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The early history of Billy Butlin Back

Extract from the unpublished book "Follow the rainbow to Butlin's" by Paul Wray and Rocky Mason
Used with permission

Also see our tribute to Sir Billy


William Butlin

William Heygate Colbourne Butlin was born in Cape Town, South Africa on 29th September 1899. His father, who was the son of a clergyman, had been sent to this hot and humid climate as he was what was then known as a "remittance man" which is now more commonly known as a "black sheep". Butlin had the good fortune to have a choice of two paths from which he could choose for his future. One path was to follow his grandfather into the church and the other was to take to the road as a traveling showman just like his mothers side of the family, thankfully for everyone Bill chose the fairground.  Bill's father, also called William Butlin, was a well educated man and a typical country gentleman of his time. He was not trained for anything and had never expected to work for a living. His mother, Bertha Hill, was the daughter of a small town baker who had become a traveling showman.

The Butlin family has always been well connected although this did not help Bill in his early struggles. In the eighteenth century the family owned a bank in the town of Rugby. Butlin's Bank was established in 1791 but was absorbed by Lloyds Bank in 1868. Bill Butlin was not the first Butlin to have been knighted as his great uncle, who lived from 1845 to 1912 was the eminent surgeon Sir Henry Trentham Butlin. He held several senior posts at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, he was also President of the Royal College of Surgeons and President of the British Medical Association and his crowning glory was the invention of a new type of surgical scissors.

And so the story begins

Bill's grandfather was a vicar for twenty seven years at the beautiful Priory Church of St. Swithun in Leonard Stanley, Gloucester. It is here the story of Billy Butlin really starts for it was here that the traveling fair came to visit and William Butlin and Bertha Hill met for the very first time and by all accounts, it was love at first sight. They eventually got engaged and married but in the social climate of the time neither family was happy about a marriage of such contrasts and so, with the quiet encouragement of both families they emigrated to South Africa. There they settled in Mowbray, a small suburb of Cape Town. Their house was a small timber built affair and from this they started a bicycle business in a shed at the rear of the house selling and hiring out the new safety cycle, the successor to the Pennyfarthing. As was mentioned earlier William (Bill's father) never expected to work and spent most of his time playing tennis, so it was left to his wife to run the business of importing, assembling and hiring out the new bicycles as well as raising their two young children born while they were out there. The cycle business was unfortunately like their marriage doomed to failure.

Young Bill and Bertha return home

Bertha returned home with the young Bill and his brother Binkie to her family in Bristol England her marriage to William was unfortunately "on the rocks". Leaving the two boys with her sister Jessie, she traveled around the summer fairs in her caravan running a gingerbread stall for her brother Marshall. A year passed and Bertha decided to return to Africa to try to patch up her marriage. Sadly her attempts failed and so once again she returned to England. Travelling the fairs again, Bill and Binkie had to once more stay with Aunt Jessie. They had not been in England long when Binkie sadly died of infantile paralysis and so Bill then joined his mother on her travels. With all this traveling Bill's education was very haphazard, and his greatest lesson in life was earning about people. It was a hard life with many times during the winter months when they could not afford coal for heating or cooking. Fortunately Bill's uncle Jack Watts a miner (who was married to Bertha's sister) used to bring them coal which he had scrounged from the slag heaps.

Bill goes to Canada

In 1911 Bertha met Charles Rowbotham, who worked for the Bristol gasworks, they were soon married and emigrated to Canada. Both thought it too big a risk to take young Bill and so they boarded him out with a widow in Bedminster, Bristol. Being stuck in one place meant that education now played a big part in Bills life and for two years he attended the St. Mary Redcliffe school at Bristol. Although he could read very well he was very slow in other practical subjects, he did however discover that he had an aptitude for drawing and painting which he then concentrated on. Bill's life was soon in upheaval again when Bertha and Charles sent for him to go to Toronto. The journey took him thirteen days, ten at sea and three by train, but Bill soon settled into his new life very well. The family lived on the outskirts of Toronto, in a modest house in Young Street. Charles worked for the Toronto Gas Company as a salesman, and even though he was not earning a fortune they were by no means a poor family. Although education once again played an important part in Bill's life he only stuck with it until he was twelve years old. He was very unhappy at school and was always being mocked because of his English accent which he did not speak correctly as he kept dropping his aitches. With this and coupled with the fact that his family needed money he found himself a job with a firm that collected waste paper, for this he was paid two dollars a week. Always on the lookout for something better he eventually got a job as a messenger boy at Eaton's, Toronto's largest department store. Ever ambitious to move on Bill attended art school in an evening to try to develop his gift for drawing and painting. He eventually found himself transferred to the art department at Eaton's. Being the youngest and least experienced member of the department he found himself being restricted to drawing the easiest of objects. One of the best aspects of working for the company was that he was able to visit their summer camp, which gave him his first taste of a real holiday, indeed a taste of what was to become a very big part of his life.

