“Billy” Butlin (29 September 1899 – 12 June 1980) was a British, South Africa-born entrepreneur whose name is synonymous with the British holiday camp. Although holiday camps such as Warner’s existed in one form or another before Butlin opened his first in 1936, it was Butlin who turned holiday camps into a multimillion-pound industry and an important aspect of British culture.
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, to William and Bertha Butlin, Butlin had a turbulent childhood. His parents separated before he was seven, and he returned to England with his mother.
He spent the next five years following his grandmother’s family fair around the country where his mother sold gingerbread; exposing the young Butlin to the skills of commerce and entertainment. When he was twelve his mother emigrated to Canada, leaving him in the care of his aunt for two years. Once settled in Toronto, his mother invited him to join her there.
In Canada Butlin struggled to fit in at school and soon left for a job in a Toronto department store Eaton’s. In the First World War he enlisted as a bugler in the Canadian Army. After the war, Butlin returned to England, bringing only £5 with him. Investing £4 of that money to hire a stall travelling with his uncle’s fair, Butlin discovered that giving his customers a better chance to win brought more custom in, and he quickly became successful. One stall became several, including prominent locations such as Olympia in London, and Butlin soon was able to purchase other fairground equipment, and started his own travelling fair. He proved successful in this endeavour as well, and by 1927 he opened a static fairground in Skegness. Over the next 10 years Butlin expanded his fairground empire, all the time harbouring an idea to increase the number of patrons in his Skegness site by providing accommodation.
Butlin’s first holiday camp opened at Skegness in 1936, followed by Clacton, two years later. Plans to open a third in Filey were cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War. Butlin used the war to his advantage, persuading the MoD to complete the Filey Holiday Camp and construct two more camps in Ayr and Pwllheli as training camps which he reclaimed when the war was over. In the post-war boom, Butlin opened four more camps at Mosney, Bognor Regis, Minehead and Barry Island as well as buying hotels in Blackpool, Saltdean, and Cliftonville. By the time he retired in 1968, Butlin had allowed hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers a self-contained vacation with a variety of entertainment.