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A Different Story for 1953

You will have noticed that over the last few months a lot of attention has been given to 1953. Of course, it was the year of the Queen’s coronation, but what else happened during those 12 months? What happened specifically in our area? I decided to have a little “Google about” and see what I could uncover and the event that caught my attention was Billy Butlin opening The Ocean Hotel, Saltdean on 2nd May 1953.

This is a hotel with a great story. Once a luxury playground for the rich and famous; an exclusive destination for royalty, film stars and the nobility, it became a holiday camp-style hotel for the masses, where the glamour was provided by grannies and prizes were won by those with the most knobbly knees!

The former (Grand) Ocean Hotel opened in 1938 and was situated on Longridge Avenue in Saltdean; a beautiful site and, you might have thought, a perfect time for a coastal extravaganza! The vast Art Deco-style hotel was designed by architect Richard Jones (who also designed Saltdean Lido). The crescent shaped main building and subsidiary buildings covered four acres and accommodated 344 bedrooms and a dining hall that could seat 300 people. It offered every amenity that the guests of the day could possibly desire; first class entertainment, fine dining, dancing, music, and an extremely popular swimming pool.

And, for a short time, The Ocean Hotel, Saltdean was the place to stay and the place to be seen but, as soon as the Second World War started, it became clear there was no longer a place on the south coast of England for a luxury hotel! What the hotel was perfect for, however, was a training facility for firefighters. And, in 1941, the hotel was commandeered for the Auxiliary Fire Service. It was not handed back until 1952 when the lease was acquired by Billy Butlin for the sum of £250,000.

Billy or, to give him his full name and title, Sir William Heygate Edmund Colborne Butlin MBE, was an extremely interesting character, possessing what some have speculated to be a “dark side” (alluding, I presume, to his association with potentially violent people during his early years with travelling fairs), but also a great business sense and an unerring eye for what was needed at any given moment.
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Billy spent much of his childhood in Britain, following his grandmother’s family fair around the country. At the age of 14 he emigrated to Canada with his mother, and during the First World War he enlisted as a bugler in the Canadian Army.

Once demobbed, Billy returned to England, and spent time travelling with his uncle’s fair. He was soon successful enough to purchase equipment and start his own business. He opened his first static fair in Skegness in 1927 and over the next decade expanded his fairground empire, all the time dreaming of different ways to keep visitors entertained on site for longer, including the provision of food and accommodation. He opened his first holiday camp in Skegness in 1936, followed by Clacton two years later. Holiday camps, such as those run by Harry Warner, had existed long before Billy came along, but his unique take on leisure and recreation plus his innovative idea of “a week’s holiday for a week’s pay” took the concept to a whole new level. After the war an even greater opportunity existed to revitalise the leisure scene and this is exactly what Billy did. He instinctively knew what war-torn and weary Britain wanted – colour, happiness and a bit of fun – and he turned holiday camps into a multi-million-pound industry.

By the 1950s, Billy was looking to expand his holiday business even further by including hotels. He had fared well during the war from a partnership with The Ministry of Defence, who took over his camps as training facilities and leave centres for the troops. So, when he found that the war had not been so kind to The Ocean Hotel and that it was in a near derelict condition, he was not phased. Interestingly, Billy later said the extensive restoration and opening of The Ocean Hotel was the best investment he ever made.

And The Ocean Hotel was a little special. It was not technically a holiday camp, it did, of course, offer the Butlin magic ingredients - cheap accommodation, plentiful beer (and Babycham), and onsite “wholesome” entertainment - but it was seen as a step up, a cut above! Perhaps this explains why it became so popular with honeymooners throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies. My parents can testify to this: my mother remembers that when they got into a cab “after standing ankle deep in confetti” at the taxi rank outside Brighton railway station in March 1957, the driver felt that he did not need to ask them their destination, he just started driving!

Billy retired in 1969 and the company was sold to the Rank Organisation in 1972 for £43 million. Billy may well have anticipated the market and seen that holidaymakers were starting to look abroad for their holidays. He, or his tax advisors, may also have seen that it would be a good idea for him to retire and take up residency in the Channel Islands. He lived in Blair Adam House on the island of Jersey until his death on 12th June 1980, aged 80. He is buried in the parish of St John and his grave is shaped to represent a double bed.

The Ocean Hotel did, however, live on. In 1993 it was used in an episode of Poirot. With its Modernist design, it was the perfect backdrop to this story of Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot who, while on vacation in Brighton, solved the mystery of stolen jewels.

The Butlin organisation eventually sold the hotel in 1999, but the new buyers kept it open until January 2005 when the main building which is Grade II Listed, was converted into luxury apartments.

Like the Queen and her coronation in 1953, Butlin’s holiday camps, including the Ocean Hotel in Saltdean, undoubtedly, hold a unique place within British culture.

Posted in History on Aug 01, 2022