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The Battle of Butlin's: Vulgarity and Virtue on the North Wales Coast, 1939–49

  • PYRS GRUFFUDD (a1)
Abstract

At the outbreak of the Second World War the holiday camp entrepreneur Billy Butlin agreed a secret deal to build an Admiralty training camp near Pwllheli in North Wales. The camp would be transferred to Butlin at the end of the war for use as a holiday camp. Whilst planners were initially horrified, the strategic argument that such camps would concentrate coastal development and also provide the necessary places for the expansion of ‘holidays with pay’ prevailed. More sustained opposition came from those concerned about the imposition of a culture of urbanised mass leisure on the Welsh heartland of the Llŷn Peninsula. For some, the threat was ‘bathing beauties’ and alcohol; more profoundly, many feared the destruction of a Welsh-speaking rural polity. National sentiment rallied around an alternative social service camp and an overt form of Welsh nation-building. Nonetheless, Butlin won the case and the holiday camp opened in 1947.

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Notes

1. In this paper the Welsh spellings of Llŷn and Caernarfon are used, except in quotations in which the Anglicised versions Lleyn and Caernarvon remain.

2. Corbin, A., The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World (Cambridge, 1994).

3. Walvin, J., Beside the Seaside: A Social History of the Popular Seaside Holiday (London, 1978), p. 72.

4. Shields, R., Places on the Margin: Alternative Geographies of Modernity (London, 1991).

5. Although Shields argues that this sense of liminality and the carnivalesque were often carefully controlled, channelled and marketed.

6. Walton, J. K., The British Seaside: Holidays and Resorts in the Twentieth Century (Manchester, 2000).

7. Walvin, Beside the Seaside.

8. Brunner, E., Holiday Making and the Holiday Trades (Oxford, 1945).

9. Walvin, Beside the Seaside, p. 120.

10. See Cross, G., ed., Worktowners at Blackpool: Mass-Observation and Popular Leisure in the 1930s (London, 1990).

11. Cross, Worktowners at Blackpool, p. 10.

12. Joad, C. E. M., The Book of Joad (Under the Fifth Rib): A Belligerent Autobiography (London, 1932), p. 195.

13. Joad, C. E. M., The Untutored Townsman's Invasion of the Country (London, 1946), pp. 153–4.

14. Dougill, Wesley, ‘The British Coast and its Holiday Resorts’, Town Planning Review, 16 (1935), 265–78.

15. Sheail, J., ‘Coasts and Planning in Great Britain before 1950’, Geographical Journal, 142 (1976), 257–73.

16. E. Rhodes Smith, Letter to Secretary, Ministry of Health, 25th January 1937, Council for the Preservation of Rural Wales (CPRW) Papers 10/7/1, National Library of Wales (NLW), Aberystwyth.

17. Ward, C. and Hardy, D., Goodnight Campers: The History of the British Holiday Camp (London, 1986), p. 281.

18. CPRW, Holiday Camps in Wales, CPRW Papers 10/7/2, (1939).

19. Steers, J. A., ‘Coastal Preservation and Planning’, Geographical Journal, 104 (1944), 727, 11.

20. Steers, ‘Coastal Preservation’, 12.

21. See, for example, Matless, D., Landscape and Englishness (London, 1998), especially chapters 2 and 7.

22. Walvin, Beside the Seaside.

23. See Dawson, S., ‘Working-Class Consumers and the Campaign for Holidays with Pay’, Twentieth Century British History, 18 (2007), 277305.

24. Quoted in Steers ‘Coastal Preservation’, 23.

25. Quoted in Steers ‘Coastal Preservation’, 20.

26. Ministry of Works and Planning, Report of the Committee on Land Utilisation in Rural Areas Cmd.6378 (London, 1942), p. 25. See also Tichelar, M., ‘The Scott Report and the Labour Party: The Protection of the Countryside during the Second World War’, Rural History, 15 (2004), 167–87.

27. Ward and Hardy, Goodnight Campers.

28. The Builder, Prestatyn Holiday Camp, North Wales’, 30th June (1939), 1219–24 & 1234; quotation p. 1234.

29. North, R., The Butlin Story (London, 1962).

30. Butlin, Billy (with P. Dacre), The Billy Butlin Story: A Showman to the End (London, 1982), p. 30. See also Wilcock, H. D., “Boarding House or Butlin's?Geographical Magazine, 19 (1946), 132–40.

31. Read, S., Hello Campers: Celebrating 50 Years of Butlins (London, 1986). Butlin had apparently seen the line on a fairground organ but did not recognise it as a quotation from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

32. Read, Hello Campers. The conga also sobered up the drinkers.

33. Walvin, Beside the Seaside: ‘the dominance of middle-class holiday-makers can be gauged by the presence of 500 cars in Butlin's Pwllheli car park [in 1947] – an early date for widespread car ownership’, p. 134.

