Billy Butlin’s holiday empire (pictured) was sold to an American company in 1972 for £40million

Billy Butlin, a Canadian born in 1899 in South Africa, first came up with the idea for his interwar summer camps.

He noticed that in Britain it was always raining, yet families were locked in their dingy boarding houses during the day and had absolutely nothing to do.

“Everyone has a right to leisure,” he insists, not just the idle wealthy, who could always escape the downpours by traveling abroad anyway.

With a fortune made being the exclusive European agent for newly invented funfair dodgems, Billy invested £18million (in today’s money) in a 48-acre campsite in Skegness.

The station opened in 1936 and the season was sold out – just as well, as Billy had purchased 16,000 pairs of roller skates.

The advertisements promised “the diversions of the rich man’s vacation at a price within the purse of the ordinary individual” – and Billy aimed his all-inclusive vacation packages at office workers, salesmen, assistant managers in factory and, if he had known, freelance literary journalists of modest means.

A contemporary brochure advertised that “you can just sit quietly on your own veranda smoking your evening pipe”.

What set Butlin’s apart was the sense of community created by the Bathing Belle contests, Knobbly Knees contests, and prizes for loudest snorer, brightest baldhead, and cutest baby. After making the finals of the Glamorous Grandmother contest no less than 23 times, Alice Matthews, 76, “has become a local celebrity in her hometown of Leeds”.

Cheerfulness was maintained by the famous Redcoats, in their elegant jackets and white flannels.

The Redcoats, who included Roy Hudd, Des O’Connor and Dave Allen, but not Frankie Howerd whom Billy had advised to “get another job”, also changed pianos and marked out football fields.

Iconic: The Butlins' camp at Bognor Regis, West Sussex

Iconic: The Butlins’ camp at Bognor Regis, West Sussex

The success of Skegness led, in 1938, to a resort at Clacton, which boasted expansive heated pools and waterfalls.

The camps were requisitioned during the war to become Pioneer Corps training depots. A sign was displayed: “Will reopen when I’m done with Hitler”. Pwllheli was developed by the Admiralty following the Dunkirk evacuation. A total of 250,000 men trained at Butlin, and the armed forces saved a mint without having to build its own barracks.

The holiday trade resumed in 1947, but the North Welsh were skeptical of Pwllheli. They believed that “people who go to holiday camps will drop the orange peel and play the ukulele all over the quiet mountains”.

When Billy wanted to open a camp at Mosney, near Dublin, the Catholic clergy complained, denouncing Butlin’s as “foreign and undesirable”.

The post-war period was perhaps Butlin’s golden age.

The resorts only provided ramps for disabled veterans and civilians injured in the bombings. Cottages were popular with newlyweds and married couples, who could finally get away from cohabitation with their parents. Newlyweds received an alarm clock as a wedding gift. Billy was personally invited to about 200 weddings a year. A telegram was always sent instead.

By 1948, 200,000 families were not getting reservations, so six more camps were opened, and there were nine by 1960, including those at Bognor, Barry Island, Ayr and Minehead, which was built on 165 acres of swamp. The plan was that there would be a Butlin camp within a hundred miles of “every major urban center”.

The entertainment was always sumptuous. Gracie Fields drew a crowd of 10,000 fans when she performed at Skegness.

Laurel and Hardy themselves judged a beauty pageant. Ringo Starr spent two seasons at Pwllheli, where he was visited by Lennon and McCartney. “He went straight from Butlin’s to the Beatles.” Thirteen-year-old Julie Andrews “brought the house down” in Clacton, and in 1979 Catherine Zeta-Jones “was a Junior Star Trail runner-up.”

The Queen visited Pwllheli in 1963 and Billy was knighted the following year. In 1965, however, bookings plummeted. People now owned cars and could take the ferry to the mainland, where there were duvets, bidets and garlic.

In 1972 and the start of cheap air package travel to the Balearic Islands, Butlin’s was sold to the Rank Organisation. Sir Billy retired to Jersey. He died in 1980 and “his holiday empire was gradually dismantled”.

In 2000 Bourne Leisure bought the business and found that ‘short breaks were key to attracting middle-income visitors’.

Skegness, Bognor and Minehead had ‘a major facelift’ and consultations were held with Mumsnet to see what modern families wanted. The Redcoats’ red coats were redesigned by Zandra Rhodes and Jeff Banks.

Butlin’s is now the antidote to airport security checks and frustrations. Sir Billy’s original motto was Shakespearean: “Our true intention is all for your enjoyment.”

  • By Roger Lewis for the Daily Mail. Taken from THE HOST OF THE NATION by Kathryn Ferry (Viking £20)