Sir W.E. ‘Billy’ Butlin

Sir W.E. ‘Billy’ Butlin 1899 – 1980

Billy Butlin was born on the 29th September 1899 in Cape Town, South Africa. Named William Heygate Edmund Colbourne Butlin. It was from his mother’s side of the family that Billy’s successful career in entertainment was grounded.

His childhood

Billy Butlin was born on the 29th September 1899 in Cape Town, South Africa. Named William Heygate Edmund Colborne Butlin by his parents William, son of a clergyman and Bertha, the daughter of a baker, who had become a travelling showman. His parents had emigrated to South Africa some years earlier. It was from his mother’s side of the family that Billy’s successful career in entertainment was grounded.

Bertha returned home with the young Billy and brother Binkie to her family in Bristol England, following the breakup of her marriage to William. Leaving the two boys with her sister Jessie, she travelled around the summer fairs in her caravan running a gingerbread stall for her brother, Marshall Hill.

His brother Binkie sadly died early of infantile paralysis and Billy then joined his mother on her travels. With all this traveling, Billy’s education was very haphazard, and his greatest lesson in life was learning about people.

His mother Bertha remarried and emigrated to Canada leaving Billy in Bristol to continue his education before joining his mother in Canada in 1911. It was during this period of schooling in Bristol that Billy found he had an aptitude for art and drawing.

In Canada, keen to earn his way, Billy eventually got a job as a messenger boy at Eaton’s, Toronto’s largest department store. Ever ambitious to move on Billy attended art school in the evening to try to develop his gift for drawing and painting. He eventually found himself transferred to the art department at Eaton’s. A perk of the job was that he was able to visit their summer camp, which gave him his first taste of a real holiday, a taste of what was to become a very big part of his life.

World War 1

At the start of the war in 1914 Billy signed up by accident. Two of his colleagues from the art department at Eaton’s Department Store had gone off to volunteer as motor cycle despatch riders but had been told that the Canadian Army already had its full quota so they would be called up when required. His colleagues were given a badge, which proclaimed this fact, and Billy rather fancied one of these. So like many young men of the time he saw the war as a big adventure, and went along to the recruiting office and stating that he wanted to join the army. Billy was not good at filling in forms and forgot to mention that he was just volunteering to be a despatch rider; he also inflated his age by a year.  The sergeant duly asked him to return the next day to be fitted for his uniform.

On his way home he realised his mistake and did think about going straight back to tell the recruiting sergeant, but worried that he might get into trouble he thought better of it. He was in further hot water when he got home, as he hadn’t told his mother of his plans! The truth dawned on him, he had enlisted. At 16 Billy was very small and very slight and this caused some issues when it came to the uniform he was given, the smallest  the Canadian Army had.

On reporting back the following day the Army used its initiative and made him the bugle boy in a band, even though he did not know a note of music, but this was not a problem, as none of the others in the regiment could play either! In October 1915 Billy was posted to Borden Camp, Toronto along with the other buglers and it was here that Billy and a comrade decided to desert, not back to civvy street as you would imagine, but to a battalion stationed forty miles away at Hamilton. Upon arrival they both joined the Cavalry Regiment who immediately set about their education. In only a few days the regiment was due to be shipped abroad and so the normal seven weeks training was crammed into just a few hours. After two long days stuck on a horse with no respite, Billy and friend decided that this was not the life for them and so went A.W.O.L. (absent without leave). They travelled back to Toronto and were given 21 days in jail.

He was posted to France with his battalion the 216th (Bantams) Battalion, part of the 3rd Canadian Division. Billy never saw any front line action, but he did see the impact of the horrors of trench warfare on other soldiers, as he had been made a stretcher-bearer. The 3rd Canadian Division took part in the battles of Vimy Ridge, Ypres, Arras and the second battle of Cambrai.  In 1918 he was back in Toronto after being demobbed.

Back to England

He was to return to England in 1921 with just £5 in his pocket and headed straight for Bristol in the hope of finding the Hill family, his mother’s Bertha’s family. Eventually with assistance from his uncles he set up a small hoopla stall at a cost of 30 shillings with prizes loaned to him by his kinsfolk. His first fair was at Axebridge, where business was very good. Billy made 10 pounds clear profit. Billy had decided that it would be better if the public were to win more often thereby making them come back more to try their luck.

