Morning campers

PUBLISHED: 11:49 10 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:14 20 February 2013

Knobbley knees

Knobbley knees

It's 70 years since Billy Butlin cut the ribbon on his holiday camp in Clacton-on-Sea. Nicky Adams says hi-de-hi to the days of the famous Redcoats


BILLY BUTLIN, latterly, Sir William, is known for often commenting, 'Our true intent is all for your delight,' but this famous saying could just as easily apply to one of our county's favourite seaside towns.

Although founded as a resort in the 1870s, it was in the 1920s that Clacton-on-Sea really began to flourish. As soon as London Road was built to make access to the town easier, Clacton became a popular retreat for Londoners and quickly grew to become a much-loved holiday playground.

Its sandy beach, established pier and lively fairground, as well as plenty of cafes and pubs, made Clacton a real breath of fresh air for those from the big smoke.

Although originally there was only space for 400 'campers', Butlin's at Clacton was an immediate success. Easy to get to from London and across the south-east, there was no shortage of guests and the camp was enlarged twice until it could welcome as many as 6,000 enthusiastic holidaymakers, who stayed in accommodation converted from ex-military buildings.

With Jaywick Sands just down the road, the camp was in an ideal location and was built around a lake encircled by a miniature railway. Besides the original amusement park with its carousel, there were also tennis courts, lawns, an open-air roller rink, an enormous L-shaped outdoor swimming pool, and an indoor pool which had an underwater viewing gallery in the camp's South Seas Bar.

Knobbley knees
High-jinks and merriment were provided by the much-loved Redcoats, who cajoled and encouraged the guests to make fools of themselves and join in the fun. The obligatory knobbly knees competitions, dances and shows were held in a variety of entertainment buildings at the Clacton camp including the Gaiety Theatre, the Crazy Horse Saloon, the Viennese Ballroom and Bar, the Blinking Owl Bar and the Regency Ballroom and Bar.

The Redcoats were expected to compere, and often star in, the nightly shows and some went on to become household names. Roy Hudd, was just one Clacton Redcoat who began his showbiz career wearing the famous red coat.

Many of the acts the Redcoats introduced to the campers were also enjoying their first taste of fame and fortune on stage at Butlin's in Clacton. In July 1958 a new group were booked for a four-week stint at Clacton. As it was their first professional engagement, the band's repertoire was rather limited and they found themselves repeating their set time and again to fill the three-hour slot.

The holidaymakers were unimpressed and the band was lucky to finish their booking and take the fee of £25 a week to share between them. Fortunately for him, the lead singer, a young Sir Cliff Richard, went on to greater things.

Despite a spell of closure through the war years, when it was used as accommodation for Dunkirk survivors, Clacton was still going strong until the 1980s. However, cheap package holidays and a population whose tastes were becoming increasingly sophisticated, put Butlin's under threat and the chain's then owner, the Rank Group, took the decision to sell up at Clacton.

Although a buyer was found and the camp reopened as Atlas Park, it couldn't compete with the Costa del Sol and the new venture was short-lived. The site was sold for redevelopment and today the land Billy Butlin bought for his second holiday camp provides housing for the people of Clacton.

Of course, the closure of the camp caused great consternation in Clacton-on-Sea. Jobs were lost, and many feared that it would signal the end of Clacton's life as a holiday resort.

These worries turned out to be unfounded, though, and today Clacton is still as popular as ever, visited and loved by local people and by those who travel from further afield to enjoy the events and traditional delights of a real English seaside town.

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