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Memories of Mosney in the 1950's & 60's by Jane Leslie (nee Kempster) Back

The sign on the main Dublin/Belfast road said Butlins Mosney Holiday Camp and the sight of it set my heart beating out through my ribs!

I first went there, aged 11, in 1951. My father’s cousin, Bill Ramsey, was an ex-army man who had responsibility for stores in Mosney when it opened and he, his wife, Hilary, and their only daughter, Lynn, were given rooms in Mosney House, a very plain and rather uncomfortable farmhouse that had been the original centrepiece of the Mosney land. That the house was plain and uncomfortable was of no concern to me. I was entranced by the playground with its huge slide, the sparkling blue swimming pool the likes of which I had never seen before except in Hollywood films. The gardens at that time were exceptionally lovely with roses twining over the trellis between the chalet lines, the lily pond surrounded by smooth green lawns and flowerbeds filled with summer bedding plants in the brightest of colours. The fact that this was post second world war and that Ireland, we learned in hindsight, was in the middle of a deep recession, made the bright colours and joyful surroundings even more magical.

The map on this website which is supposedly from the 1940s is, in fact, from 1960. When Mosney was first built, there was no indoor swimming pool and the reception area was housed in the ballroom building facing east out to sea. The site of the indoor pool can be seen in one of the photos on the website entitled General View (not the one with the white signpost). The indoor swimming pool complex was built in front of the reception building in 1960 and reception was then moved to a new building near the entrance to the camp. The Amusement Park was not part of the original camp either and was added around 1960 also.

Back in those early days, the Yacht Club was one of the coffee bars opening off the ballroom, and the American Bar was also in that building. The sing-song bar at that time was the Pig and Whistle which was situated in the Theatre building along with the Wishing Well tea lounge and coming up to Goodnight Campers time every night, the redcoats formed a conga line and did a tour of the bars to encourage everyone back to the ballroom for the final get-together.

There was only one diningroom, not two as stated in Neil Hilton’s memories. This was opposite the skating rink facing out over the golf course and had double sittings for most of the season although in the first couple and last couple of weeks this usually reverted to single sittings. The redcoats used the diningroom to whip up enthusiasm for their "houses" Slane or Tara. Tara’s colour was green and Slane’s was yellow and of course it was possible to buy a badge in support of your house. House points were added up during the week as competitions were won and on the final Friday, the house cup was presented to the winning house. Every mealtime the Redcoats paraded around chanting "One, two, three, four, Who are we for, T-A-R-A TARA" only to be contradicted by "Two, Four, Six, Eight, Who do we appreciate, S-L.A-N-E SLANE!"

The theatre offered variety shows during the week and on Thursday, the Redcoat show. In the first years that we were there, the seating was slatted wooden chairs but these were replaced by proper tip-up theatre seats later in the 1950s. There was a board stage left which lit up every so often to say that "There is a baby crying in Chalet No. xxx." It was the camp policy to put families in Chalet lines SA to SO and single people or couples without children in Chalet lines A to O. Security men patrolled the chalet lines at night to ensure the safety of the campers – both physical and moral! Any member of staff caught entering a camper’s chalet after hours was very severely reprimanded and sometimes fired! Young males indulging in horseplay were given short shrift and there were stories of them being taken out the country to Bellewstown racecourse where they were given a good hiding. Whether that was true or not, I don’t know, but I do know that I never heard anyone at Mosney saying that they were afraid to walk around the camp at night-time.

In the early days, there was a playhouse in the building near the tennis courts which also housed the New Mexico restaurant. I recall seeing Eamonn Morrissey (a very well known Irish actor) performing in "The Country Boy" by John Murphy. I was entranced by the play and persuaded my local drama group to put it on about twelve years later when I took a part in it.

The ballroom was the centrepoint of Butlins, the heart of the activities, and was used throughout the day for all sorts of competitions, for square dancing, for ballroom and old time dancing lessons, for afternoon dancing, for fashion shows, for children’s games, and for ballroom dancing every night. The dance bands were of the highest calibre and the names of the bandleaders that spring to mind are Phil Murtagh, Neil Kearns and Earl Gill. The ballroom was without doubt "The Ballroom of Romance" for me and many, many other staff and campers – the sparkly ball turning slowly in the ceiling, the lovely pink and green lights shining up from the bottom of the shell at the back of the bandstand cast a magical glow that was totally beguiling.

