HE WAS the genial genius who brought knobbly knees and glamorous granny contests to Britain.
Billy Butlin became a byword for wholesome family fun when he revitalised the leisure scene with his first holiday camp 70 years ago.
But there was a more sinister side to the man who promised innocent amusement to 1930s holidaymakers.
Behind its jolly Hi-de-Hi! image, the Butlins empire flourished on a mixture of sex and violence.
Little did the chalet guests know that Butlin was forced to carry a cut-throat razor because he’d made so many enemies on his way to the top.
And female staff at the camps were encouraged to sell sexual favours on the side in a fashion much more red lamp than red coat.
Meanwhile single women were targeted as prime customers – for the entrepreneur knew a reputation for bed-hopping among the chalets would pull in the punters.
Butlin, who was knighted in the 60s, came from a family of fairground owners, a notoriously rough business where violence was often the first resort when dealing with the competition. His nephew Vernon Jenkins remembered: “Billy was a man who associated with potentially violent people in his early days.
“He was always afraid of retribution, so he carried his cut-throat razor in his top pocket all the time. They were gangsters, the lot of them.”
The pioneer was also among the first to realise, even in the 1930s, that sex sells.
Former Redcoat Peter Everett said: “At prize-giving each Friday a ram’s head would be awarded to the Redcoat of The Week.
“But in reality it was for being sh****r of the week. “They had to supply a piece of the woman’s under-wear as proof of the conquest.”
There was even a points system, with 10 points for scoring with the holiday princess, 15 for the glamorous granny and 20 for the manager’s wife.
Butlins expert Tony Cook says: “Sir Billy’s holiday camps provided innocent fun in postwar Britain and built a reputation for wholesome family entertainment.
“But the campers and their Redcoat entertainers enjoyed the seamy side of life, too. Britain was a staid society in the 40s and 50s, but Billy knew many people wanted no-strings sex.
“So he made it as easy as possible, making sure there were plenty of single women staying there. It’s been described to me by some who worked there as a giant bonking shop.”
Despite – or maybe because of – the camps’ seedy side, Billy Butlin hit on a money-spinning formula.
Born in Cape Town in 1899, the man later described as a rogue, charmer and ladies’ man grew up in South Africa and Canada before coming to London as a young man and starting out as a fairground worker.
His father, also called William Butler, was the son of a clergyman but his mother, Bertha Hill, was a member of a family of travelling showmen.
Their marriage was considered something of a social disgrace in Leonard Stanley, Gloucester, where they lived. So Billy’s parents emigrated to South Africa.
When the marriage failed, his mother returned to England with Billy and rejoined her family in Bristol. But then she abandoned him, remarrying and emigrating to Canada in 1911.
The boy was looked after by a widow in Bristol for a couple of years before his mother and stepfather asked him to come to them in Toronto.
Tony says: “He was very unhappy at school in Canada and was always being mocked because of his English accent, so he left school at 14.
“He got a job as a messenger boy at Eaton’s, Toronto’s largest department store. One of the best aspects of working for the company was that he was able to visit their summer camp, which gave him the idea for his Butlins empire.”
Billy was a runner for the Canadian Army in the First World War, and then returned to the UK.
In 1936 he decided to build his first holiday camp in Skegness, combining the facilities he had seen at the camps in Canada, including swimming, entertainment and funfairs. His business was given a huge boost by the Second World War. Tony says: “The Ministry of Defence used his holiday camps to train soldiers during the war, and they paid him to build several more.
“But once the war was over he had a deal where he could buy back the camps at 40 per cent of their value and convert them back into holiday camps.
“He made a huge profit. The holidaymakers were coming in as the troops were marching out. He also bought 99 per cent of Britain’s fairground equipment during the war when it was worthless, so he had a monopoly when people wanted to have fun again.”
He befriended members of the Royal Family and was knighted in 1964, 12 years Before marrying Lady Butlin, then Sheila Devine, his third wife.
Lady Butlin strongly denies the stories about her late husband, who died in 1980. She says: “These claims are untrue, but the libel laws do not protect the reputation of the dead, nor their families.
“Billy did incredible work for charities, but they do not mention how he gave away millions.”
MUCH of his success sprang from his simple yet innovative concept of “a week’s holiday for a week’s pay”.
A week’s full board, complete with free entertainment and three square meals a day, cost #3 at the height of the season. When he placed his first newspaper ad there were more than 10,000 inquiries.
Butlins is famous for its family games, and the knobbly knees contest was once judged by comedy legends Laurel and Hardy. Sir Billy came up with the idea for the glamorous granny contests when he bumped into actress Marlene Dietrich in America in 1964 and was stunned to find she was a gran.
The Butlins archives state: “Upon his return to England he instructed Lt Col Basil Brown, Director of Entertainment, to incorporate a weekly competition at all the main Holiday Centres.”
At the time there was only room for 1,000 guests.
But today more than a million holidaymakers a year flock to Butlins resorts in Skegness, Lincolnshire, Minehead in Somerset and Bognor Regis, West Sussex.
The Redcoats were a new holiday concept at the time and they become a national institution. Ex-Redcoats include the late Benny Hill, Des O’Connor, Sir Cliff Richard and Jimmy Tarbuck.
The camps have always been a magnet for new pop acts, and now they attract chart-toppers such as Will Young, the Sugababes, McFly and Girls Aloud.
Whatever the truth about Sir Billy’s lifestyle, his cheap-and-cheerful legacy lives on.