He then went on to expand not only his stall offer with goldfish bowl attraction but starting to develop his brand identity by creating a uniform for himself and his workers with the letter B on the pocket and painting stalls in blue and yellow to establish a stand out identity, which he would use to big effect later in his career.

Billy then moved to London to set up a successful stall in Olympia outside the Christmas circus run by Bertram Mills. By the end of the first season Billy had been so successful that he could now afford to bring his mother, who was by then widowed, back to England from Canada.

Over the next few years Billy toured the UK with the Hills Travelling Fair leaving his mother to run the Olympia stand and eventually had his own travelling fair.

With the advent of the railways and growth of the motor vehicle, Billy recognised that the future lay not in travelling fairs going to the public but the public travelling to seaside resorts and taking not only the benefits of the sea air but the other attractions that were available and so commenced his development of seaside amusements parks and the holiday resorts as we know them today.

In 1925, he opened some permanently sited stalls at Barry in South Wales and in 1927 he purchased a piece of land in Skegness setting up an amusement park. Ever the entrepreneur he secured an exclusive licence for dodgem cars in Europe (he had first seen them in Canada) and introduced the first cars to the British public at his Skegness site in 1928. Other showmen had to buy their dodgems from Billy Butlin under this exclusive and probably very lucrative agreement.

Work began in October 1935 on his first Holiday Camp in Skegness which was opened on Easter Sunday 1936 by Amy Johnson the famous aviator from Hull, who was the first woman to fly from England to Australia solo. An advert was placed in the Daily Express announcing the opening of the camp and inviting the public to book for a week’s holiday enclosing a ten shilling registration fee.

The Early years in Bognor Regis.

Billy Butlin’s first investment in Bognor Regis was the opening of Butlin’s recreation shelter situated on the corner of Lennox Street and the esplanade in 1932. It of course offered dodgem cars as well as the popular seaside amusement attractions: a mirror maze, laughing clowns, children’s rides and the largest range of slot machines seen on the coast at that time.

In 1933 he further expanded his attractions in Bognor Regis with the Butlin’s Zoo on the seafront complete with its plasterwork Alpine range as its main scenic feature. The Zoo contained an exotic range of animals including bears, hyenas, leopards, pelicans, kangaroos, polar bears and monkeys.

World War 2

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the Clacton and Skegness camps were requisitioned by the War Office for use as training camps. The ministry needed further camps, and contracted Billy Butlin to build them. He agreed, on condition that he could purchase the sites when the war was over, to use as holiday camps. The ministry agreed, and Filey (1945), Pwllheli and Ayr (both in 1947), opened after the war. 

During the war years, a number of Butlin’s camps were used as Royal Navy shore establishments. Skegness became HMS Royal Arthur, a training establishment for petty officers; Pwllheli became HMS Glendower, Ayr became HMS Scotia. Filey became RAF Hunmanby Moor and Clacton, after being considered for use as a prisoner of war camp, was later used as a training site for the Pioneer Corps.  Billy Butlin was recruited by the Ministry of Supply and asked to look at the causes of low morale amongst the workers in Britain’s munitions factories. His first stop was at the Royal Ordnance Factory, in Chorley, where he found that the camouflaged huts and barbed wire fences used to house workers gave them the feeling of being interned.

Billy was able to devise activities and systems to boost morale, which led to his appointment as Director General of Hostels. In this position, he introduced games and entertainment similar to those used in his holiday camps. These included: whist drives, amateur dramatics, theatrical productions and cinema.

In 1943, he encouraged workers to continue taking their holiday entitlement but to do so at home, arranging various travelling fairs to visit towns on their “holiday week”.

Late in the war, during the Allied advance through Western Europe following the Normandy landings, he was approached by General Montgomery who asked him to help set up leave centres for the 21st Army Group. Starting in Brussels, the “21 Club” concept quickly spread through Western Europe, providing entertainment and relaxation for servicemen and women.

In 1944, Billy Butlin was awarded the MBE for his wartime service to the Ministry of Supply.

The development of the Butlin’s Bognor Regis Resort

By 1958, Bognor Regis Town Council were looking to redevelop the Western end of the Esplanade but William Butlin’s arcade and attractions were in the way of the development. In 1958 the Council reached a deal with William Butlin offering him a 39 acre site with a 99 year lease at the east end of the Esplanade, what was then know as the Brookland site between Bognor and the village of Felpham. The Council did not want Butlin’s to leave Bognor Regis; they just wanted him to leave the seafront. The rates to be paid for the new site were £12,000 a year.

