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Bognor Newspaper Article Back

The following article was written by Sylvia Endacott and first appeared in the Bognor Regis Observer newspaper. It has been reproduced by kind permission of the author.


When I first arrived in Bognor Regis to work for Butlins I was soon to become aware of the history and perception of the Company from the local press. I was repeatedly told that the centre had opened in 1960, which had historically become the day that marked the demise of the town. Over the years I have always been intrigued by the holiday camps history and its existence in the area. I am of course aware that it is also a very controversial subject.

I was therefore very surprised when I found that I had to look back to the 1932s 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, kangaroo, 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 nations 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 Butlins 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?

I know that 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 that 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 only took a remarkable 9 months to complete. Butlin employed 500 local people to build the centre at an hourly rate of 8s. 6d. (42 1/2p.) 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.

This centre was to be the first one that Billy Butlin had had the opportunity to supervise himself, and therefore he was to rent accommodation in the town, with his wife Norah. 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, Butlins 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 badges. The weather in 1960 was not helping local traders, but the arrival of Butlins was. As a member of the local Chamber of Trade remarked, His business was breaking even, without Butlins he would have expected to be down £30 per week, because of the weather.

The centre also opened a club for locals to join and thus enjoy the facilities, and it is interesting to see the complaints that this evoked, from such as the 39 Club which was losing members to Butlins. At Butlins their members could swim, play table tennis or just sit in comfortable chairs, which many preferred to attend the local club, thus affecting the charity work for which club members were famous.

It is quite interesting to view the history of the whole Butlins 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 it has a cult following today. I have recently been providing 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 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 travels regularly from Worthing.

Historically Butlins has a large amount of memorabilia that is available for the avid collector, ranging from their famous Butlin Badges, to clothing, flags, china and one person even has a Butlin bed I didnt ask how he acquired it or why! 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.

But what has been of particular interest is their stories of the demise of Filey, Clacton and Barry Island after the closure of these holiday camps. Clacton has become a housing estate, but not without its difficulties due to ground subsidence problems. Barry Island has also been partly converted into housing. Filey camp is still a derelict site despite closing in 1983.

Many thousands of people have holidayed at Butlins and hundreds of people, including myself have worked at or are working for the organisation today. Butlins 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 Butlins 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 41-year history, however so have we the holidaymaker. Originally the centre catered for people who could only afford one weeks holiday per year, now many of their visitors come several times a year, whilst also going abroad. There is no old time dancing, but there is Line Dancing. 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 todays familiar restaurant chains. There is no boxing, but there are sports activities. 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 which I shall watch with interest.

Sylvia Endacott

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