The building of the indoor pool complex in 1960 added many new facilities to Mosney. On the upper floor, there were billiards and snooker tables, table tennis and, for a short time, badminton. There was a large lounge area with armchairs and couches that looked out to sea over the swimming pool and was very popular with the older campers. Downstairs, there was Dan Lowry’s Bar, a grill bar, a coffee bar and a dance floor where many of the daytime competitions took place. There were, of course, the windows looking into the pool where the lower limbs of the swimmers were on full view. Every so often some poor unfortunate lost his/her swimsuit to the great hilarity of those watching.

The funfair was introduced to Mosney around 1960 as well and there was a fine view from the Ferris wheel out over the Irish Sea.

There was a staff diningroom in a building near the tennis courts and in the early days this also housed a restaurant called The New Mexico which had very gay gingham table clothes and waitresses wearing appropriate Mexican type dresses. My memory from 1952 when my sister had just started work in Radio Butlin was of the most delicious chips I have ever tasted. Chips were a rarity in those days when potatoes usually came boiled, boiled or boiled!

Many of the redcoats in those early days were students who were trying to earn a bit of money during their holidays and like all other campers I was in total awe of them. Billy Butlin was a tough taskmaster and insisted that the redcoats should mix with all the campers particularly those who had come on their own, who were perhaps rather shy, or lonely. Redcoats were not there to enjoy themselves, they were there to work and in the main they did just that (and managed to have a good time as well) and the atmosphere that they created was unique and unforgettable. I remember one male redcoat who was unlucky enough to be dancing with a pretty girl when Billy B arrived in the ballroom and he was sacked on the spot.

The reputation that Butlins had for being a regimented army camp in disguise was a million miles from the truth. There were activities of every sort all day every day from sports, to dancing lessons, to theatre shows, to competitions of all sorts but none of them were compulsory and if you wanted to lie around the swimming pool all day every day, hoping that the lifeguard would notice you, then you could.

I went on holidays through the 1950s and eventually decided in 1961 to apply for a job as a redcoat myself. I worked for that season and the next and I look back on those two summers as some of the most memorable and enjoyable times of my whole life. I worked as a redcoat with the children and got a taste of what it was like to be a celebrity, signing autograph books and having my photograph taken throughout the season by worshipping children. It was, I think, a defining moment in my life when I appreciated that so-called celebrities were very ordinary mortals with all the human frailties.

Redcoats arrived a day before the campers and I was one of the few redcoats in 1961 who actually knew my way around the camp. The others had to do their best with maps. I was allocated to the children’s area and became Auntie Jane working with Uncle Johnny. We were given one blazer, two white blouses with embroidered pockets, two white skirts and a plastic mac. Anything not returned at the end of the season had to be paid for! The theft of plastic macs was responsible for many harsh words being spoken.

Chalets for staff were on the X and Y rows at the side of the main avenue behind the Catholic Church. When my sister had worked in Mosney during the 50s, the redcoats were housed in style on A line which were detached chalets on the main avenue with beautiful flower beds in front. Two shared a chalet, the toilets and baths were down the chalet line and each chalet had its own washbasin. Chalets had their own unique smell – a mixture of chlorine and dampness I think. The bedspreads and curtains were blue and orange, the curtains with sail boats on them and the bedspreads candlewick with the Butlin logo in the centre. There was one small hanging space and a chest of drawers. There were bunks in the chalets but we unscrewed ours and turned them into two beds.

Clean sheets were a problem and I remember that when I went to stores (my relation had long since left) to ask for them, I was told that we were given clean sheets every week. I assured the storesman that he would only have to look at my sheets to know that they hadn’t been changed for a lot longer than that! It took a lot of persuading to get some.

In 1961, a new Entertainments Manager had been sent over from England. His name was Al Harris and he was followed by Denis (Topper) Brown who had been chief redcoat when the camp opened in 1948 and must have been working somewhere else in 1961. Al Harris had his own ideas about how things should be done, and decided to make the girls in the variety show chorus who were known as the Royalettes, into redcoats. They were all pretty girls and thought it was great fun but the real redcoats, some of whom had been there were years, coming back season after season, were very annoyed and threatened to take action. The Chief Redcoat at that time, Angela Kelly, (who can be seen wearing blue in the postcard of Dan Lowry’s Bar) worked for Butlins both at Mosney and other camps and hotels for many, many years. As far as I remember, she helped to bring the matter to a conclusion by suggesting that the girls would only act as Redcoats during certain times of the day.

I came quite near to being fired by Al Harris when I told him that I would not take over fifty children to Dublin Zoo on a bus on my own. I knew Dublin Zoo very well and the fact that there were two large lakes in it as well as all the usual bear pits, etc. made it a place where children needed to be carefully supervised. By today’s standards, it is incredible that he should have asked me to do so but he had no scruples whatsoever and when I told him that I was not prepared to risk the safety of the children, he told me that I was in danger of losing my job. I remember telling him that the season only lasted until the end of the August anyway and the lives of the children were far more important than a few weeks’ employment. He finally backed down and the visit to the zoo never went ahead.