Billy Butlin is reported to have said “ I intend to make this camp the best thing I have ever done” and with this, he and his second wife Norah rented a flat in Bognor Regis for the winter of 1959-60 to supervise the work. By February they already were taking 500 bookings a day for the new camp. There were 500 staff involved in the building of the camp and were paid 8s and 6d per hour to build the 1,600 chalets.

Just 9 months after building had commenced the camp was opened on the 2nd July 1960 at a cost of £2.5 million with 3,000 visitors on the first day. At the end of the first season, which had attracted over 30,000 visitors, local residents were invited to enjoy the facilities the camp had to offer by joining the Bognor Regis Winter Social Club. For 2 Guineas (21 shillings or £1.10p), they had access to some of the best sports facilities on the South Coast.

It was not all plain sailing with some local opposition to the large-scale development in the town and Billu Butlin was a master in the use of advertising to sell his camp and promote the fact he was moving an unsightly amusement arcade off the Esplanade as part of the deal.

The Holiday Camp also benefited the town’s commerce. The weather in 1960 was particularly poor and a local member of the towns Chamber of Commerce noted “his business was breaking even with the arrival of Butlin’s, whereas it was down £30 a week due to the bad weather”

In 1999, Butlin’s undertook a major mullti-million pounds revamp of the complex with the new skyline pavilion providing a weather proof venue the size of Wembley stadium football pitch for its restaurants, shops and entertainment.

Butlin’s today in Bognor Regis with its characteristic skyline pavilion has come a long way from its early days of cheap holidays competing with the growing popularity of overseas packaged holidays of the 70s and 80s.

Under its new ownership as part of Bourne Leisure, the chalets which characterised the Butlin’s Holiday Camps of the 60s and 70s are being superseded by its three upmarket hotels, the Shoreline opened in 2005, the Ocean hotel opened in 2009 complete with Spa and the Wave Hotel.

In March 2019, the site will open its £40 million swimming complex claimed to be the largest in the UK if not Europe, with the company committing itself to Bognor Regis until at least 2050. The site has lived up to Billy Butlin’s vision for Bognor Regis.

Family and Knighthood

Billy Butlin was married three times, the first two marriages to Dolly (Dorothy), and then Norah were to be short lived with Billy finding a new partner Sheila Edwina Devine whom he married in 1975 and remained with until his death in Jersey, The Channel Isles in 1980.  He had numerous children from the three marriages, Shirley born to Dolly, Robert and Cherie born to Norah followed by Sandra then William Jnr and Jacquie born to Sheila. Robert was to take over running the Butlin’s business as Chairman and Managing Director from 1968 to 1984.

Billy Butlin was an active supporter of charities through the Grand Order of the Water Rats as well as the Variety Club of Great Britain. In 1963 he set up the Billy Butlin Charity Trust and in 1966 he donated £100,000 to establish a charity for police officers incapacitated or killed in the line of duty. The fund grew to £250,000 with public support and eventually reached £1 million.

Billy Butlin became Sir William (Billy) Butlin in 1964 when he was knighted for his services to charity & the church following in the footsteps of his uncle Sir Henry Trentham Butlin an eminent surgeon.

Sir Billy Butlin retired to Jersey in the Channel Isles with his wife Sheila and died aged 80 in Jersey in 1980.

The business

In 1937, William Butlin turned his business into a Limited company and on 8th February the prospectus was published for the share offering that sold out in 5 days.

Having developed his entertainment, hotels and resort business, Billy Butlin retired from the business in 1964 with his son Robert taking over control. In 1972 the Butlin’s business was sold to the Rank Organisation for £43 million with Robert remaining as Managing Director after the takeover by Rank. In 2000, it was  purchased by the current owners Bourne Leisure.


Today the Bognor Regis Butlin’s resort attracts over 200,000 visitors a year and with its new £40 million pool facility opening in 2019 the resort is set for even greater things, living up to the vision of Billy Butlin made 60 years earlier to make Butlin’s  Bognor Regis, the best thing he had done.

Acknowledgements – Wikipedia: Billy ButlinButlin’ – – Bognor Regis History – Butlin’s by Sylvia EndacottA History of Bognor Regis – Gerard YoungButlin’s 75 Years of Fun – Sylvia Endacott and Shirley LewisBognor Regis Post – Butlin’s looks ahead in town.  Feb 15 2019