and repackaged as resorts (some of the original chalets at Butlin’s Skegness were even Grade II listed), but the age of the holiday camps as a mass attraction had had their day. But whatever age you were when you went there, few will forget their experiences when you could get such value for your family.