The First World War

In 1914 came the outbreak of the First World War and recruiting to the Canadian Army began. At first it was decided that only the cream of Canadian blood was good enough to be spilled and so Billy Butlin was not eligible to enlist, twelve months later they were not so fussy.  Bill was still working at Eaton's and was courting a young girl called Jean Coombs, wanting to impress her, but not wishing to be in the front line of battle, he thought one safe way would be to volunteer as a motorcycle despatch rider. This breed of men enjoyed the same glamour of that of the fighter pilots of the Second World War. So Bill went to enlist safe in the knowledge that some of his colleges at Eaton's had also volunteered for the same unit but had been rejected because the Canadian army had its full quota, they had however been told that they would be called upon when needed. This pleased Billy because he was keen to impress but not so keen to join. Unfortunately When Bill arrived at the drill hall, he dropped a "big clanger" he somehow forgot to tell the drill sergeant that he wanted to be a dispatch rider. Instead he just filled out the papers, signed his name and was told to return the following day for his uniform. On his way home he realised his mistake and did think about going straight back to tell the recruiting sergeant, but worried that he might get into trouble he thought better of it. He was in further hot water when he got home as he hadn't told his mother of his plans!.

Bill joins up

The next day Bill returned to the drill hall, (still not having told his mother of his plans) and was presented with his uniform which was ill fitting. Now all kited up he was told to report back again the next day, leaving the hall he went home to break the news to his mother and after a few tears she accepted the inevitable. On reporting back the following day the Army used it's initiative and made him the bugle boy in a band, even though he did not know a note of music, but this was not a problem as none of the others in the regiment could play either!. In October 1915 Bill was posted to Borden Camp, Toronto along with the other buglers and it was here that Bill and a comrade decided to desert, not back to civvy street as you would imagine, but to a battalion stationed forty miles away at Hamilton. Upon arrival they both joined the Cavalry Regiment who immediately set about their education. In only a few days the regiment was due to be shipped abroad and so the normal seven weeks training was crammed into just a few hours. After two long days stuck on a horse with no respite, Bill and friend decided that this was not the life for them and so A.W.O.L. (absent without leave) they traveled back to Toronto.

Go straight to jail - do not pass go!

Once back into Toronto they returned to their barracks explaining how sorry they were, the Army was very sympathetic towards them and gave them 21 days in jail. Eventually Bill settled into Army life and was posted overseas where he received his one and only injury during the entire War. During his training on how to deal with German grenades one of the detonators exploded in Private Butlin's face. The injury was not serious and after a week Billy was released from hospital just in time to be posted to France with his battalion. Bill never saw any front line action, the war passed mainly quietly for him and in 1918 he was back in Toronto after being demobbed and thrown out onto civvy street with no job.

Bill went home to his mother who was now alone, as Charlie had died in 1917. He was soon out and about looking for a job, one with security and a pension and almost ended up working for the City Council as a lavatory attendant, the only thing which separated him from a loo brush was the fact that he filled the forms in wrong!. Instead he returned to Eaton's with cap in hand asking for his old job back, surprisingly they gave him it. He stayed eighteen months before getting itchy feet again and along with his friend Norman Littlewood who had been in France with him, they set up a darts stall at the Toronto Exhibition offering Kewpie dolls asprizes. The stall was a success and feeling very sure of themselves they thought the world was their oyster, how wrong they were and they soon came down to earth with a very big bump. A stranger approached them claiming to be a fellow showman who persuaded them to take two stalls at an up-country exhibition. They paid their money (about £400) in advance and arrived at the exhibition only to find that the man who had taken their cash in advance, had left in advance too. Downhearted they returned to Toronto and once again cap in hand Bill went back to Eaton's to ask for his old job back. Lady Luck must have been smiling down on Bill that day because he was reinstated. His mother Bertha also worked there selling wallpaper. Happy that her son was back in the fold, deep down she knew that he would soon be on the move again once he had some money behind him. True to form Bill got itchy feet but this time he had his sights set further. With only a few pounds in his pocket he "rode the rails" to St. John's, Newfoundland, and signed on as a crewman with a ship bound for England.

