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Early British holiday camps – which ones did you visit?

With staycations the new norm and the traditional British seaside holiday making a comeback, we take a look at where it all began.


With a showman’s background Billy Butlin hit on the idea to make the British seaside break accessible to everyone and so in 1936 he set about buying a plot of land in Skegness which became the first Butlins Holiday Camp. It was so popular that within a year it had doubled in size and was closely followed by Billy Butlin’s second camp at Clacton-on-Sea.

During the war the Butlin camps were given over for the war effort and were used by the MOD to train soldiers. Butlin was paid to build several more which he bought back at a much reduced price after 1945.

Butlin had also cannily acquired 99 percent of Britain’s fairground equipment during the war when it was worth only pennies giving him the monopoly when the war was over.

Butlin’s heyday came in the 50s and 60s when the camps became ever increasingly ‘modern’ with features such as indoor heated pools, some with glass sides, and monorails.

A Butlin’s experience was not complete without the ever jolly band of men and women called Redcoats. Originally started at the very first camp at Skegness in 1936 the Redcoats main responsibilities were to entertain and keep campers happy.

Famous ex Redcoats include Des O’Connor, Johnny Ball, Michael Barrymore, Rod Hull, Jimmy Tarbuck, Russell Grant, Terry Scott and Anne Diamond.


When war broke out in 1939 Fred Pontin found himself working as a catering manager in a National Service Hostel and started to consider opening a holiday camp after the war. Pontin knew he couldn’t compete with Butlins and so when he opened his first camp in 1946 at Brean Sands he kept it small, more personalised and as it had fairly low overheads he managed to keep the price down too.

Pontins bought other sites and continued to expand but always keeping his camps small and manageable. A week at Pontins was much cheaper than Butlins but had less in the way of entertainment and attractions for the guests.

There was a strong but friendly rivalry between Fred Pontin and Billy Butlin. Butlin once secretly visited Pontin’s Brean Sands camp and had a drink at the camp bar. Someone took a photo which surfaced a few years later and Pontin used in his publicity brochure with the slogan “All the best people come to Pontins!” Billy Butlin was none too pleased!

The rivalry continued with Pontins focussing on better accommodation than Butlins. Knowing he could never compete with Butlin’s entertainment Pontin decided to equip his chalets with televisions and ensuite bathrooms. He also replaced traditional dining rooms with self-serve buffets and was the first to introduce self-catering facilities.

The Pontin Bluecoats were set up in the 1960s, directly copying the Redcoats of Butlins. Famous ex-Bluecoats include Shane Ritchie, Brian Connelly, Bradley Walsh and Gemma Craven.

Did you and your family holiday at Butlins or Pontins? Or did you work at a holiday camp as a Redcoat or Bluecoat or something else? What memories do you have?

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