34. North, The Butlin Story, p. 77.

35. Abercrombie, Patrick, Caernarvonshire Regional Planning Scheme (Caernarfon, 1936), p. 49.

36. Patrick Abercrombie, Letter to Commander R. Fletcher MP, The Admiralty, 9th July 1941. CPRW Papers 9/39.

37. Clough Williams-Ellis, Letter to Thomas Jones, 5th March 1944. Dr Thomas Jones C. H. Collection, Group H Vol. 16, Item 140, NLW.

38. Ward and Hardy, Goodnight Campers.

39. H. G. Griffin, Letter to Patrick Abercrombie, 16th December 1941, CPRW Papers 9/39.

40. Steers, ‘Coastal Preservation’, 16.

41. Patrick Abercrombie, Letter to Clough Williams-Ellis, 12th December 1943, CPRW Papers 9/39.

42. Patrick Abercrombie, Letter to Clough Williams-Ellis, 17th November 1943, CPRW Papers 9/39.

43. Patrick Abercrombie, ‘Introductory note II’, in J. A. Steers, The Coastline of England and Wales (Cambridge, 1946), xv-xvi.

44. See Gruffudd, Pyrs, ‘“Propaganda for seemliness”: Clough Williams-Ellis and Portmeirion, 1925–50’, Ecumene, 2 (1995), 399422.

45. John Dower, Letter to H. G. Griffin, 24th December 1943, CPRW Papers 9/39. See also Dower, J., ‘Holiday Use of Countryside and Coastline’, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 50 (1943), 181–4.

46. Clough Williams-Ellis, ‘Memorandum from Hampstead, N.W.3’, (Undated), CPRW Papers 9/39. On his belief in the State as opposed to laissez faire see Clough Williams-Ellis, ‘England's Beauty Limited’, The Spectator, 16th November 1929.

47. The county committee had itself, ironically, identified Penychain in 1939 as suitable for an ‘organised’ holiday camp to counter sprawl. CPRW, Holiday Camps in Wales (1939), CPRW Papers 10/7/2.

48. Patrick Abercrombie, Letter to Clough Williams-Ellis, 3rd December 1943, CPRW Papers 9/39. The local branch of the CPRW had passed a resolution opposing ‘the introduction of an overwhelming and incongruous community’ that would be ‘alien to Welsh culture and tradition’ – Caernarfonshire CPRW Resolution, 22nd November 1941, CPRW Papers 9/39.

49. Lleyn Defence Committee, (LlDC) Memorandum on the South Caernarvonshire holiday camp, 4th April 1944, Copy in CPRW Papers 9/39.

50. Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, ‘Holiday Camp – County Council reverses its decision’, 9th June 1944.

51. Matless, Landscape and Englishness, pp. 254–5.

52. H. Baker, Letter to Cecily Williams-Ellis, 18th November 1943, CPRW Papers 9/39. Lebensraum, or ‘living space’, was a key Nazi geopolitical doctrine.

53. Thomas Jones, ‘Multitude and Solitude’, The Observer, 9th January 1944.

54. On the difference between what he terms the ‘Romantic’ and the ‘collective’ gazes, respectively, of tourists see J. Urry, The Tourist Gaze (London, 1990).

55. W. E. Butlin, ‘Multitude and Solitude – A Rejoinder’, The Observer, 23rd January 1944.

56. Joad's writings in defence of Butlin appear in three versions: C. E. M. Joad, ‘Why Should They Not Look at Snowdon?’, Evening Standard, 16th February 1944; Joad, C. E. M., The Untutored Townsman's Invasion of the Country (London, 1945); C. E. M. Joad, ‘Butlineering’, New Statesman and Nation, 30th March 1946, 226–227. Joad and Butlin met and were mutually impressed: ‘“Oh Boy! What a showman!” [Butlin] is reputed to have said. “What about yourself, Billy?” asked a yes-man. “Ah” said Butlin, “but I never set up as a professor” ‘(The Observer, ‘Profile: William Butlin’, 11th August 1946).

57. Joad, ‘Butlineering’ p. 227. Joad's choice of metaphor varied between a ‘sewage farm’ and ‘reservoir’.

58. Joad, ‘Butlineering’ p. 227.

59. Joad, ‘Why Should They Not’.

60. Ibid.

61. Ibid.

62. M. Cranston, ‘Butlineering’, Letter in New Statesman and Nation, 6th April 1946, p. 248.

63. Undated and unattributed press cutting entitled “Hi-de-hikers” in Cecily Williams-Ellis Papers, B41.

64. Lleyn Defence Committee, (LlDC) Memorandum on the South Caernarvonshire holiday camp, 4th April 1944, Copy in CPRW Papers 9/39.

65. See Gruffudd, P., ‘Remaking Wales: Nation-Building and the Geographical Imagination’, Political Geography, 14 (1995), 219–40.

66. LlDC, Letter to the press, e.g. Manchester Guardian, 18th February 1944.

67. Quoted in Ministry of Town and Country Planning (MTCP), Penychain Camp, Caernarvonshire: Proceedings at an Informal Conference (London, 1946). Copy in Plaid Cymru Papers, NLW. Quotation p. 81.

