01 January 2008

Canadian roots of the British holiday camp

Happy new year. It seems appropriate to post a holiday related item today.

If your ancestors were in Britain during the 20th century the odds are they had some connection to a holiday camp. Like millions of workers the family may have taken their annual holiday at one. If the family lived near one perhaps a teenager found a summer job there as did my brother. My father was a manager in a company, the Caister Group, that owned a holiday camp, although he was not involved in that part of the company business. It had been the first that catered to families

According to Wikipedia, "holiday camp, in Britain, generally refers to a resort with a boundary that includes accommodation, entertainment (and recreation) and other facilities. The accommodation typically consisted of chalets - rather like small flats/apartments arranged in blocks of three or four storeys, and terraces of ten to twenty long. In the UK large numbers (some in the many hundreds) of static caravans are termed holiday camps."

The first camp catering to families was founded at Caister-on-Sea, just north of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, in 1906 by John Fletcher Dodd, a former grocer and founder member of the Independent Labour Party. The first guests, socialist friends from London, stayed in tents. It was known as the "Caister Socialist Holiday Camp." Here is a recollection of a holiday there in 1947. A vacation resort still operates on the site.

The name most associated with holiday camps is Butlin. According to the DNB William Heygate Edmund Colborne Butlin (1899 - 1980), known as Billy was born in South Africa. He emigrated to Canada in 1912 and worked in Toronto for Eaton's drawing advertisements. In 1914 he enjoyed fishing, canoeing and swimming at a lakeside camp provided by Eaton's for its employees, which was to become the inspiration for his British holiday camps.

During WW1 Butlin served (attestation paper here and here) without distinction or enthusiasm, returned to Canada after the armistice, and then set out on his entrepreneurial career in 1921 back in England. More detail on his life in Canada is here.

Butlin's holiday camps were not for everyone. Here is life at a camp according to an article in the 1947 Globe and Mail: ".. entertainment is perhaps the chief feature of the camps, whose organized jollity makes them repulsive to many. The guest has hardly a five minute stretch in the day that Butlin will not fill with some sort of unusual activity. Loudspeakers never let the guest out of earshot. He is being invited to go to some part or other of the camp where some interesting competition is underway. He is invited to join in mass singing. He is invited, nay he is urged and almost coerced, into playing at something. He is eating perhaps better food in cleaner surroundings than he has ever enjoyed before. There is never a dull moment ... "

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