Billy Butlin was a great showman who left his indelible mark on two seaside sites in Sussex.
He opened a holiday camp in Bognor Regis which is still thriving today and he also ran the Ocean Hotel in Saltdean.
Born in 1899, Butlin was quick to appreciate the need of ordinary people for holidays once prosperity started to increase in the 1930s.
His slogan was “Our true intent is all for your delight”, and he meant it. It applied first of all to his fairgrounds and later to his holiday camps.
Butlin’s long association with Bognor began in 1931 when he opened an amusement centre and small fairground. Its attractions included dodgems, a mirror maze, a rifle range, laughing clowns, bingo and a big selection of slot machines.
Two years’ later Butlin opened a zoo and an aquarium, entered through a huge rock façade. It contained bears, pelicans, kangaroos, monkeys and leopards on a fairly small site.
Bognor Council decided in the late 1950s it would like all the Butlin’s amusements to be on one site, tucked away from the main promenade. It found a site to the east of the town.
By this time, Butlin was at the height of his fame and his holiday camps in coastal resorts such as Filey and Clacton were now world famous.
The Bognor site was never as big but it did have an impressive main building. Later, when the indoor pool opened, it was one of the most advanced in Britain.
Many locals turned out to see Butlin when he arrived with leading members of the company to inspect the site shortly before it opened. He had invested £3 million and changed Bognor for ever.
The first Butlin’s hotel – the Ocean in Saltdean – was designed in 1938 in art deco style. Butlin bought it for £250,000 and opened it in 1953.
In a new book on Butlin’s an advertisement is quoted saying the Ocean Hotel offered the same attractions as a holiday camp with the comfort of a self-contained hotel. It also had special open-air decks which Butlin advertised as a sunbather’s paradise.
The Ocean Hotel vied with Saltdean Lido a few hundred yards’ away to be the best art deco building in Brighton.
Butlin retired in 1968 and the company was never quite the same without him. In 1972 it was sold to the Rank Organisation and the camps started to close after that. Later, Rank’s holiday division was sold to Bourne Leisure.
The Bognor camp has had millions of pounds invested in it in recent years and its luxurious hotels are a far cry from the somewhat spartan chalets of the 1960s. The sail-like roofs of the centre are a local architectural landmark.
Although the main block of the Ocean Hotel is still there, it is now surrounded by new buildings and is part of a luxury flats centre. Some have been bought by former guests.
Butlin was always ready to welcome sports and entertainment stars at the camps and hotels. He sponsored event such as a cross-Channel swim, a walk the length of Britain and an air race from Paris to London.
He raised huge sums for charity and the fairground boy was later knighted. His holiday camps, Redcoats and early morning wake-up calls have gone down in seaside history.
* Butlin’s: 75 Years of Fun! by Sylvia Endacott and Shirley Lewis is published by The History Press at £12.99.