When I first arrived in Bognor Regis to work for Butlin’s I was soon made aware of the history and perception of the Company from the local press. I was repeatedly told that the centre 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 that 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 5th 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 centre at Skegness and at the 60th site anniversary they reported that his 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 the Bognor Regis town council announced that 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 was heard to remark in 1959 that he would be “Spending more on advertising Bognor Regis than any other hotel in the town.” At this time Butlin’s ran an advertisement advising that they had “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?”
This centre was to be the first one that 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 2nd July 1960, costing £2.5 million and 3,000 weekly campers arrived to this the newest centre 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 on the centre, and are selling fast, thus confirming the status that this Companies memorabilia still holds for visitors. The weather in 1960 was not helping local traders, but the arrival of Butlin’s was. As a member of the local Chamber of Trade remarked, that 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 they were welcomed and in others they were rejected, but whatever the locals thought one thing is quite certain; Butlin’s has a ‘cult’ following today. On recent years I provided talks to Butlin 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 1940’s 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 with me their memories 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 centre has changed considerably in its 47-year history, however so have we the holidaymaker. Originally the centre catered for people who could only afford one week’s holiday per year, now many of their visitors come several times a year, whilst also going abroad. There is no 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 guest continue to arrive, and now of course there is the new hotel construction, overlooking the sea and the people who walk along the esplanade to Felpham, thus bringing a new era to this historical company.
Over the years I have been requested to provide a slide show history 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 is the hotel here in Bognor Regis with another planned, there is a Time Share scheme in Minehead and Health & 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 but sadly without the historical interest of today’s management. However which ever path the Company takes it cannot take away the memories of so many holiday makers who over the years have enjoyed the Billy Butlin era.