Redcoats and Red Arrows
PUBLISHED: 10:01 23 June 2015 | UPDATED: 10:01 23 June 2015
Billy Butlin played a pivotal role in shaping the British institution that is the summer holiday camp. Petra Hornsby explains why Clacton on Sea figured in Mr Butlin’s plans and how the town remains a top attraction today
Clacton on Sea, situated on the Tendring Peninsula, was essentially ‘founded’ by Peter Bruff, a civil engineer. Before it was developed, Clacton was little more than farmland with a beach but. Having already worked on nearby Walton by rebuilding the pier and establishing a rail link, Bruff set his sights further south along the coast. He bought 50 acres of land in 1864 and by 1871 Clacton Pier had been built and this, along with the facilities of a brand new town and resort, would soon entertain the numerous day trippers brought in by the Woolwich Steam Company which would land ferries at the pier. By the 1920s, roads into Clacton had improved and further progress was made during the 1970s when the A120 was extended, obviating the need to go through busy Colchester on route.
The success of Clacton on Sea as a holiday resort then caught the attention of another man with his own ambitions for the town. Billy Butlin began his career by travelling with his uncle’s fair and, although young, he quickly developed a knack for making his stalls successful (by increasing the odds of a win) enabling him to purchase new fairground equipment and eventually buy his own travelling fair. Skegness was the location for his first static fairground and it was here that he decided to offer accommodation to his guests so, in 1936, the first Butlins Holiday Camp was established. By this time, with an ambition to create a leisure empire perhaps, Mr Butlin had already begun making moves on Clacton.
Not everyone in the town was convinced, though, and there were a few doubters that had to be won over. Billy Butlin donated to local charities, involved himself in the popular Clacton Carnival and generally familiarised himself with the locals so that by the time Clacton Butlins, his second camp, opened in 1938, he had plenty of local support.
The opening of the camp also coincided conveniently with the passing of The Holiday With Pay Act where, for the first time, workers would get paid during their holidays. Billy Butlin saw this as a new opportunity and prices were altered accordingly. A Week’s Holiday for a Week’s Wage was a great slogan which encouraged many to head for places like Butlins for an affordable and fun break by the seaside.
However, the Clacton camp barely had time to get going before the outbreak of World War II, which caused its temporary closure. There were even plans to turn the facilities into a Prisoner of War camp. The cheerful facades were replaced with barbed wire and floodlights that were so bright the locals feared they would become a target for the enemy. In the end, the prisoners didn’t arrive; instead the accommodation was used for survivors of Dunkirk and then later as an Army training centre.
Following extensive repairs, the camp re-opened for its original purpose in 1946 and Butlins Clacton went on to become a very popular destination, growing from accommodating 1,000 visitors to 6,000 at its peak following expansion. The resort also provided much-needed employment for the local community and, of course, enhanced the fortunes of the town in general as its attractions, including its two theatres and the amusements on the pier, also saw visitor numbers rise. Sadly, in spite of its popularity during the post-war years and beyond into the following decades, the allure of the affordable package holiday abroad led to a downturn in custom and, in 1983, Butlins Clacton closed leaving behind many fond memories for both holiday makers and employees.
Before the closure of the camp, another phenomenon was taking place off Clacton’s shores — and not an altogether legal one. At the start of the 1960s, the British music scene was taking off in a big way with bands like the Beatles, The Who, Cream and The Rolling Stones shaking up the music establishment. As difficult to believe as it might seem today, only the BBC could legally transmit radio programmes at this time and the three stations stuck to broadcasting mainly news and classical music. How could the young fans of the new and exciting emerging artists hear their kind of music?
In 1964, Radio Caroline became the first radio pirate ship to offer the audience a chance to hear the sounds that would become synonymous with the Swinging Sixties. However, as it was unlicensed, it was illegal. Legislation in 1967, three years after its first broadcast, finally allowed Radio Caroline to transmit within the law. The Government was concerned that it would interfere with radio frequencies for the emergency services and also that artists were not getting paid royalties. However, pirate broadcasts continued and several ships soon became part of the Caroline ‘fleet’ with DJs like Tony Blackburn, Johnnie Walker and Tommy Vance beginning their careers off-shore before taking up more mainstream roles (ironically) at the BBC.
Clacton on Sea today remains a popular resort and it works hard to maintain its function as a fun family venue for visitors. There is a choice of quality holiday accommodation close to the seafront and the pier still offers plenty with rides, amusements, bowling and a Seaquarium. Boat excursions, sea fishing and refreshment outlets are also key features of the lively resort. The town centre has a range of shops from individual boutiques to regular high street names and to the north of Clacton is a shopping outlet village with many bargains to be had.
The sandy beaches are ideal for children and of particular note is the Martello Bay Beach which holds a Blue Flag Award — one of just a few in the East of England. Just a short distance away from the promenade and beach you will also find the award-winning Clacton Seafront Gardens, which are a perfect botanical haven of colour and well worth a visit.
Summer in Clacton also means two special events which the local authorities, local businesses and volunteers work hard to put on as annual attractions for the town. From August 8 to 14, the Clacton Carnival Week commences with highlights that include a carnival procession, a donkey derby, a sandcastle competition, a beer dig and fireworks. The carnival is a fundraising event for local good causes as well as providing great entertainment for both residents and holiday makers.
In 2015, the weekend of August 27 and 28 sees the 24th year of the ever-popular Clacton Air Show which attracts thousands of visitors to the seafront. Every year there is an appearance from the famous Red Arrows display team and although this year’s flight programme is yet to be confirmed, last year’s event saw the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and an appearance from a Canadian Lancaster.
The golden era of the British holiday camp may have passed, but, in many ways, its legacy lives on in resorts like Clacton on Sea where people can visit and enjoy the many simple pleasures of seaside fun with buckets and spades, arcades, sticks of rock and beachside fish ’n’ chips – bliss!