My pay that first year was £4 per week rising to £4.10.0 the second year and I managed to save a bit! We were given vouchers for use in the coffee bars which was to encourage us to mix with the campers during our time off! We worked a long day, from 8.15 a.m. when we went "swanning" in the diningroom, i.e. circulating among the campers, being friendly and nice, until 9 p.m. when the children were supposed to go to bed. A usual day would start with a ride round the camp on Puffing Billy, followed by a hunt for Big Chief Sitting Bull (one of the senior redcoats dressed up in Indian gear) and on a good day he would end up in the boating lake. Then into the Pool Ballroom for Old Tyme Dancing (I can still do the Veleta) and then to the sports field for races. After lunch (more "swanning") it was into the ballroom for the Junior Princess or Bonny Baby competition and we had to bring over trays of little prizes so that everyone who entered got a prize. One of the junior redcoats had to act as host to the judges and co-ordinate their decisions which sometimes took a bit of diplomatic juggling! We tidied up after the competition and went back to the Beaver Club Room where we had a stage and a tiny little room which was supposedly a dressing room and adjoined the stage of the main theatre where we listened to well-known Irish artists singing favourites by Percy French and Thomas Moore and my clearest memory was of the strains of "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" echoing in the asbestos roof. In the Beaver Clubroom, we ran the heats for the Junior Talent Competition. 1961 was the year that Elvis Presley was No. 1 with Wooden Heart and it was sung over and over and over again, in tune, out of tune, in English, German and gobbledygook. After the evening meal, we used to meet in the ballroom where we played team games and ball games and at 8.30 p.m. Earl Gill’s band would come in so that we could have singing games and finally Goodnight Children. During the two years that I was at Mosney, there was a band member called Sonny Knowles who used to sing regularly as did Johnny Christopher. Sonny Knowles is now a household name in Ireland as a singer and is still performing now well into his 70s.

I had one cloud hanging over my head for the two seasons that I was at Mosney. I had said at my interview that I played the piano a bit. I was begged to play the piano for the Church of Ireland service on Sunday in the ballroom and reluctantly agreed. I was petrified every Sunday and dreaded the ordeal. Canon Adam Lamb was the local clergyman, rector of Julianstown parish, and he searched me out by Wednesday each week to give me a hymn and psalm list and I used to go to the Beaver Room after 9 p.m. most nights to practise. The Catholics had a proper church which held a sizeable congregation, Church of Ireland people sat in the middle of the ballroom floor while I sat up on the bandstand at a big white piano, and the Presbyterians held their service in the Theatre. Chalet No. A1 was used as a little chapel by the Church of Ireland and a communion service was held there once a week.

Given the size of the population of the camp, it was inevitable that occasional deaths would occur and one of the most notable was the death of the bandleader, Neil Kearns. Few people realised that the first little chalet that they passed as they drove into Mosney was in fact the mortuary!

In the corner of the ballroom, for many, many years, there sat a lady in a green blazer at a small table. Her name was Oonagh and she used to tell fortunes from handwriting. She was a great favourite with generations of campers who found her readings very accurate and perceptive.

During the 1950s the variety show at Mosney featured a galaxy of stars from Dublin theatre not least of whom was Jack Cruise, a comedian who prided himself on never indulging in "smut" of any kind. The three month summer season must have been a godsend to people like him who relied very much on the Christmas panto for their livelihood.

Lying as it did, immediately beside the long beach stretching from Gormanston to Laytown and Bettystown, Mosney was able to offer a seaside holiday in combination with the other activities on the programme. The gate to the beach, which was situated behind the tennis courts was manned at all times by a commissionaire in full uniform. On the way to the beach lay the riding stables and horse-riding along the flat sands was very popular. The Laytown races, a unique event which took place on the beach, was enjoyed by many campers over the years.

I’ve read in a couple of places that Butlins Mosney was aimed more at couples and single people than at families. I was very surprised at that opinion because my personal experience was that the camp (which was very small in the early days) was very family orientated. A considerable portion of the visitors came at first from England and from Northern Ireland and I think you will find this is borne out by the "quotes" in the 1962 handbook, all of which were made by English people.

Names associated with those early days are Des Scaife the Camp Controller, Sam Malone, the Camp Manager, Sister Dick, who was in charge of the babies and toddlers section, Denis (Topper) Brown, Chief Redcoat and later Entertainments Manager.

Jane Leslie
March 2009

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