Bill arrives in England

On February 17th 1921 Bill arrived in England with just £5 in his pocket and headed straight for Dorney's Yard, Bristol and the winter quarters of the fairground folk in the hope of finding the Hill family, Bertha's family. Not wishing to waste his 5 he decided to hitchhike but in those days there was very little traffic on the roads and so the journey took 5 days. Upon arrival at the yard and after settling in he was given the job of painting and refitting rides owned by the Hill family. Eventually with assistance from his uncles he set up a small hoopla stall at a cost of 30 shillings with prizes loaned to him by his kinsfolk. His first fair was at Axebridge, where business was very good Billy made 10 pounds clear profit, a good deal more than the other experienced stall holders. How did he do this?, simple, whereas the other stall holders aim was to make money and not give away the prizes, Bill decided that it would be better if the public were to win more often thereby making them come back more to try their luck. On a normal hoopla stall the blocks under the prizes are too wide thereby making it very difficult to get the hoop over, Bill made his blocks smaller so that the hoops went over more easily. He therefore got rid of all his prizes and made a very nice profit.

The expansion begins

Ever on the look-out to go bigger and better he had the idea of adding a goldfish stall, by throwing a ping-pong ball into a bowl you won not only the bowl but a goldfish. To look more the part he kited himself and his workers out with a uniform which was made by Wildmans, a local Skegness outfitter, adding the now familiar "B" to his pocket. By wearing these outfits his workers became the first amusement park employees to wear uniforms. Another familiar trademark which appeared in those early days were Bill's painted stalls in blue and yellow. This colour scheme would appear at his first camp, Skegness, some fifteen years later.

During his travels Bill heard that Bertram Mills had started an annual Christmas circus at Olympia London which ran for six weeks. The stalls and side shows were rented out and were pitched along the outside of the big top. As Christmas approached Bill traveled down to Olympia to view the site, on arrival he noticed a certain part of the Olympia where the crowd gathered whilst waiting to enter the big top. Bill decided that this was the best spot from which to run a stall. At the end of the next season Bill traveled to London again this time to see Miss Agnes Moore, secretary to Bertram Mills. She informed him that it would cost 40 per week to have a site eighteen feet in diameter. There were many sites available to him but Bill knew exactly where he wanted his eighteen feet to be and in true Butlin tradition he got it. Realising that his customers would now be more up-market he decided that he must offer better prizes. He remembered a shop that he used to pass in Tottenham Court Road London that sold budgerigars, and bought almost the entire stock. By the end of the season Bill had been so successful that he could now afford to bring his mother over from Canada.

Love at first sight

Over the next few years Bill toured the country with the Hills Travelling Fair leaving Bertha to run the Olympia site. As the years went by he kept adding to his stalls until he had more stalls than he could get ground space for. It was whilst the fair was at Tiverton, in 1924, that Bill met a young girl called Dolly. They fell in love and in 1925 they were married at Tiverton Parish Church.

The first visit to Skegness

With the arrival of the charabanc people's leisure habits changed, instead of staying in their own towns where the traveling fairs came to them. They were instead traveling out to the coast, a place which many people had only ever seen in picture books. Whole villages and factories would save together for the year so that they could hire a charabanc to take a trip to the coast. Only the women and children could go as the men were unable to take the time off work, as this was in the days when there was no such thing as a "paid holiday". Bill being the shrewd businessman he was noticed the move towards the coast. So, not being one for sitting on his laurels he decided after having lengthy conversations with two fellow showmen (who both had stalls at Skegness and healthy bank balances!) to go and see for himself. Scouting along the seafront on a cold day in 1927 for a suitable site, Butlin found a piece of land which he leased from the Earl of Scarborough. The site he had chosen left much to be desired, consisting mainly of sand dunes. These needed to be levelled before any form of amusement site could be built, this was a huge job and although Bill was doing rather well he could not afford to pay to have them removed. Once again this proved no problem for Bill as he soon realised that sand was an expensive commodity for certain businesses (i.e. builders) and so he placed an advert in a local paper selling the sand for five shillings a lorry load with the provision that the buyer must move it himself. It didn't take long before the site was cleared and once this task was accomplished he set up four hoopla stalls, a tower slide, a haunted house ride that he built himself and the following year in 1928, he added a scenic railway.

To oversee the running of his new venture he sent for his mother. During the winter months when the amusements at the seaside would be normally closed, Bill would rent old factories and put in stalls and side shows. He also rented disused bus garages at Whitechapel, Brixton, Tooting, Putney, Hammersmith and Marble Arch in London and turned them into successful funfairs.