68. MTCP, Penychain Camp, p. 82.

69. Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, “Opposition to Holiday Camp – View of Deputations”, 21st April 1944.

70. MTCP, Penychain Camp, p. 82.

71. MTCP, Penychain Camp, p. 82.

72. Ward and Hardy, Goodnight Campers, p. 123.

73. LlDC, The Lleyn Camp (pamphlet), October 1945, copy in Cecily Williams-Ellis Papers, B41, NLW.

74. Undated cutting from Y Cymro newspaper in Cecily Williams-Ellis Papers, B41. The correspondent was Director of the Nottingham Welsh Society.

75. See Horwood, C., ‘“Girls who arouse dangerous passions”: Women and Bathing, 1900–39’, Women's History Review, 9 (2000), 653–73.

76. Unattributed and undated cutting in Cecily Williams-Ellis Papers, B41.

77. For instance, in a letter to the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, 19th May 1944.

78. W. E. Butlin, letter to the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, 18th February 1944.

79. The proportion of visitors composed of families with children varied in Butlin's accounts between half and three-quarters.

80. For instance, Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, 12th May 1944.

81. Letter to the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, 19th May 1944.

82. W. Thomas, letter to the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, 22nd February 1945.

83. Quoted in advertisement in the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, 2nd June 1944.

84. Griffith Evans, “memo” 24th February 1944, Plaid Cymru Papers, ‘Correspondence + papers, battle of Pen-Y-chain (Butlins)’.

85. LlDC, The Lleyn Camp: For Capitalist Monopoly? Or for Public Service? (Caernarfon, 1944) p. 1.

86. LlDC, The Lleyn Camp: For Capitalist Monopoly?, p. 1.

87. See Gruffudd, P., ‘“Back to the land”: Historiography, Rurality and the Nation in Inter-War Wales’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 19 (1994), 6177; Brunner, E., Holiday Making and the Holiday Trades (Oxford, 1945).

88. LlDC, The Lleyn Camp: For Capitalist Monopoly?, p. 1.

89. LlDC, The Lleyn Camp (pamphlet) October 1945, copy in Cecily Williams-Ellis Papers, B41.

90. LlDC, letter to the Manchester Guardian, 18th February 1944.

91. Celt, ‘A Welsh Survey: The Proposed Holiday Camp’, Liverpool Daily Post, 17th February 1944, p. 4.

92. Liverpool Daily Post, ‘Invasion of Tourists – Danger to Welsh Characteristics’, undated cutting in Cecily Williams-Ellis Papers, B41.

93. J. E. Daniel, ‘Cyngor Llŷn a'r gwersyll gwyliau’, my translation of an undated cutting from Y Cymro in Plaid Cymru Papers.

94. Undated cutting from Liverpool Daily Post in Cecily Williams-Ellis Papers, B41.

95. Quoted in MTCP, Penychain Camp, quote p. 80. See Gruffudd, ‘Remaking Wales’.

96. See Linehan, D. and Gruffudd, P., ‘Bodies and Souls: Psycho-Geographical Collisions in the South Wales Coalfield, 1926–1939’, Journal of Historical Geography, 27 (2001), 377–94.

97. Western Mail, ‘Make Penychain a children's camp’, 9th November 1945.

98. Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, ‘Minister of Planning – Visit to Caernarvonshire’, 28th September 1945.

99. Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, ‘Future of Penychain Camp – Ministry's conference at Pwllheli’, 15th February 1946.

100. MTCP, Penychain Camp, p. 39.

101. MTCP, Penychain Camp, p. 59.

102. MTCP, Penychain Camp, p. 59. Williams-Ellis also urged that the camp's entertainments be ‘improving’ and Butlin responded. ‘Quiet lounges’ were hung with large oil paintings, bought for their size rather than their quality; nonetheless the collection at Pwllheli was said to be worth five million pounds in 1982 (Read, Hello Campers). Williams-Ellis witnessed a ‘most spirited’ performance of The Barber of Seville at Butlin's Skegness camp; see C. Williams-Ellis, Architect Errant: The Autobiography of Clough Williams-Ellis (Portmeirion, 1980).

103. MTCP, Penychain Camp, p. 86.

104. Liverpool Daily Post, ‘Welsh Features at Holiday Camp’, 27th July 1946.

105. S. Baron, ‘He Plans to Play Post-War host to 40,000’, undated cutting from News Chronicle in Cecily Williams-Ellis Papers, B41.

106. Read, Hello Campers.

107. Liverpool Daily Post, ‘Invasion of Tourists – Danger to Welsh Characteristics’, undated cutting in Cecily Williams-Ellis Papers, B41.

108. Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, ‘Penychain to be a Holiday Camp’, 29th March 1946.

109. Welsh Nationalist, ‘Butlin Unlimited’, May 1946, p. 2.

110. Rojek, C., Decentring Leisure: Rethinking Leisure Theory (London, 1995), p. 86.

111. The Eisteddfod is a traditional Welsh competitive festival of poetry and music.

112. Breuddwyd Billy B, Television documentary by Ffilmiau Eryri for S4C, 1997.

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