Billy Butlin took a vacation in the Bahamas in 1946 and saw the future potential of the area. He ended up buying two hotels, the Fort Montagu Beach in Nassau and the Princess in Bermuda and set about renovating them in a British style to appeal to the wealthy American market. This led to ideas of building a holiday village and Butlin's (Bahamas) Ltd was formed for this purpose in 1948.
The project was originally costed at £1.5 million and Butlin put up a significant amount from his own pocket, the rest being obtained through a public share issue. Some of the shares were bought by private individuals but the majority went to City investors. Over a million pounds was raised with the promise of a further half-million if needed. Nearly 700 acres of land were purchased on the island of Grand Bahama, then just a sparsely populated area and home to a "secret" American missile base.
The Vacation Village was intended to cater for middle class Americans and Canadians and was somewhat different to the camps back home. The whole village was to be designed with an 'olde worlde' English atmosphere and was to be staffed almost entirely with British workers. The chalets were also much more luxurious with each row named after a different British county. Daytime activities included dolphin fishing and the site was surrounded by miles of spectacular golden beaches. It even had its own currency, specially minted coins with the Queens head on one side.
The project was initially plagued with labour problems but construction continued apace. In order to bring visitors to this remote area an airport was built, the local government promising to pay half the costs involved. Another problem soon arose in that the pound was devalued against the dollar which resulted in construction costs increasing by 25%. Despite this, work progressed but it soon became obvious that the promised half-million of additional funds would now be required. The local government also backed out of its deal with the airport and this caused considerable financial strain.
Despite being partly unfinished the village opened as planned in January 1950 and early bookings were encouraging. However the additional funding never did appear, the City had grown concerned and seemed to be losing confidence in the project. An application for funding through American investors looked promising until the Korean War caused overseas investment to dry up. In order to save the project and to recoup some of the investment, the whole village was put up for sale. Despite several promising enquiries it remained unsold and the company was eventually placed into liquidation in 1953. Billy Butlins personal loss was in the region of £200,000 (the equivalent of nearly £4 million today).
The village was later sold to an American company and became known as the Jack Tar Resort and eventually blossomed into the huge success that Butlin had always imagined. The site continued to prosper throughout the 50s and 60s but began a slow decline which eventually forced its closure in the late 1980s. The site changed hands in 1997 and a luxury hotel and marina complex known as Old Bahama Bay now occupies the site.
Butlin later admitted that the venture had left him almost broke. Another blow was that the City had lost confidence in him and later tried to oust him as boss of the UK holiday division. He successfully fought back and managed to retain control. The UK business later went on to announce record profits. Billy Butlin was simply ahead of his time, he saw the vast potential of the Bahamas and was one of the early pioneers to try his luck there.
Images show Tom & Margaret posing by the fountain of the outdoor pool, a Bahamas Chalet and the Administration Building
Stories of Butlin's excursion into the tropical island of Grand Bahama have been exaggerated somewhat in recent years, but no doubt some of this can be termed as journalistic licence. Here are some of the recollections of Tom & Margaret White, who were there from start to finish, as Redcoats.
"We left England in December 1948 and travelled on the Queen Elizabeth over Christmas to New York. The party included Molly Lister, Jack Ellis, Ali Barber and Ron ?. There were others whose names we cannot recollect.
Tom, Margaret, Molly and Ali spent three weeks in New York to learn Square Dancing with a view to including this as an activity in the entertainment programme. Our tuition was in The Village Barn in Greenwich Village and out tutor was known as Pinto Pete.
We travelled to Palm Beach on the Vacationer train and were then transported to Grand Bahama on a small flying boat.
Upon arrival we saw that the village was hardly finished; the man in charge of construction was Frank Cusworth who was involved in the building of all the post war Butlin camps.
The weather was lovely and we wore shirts as the jackets were too warm. They provided the jackets but they were of poor quality and looked dreadful so nobody would wear them. We provided our own shorts and skirts and wore mainly sandals.
Tom, who had the nickname 'Knocker' from his days in the Royal Navy, taught swimming and Jack Ellis ran the six or seven fishing boats with local boys to crew. We ran putting competitions, Bingo sessions and played cards. There was some cabaret entertainment and dancing. Eric Stanley did a stand-up comic routine with Peter Kent. We did not eat with the guests but were sometimes invited by guests to join them and the management allowed this. We swam in the sea with the Barracudas but we learned to wear rubber shoes in the water as there were `sea eggs' with sharp spines and some folk got them stuck in their feet. The sea was a marvellous blue and the beach was just like the Seychelles.
Most of the palm trees were imported but there was lots of bougainvilia, hibiscus and humming birds.
We had a resident band and singer, domestic help from the island and several Canadians on the staff. Tom Gregg was the 'Commander', with Roy Markwell as Entertainment Manager.
We had day trips on the 'Laundry' plane to Nassau and boat trips to a small island called, Sandy Quay, where we sunbathed in the nude! We wondered if the boatman might forget us and we would end up like Robinson Crusoe.
Tom saved a life when an Irish construction worker put his leg through a plate glass door. He removed his tee shirt to use as a tourniquet and rushed him to the doctor's wife who was able to stitch him up.
Visiting celebrities remembered were, Arthur Helliwell the well known columnist (the man with the trilby hat); Sonja Henji (Ice skating film star), she got into trouble in a boat and had to come ashore to recover.
The only local hotel we remember was the 'Princess Bermuda'.
We left Grand Bahama owing to financial problems, the Korean war had just commenced, and came home via Nova Scotia to Liverpool in January 1951.
The holidaymakers were nearly all American, with a few Canadians. We do not remember ever seeing any British people there.
It was a lovely experience, so long ago now but unforgettable. It would be lovely to go back and see it now. Things were very different to the Butlin camps back home; we had a small entertainment programme but non of the 'Hi Di Hi' sort of routine. It wouldn't have suited the Americans!
Following their return to the UK, Tom (Knocker) & Margeret worked at, Ayr, Blackpool and Pwllheli. Tom also became part of the Butlin Square Dance team, appearing at numerous dance halls around the country, touring the Butlin camps and enjoying many television broadcasts. Tom eventually discarded his Red & Whites and became Deputy Entertainment Manager and Margaret, who was a trained nurse, joined the Nursery Department. At the end of the 1959 season they resigned from Butlin's and went to live in Guernsey, Channel Islands where Tom became Transport Manager at the local Shell-Mex depot until his retirement.
Sadly Tom passed away in October 2007, if you would like to add a tribute to our Obituaries page then please send us an e-mail. Margaret still lives at the same address in Guernsey and would love to hear from any of her old colleagues. Her telephone number (published with her permission) is:- 01481 263218.
Special thanks to Tom & Margaret White for allowing their memories to be shared and for supplying these unique images. Thanks also to Ron Stanway for collating and forwarding the information