Dare devil Peggy and friends

Within a few years Bill had moved to a bigger and better site continuing to expand with bigger, better and sometimes unusual attractions. One such attraction was Dare-Devil Peggy, a one-legged diver who would plunge from a height of sixty feet into a tank of water no more than ten feet deep!. Another attraction was "Alf", who would be buried alive in a coffin with no food. The only contact with the outside world was a pipe which ran from the coffin to the surface to allow Alf to breath. When the amusement park closed for the evening fellow amusement park workers would pour food down the pipe, he lived on anything that was runny and managed to stay underground for up to two weeks at a time.

A brand new ride that Bill brought to Britain was the Dodgem cars, he had first seen them in Toronto and had wrote to a friend requesting more information. After many months negotiation with the manufacturers the first Dodgem cars weaved their way about Skegness seafront in 1928. They were an immediate success and with an eye for further profit Bill obtained the sole agency rights throughout Europe. After conquering Skegness with the dodgems he placed them at Bognor, Clacton, Rhyl and Felixstowe. Bill continued to expand his empire with new fairs and rides opening up all over the country and in 1930 he really moved up in the world when for the first time since leaving Toronto he lived in a house of his own. Although, he actually spent very little time in it as he was constantly traveling around the country checking on his fairs. Bertha continued to help and support him in every way she could. But in 1933 she caught a chill whilst traveling, this was nothing serious in itself but it turned into a severe mastoid condition and Bertha was rushed to a London hospital. Unfortunately she never recovered and sadly she died before seeing Bill's greatest achievement, the building and opening of his first holiday camp. The idea of a holiday camp had been running through his mind for quite some time, his amusement parks had caught on because he had anticipated the holiday makers need. The idea developed from his observation of the seaside landladies who used to literally throw their guests out between mealtimes whatever the weather. He remembered seeing the hoards of holiday makers wandering around in the rain with nowhere to go. His mind wandered back to the lakeside holiday centres he had seen in Canada, which combined the adventure of camping with all-weather enjoyment.

The first holiday camp

The camp did not come to fruition overnight, although he had the backing and the plans, he spent at least a couple of years traveling around looking for the ideal site on which to build that first holiday camp. One morning as he was driving from his home in Skegness to visit his amusement park in Mablethorpe, he was passing through the village of Ingoldmells when he asked his chauffeur to stop. Getting out of the car he looked around. The view was not one of the best in the world, miles of turnip fields but something in Bill's mind clicked, this was IT!. The site was on the main road, facing the sea and surrounded by bad farming land that would be cheap to buy. Skegness, with it's jolly fisherman logo, is in a delightful part of the Lincolnshire coastline, close to the rolling Lincolnshire wolds. Skegness illuminations are described as the biggest free show on the East coast. Between mid July to the end of October thousands of light bulbs turn the town into a glittering fairyland. As soon as the summer season had ended and his amusement parks had closed he called all his best men together and found them lodgings in Skegness. Work began in October 1935 and the camp was opened on Easter Sunday 1936 by Amy Johnson from Hull, who was the first woman to fly from England to Australia solo. An advert was placed in the Daily Express announcing the opening of the camp and inviting the public to book for a weeks holiday enclosing a ten shilling registration fee. The advertisement offered holidays with three meals a day and free entertainment. A weeks full board cost anything from 35 shillings to three pounds a week according to the time of year.

Not even Bill could have envisaged the huge response and a few days later Skegness Post Office telephoned the camp informing them that they were inundated with sacks of mail. One camper, Miss Freda Monk from Nottingham was so eager that she turned up for her weeks holiday a day before the camp opened. But in true Butlin's tradition they made her very welcome, so much so, that she returned year after year.

The first day of the camps opening saw snow and during the next three days of the season Bill was aware that although the holiday makers had settled in very well they seemed to lack enthusiasm. It was at this point that the idea of the Redcoat was born. Entertainment in the evening was proving to be a problem as Bill had poured most of his capitol into the actual camp, leaving very little in the kitty for professional artistes. Volunteers to provide the entertainment were sought from every quarter, from the camp staff to the holiday makers themselves. The dining room doubled as the camp theatre and as soon as dinner had finished the campers would pick up their chairs and place them in front of the small stage in readiness for the show. During the show the kitchen staff and waiters would wash the pots and prepare the kitchen for the next meal and it was a common occurrence for the campers to keep having to shout to the kitchen staff to be quiet because they couldn't hear the act. Afterwards everyone helped clear away and set up for the next meal to be served. It wasn't until 1954 that they stopped holding entertainment in the dining rooms and had proper theatres built.



Additional information and history on the Butlin's empire can be found in other sections of this website, with still more to be added. Further information on the later history of Billy Butlin and the camps themselves can be found in our Butlin's FAQ.

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