From lecherous customers to former circus elephants with a mind of their own, as a Butlin’s redcoat it was wise to keep your wits about you at all times.
Billy Butlin opened the doors to his first holiday camp in Skegness in 1936 and right from the beginning, through the ‘holiday heyday’ of the post-war years to the 1970s, the ‘redcoats’ were as synonymous with the brand as swimsuit contests.
But although the campers – 12,000 of them every week at Scarborough alone in high summer – viewed the redcoats as glamorous entertainers, always on hand to ‘jolly them along’, in truth they were as expert at fending off unwanted advances from guests as they were at putting on cabaret shows.
Today just three Butlin’s holiday camps remain, but at their height the ‘Butlin’s experience’ offered the first real affordable holiday for the working class masses. The camps with their chalets, mass catering and on site dance halls were literal havens – a glittering escape from the everyday grind.
Valerie Knibbs, 72, from Hempstead, Kent, was a redcoat for five years from 1959 working at Butlin’s Filey, near Scarborough, during the summers and the Butlin's Ocean hotel in Brighton during the winter seasons.
Her story is just one featured in new book going behind the scenes at the holiday camps, ‘Wish You Were Here: The Lives, Loves and Friendships of the Butlin's Girls.’
Valerie says her Butlin's experience was ‘great training for life’ and was also where she met her husband of 52 years Mike, who played as drummer with the camp’s resident Fred Percival Orchestra.
The couple went on to have two daughters, five grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
“Your Butlin's days are something you never forget,” she says. “Before Butlin’s people used to go away in caravans or to boarding houses on the coast, but when it opened its doors I can only liken the excitement to Disneyworld.
“You had to be 18 to become a redcoat but I applied at 17 and lied about my age. Becoming one was considered as glamorous as being an air hostess. For me it was also a way to get my foot on the first rung of the show business ladder. I had dreams of becoming just as big as Doris Day.
“In those days Butlin’s was a bit like the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent of its day because where else would you get an opportunity to perform in front of 3,000 people.”
In fact many stars launched their careers at Butlin’s, including Valerie’s former colleague and friend Jimmy Tarbuck.
“I haven’t seen Jimmy in years since he was working at the Palladium, but he was always the same – no airs, graces or big ego,” Valerie says. “I also knew the comedian Dave Allen well, sang with Jim Bowen of Bullseye fame and used to have Engelbert Humperdinck over for tea on Sundays!”
Whilst at Butlin’s Valerie worked as the ‘glamorous assistant’ of a fellow redcoat Lorna Cox who’d put together a self-taught fire eating and limbo act as well as a magic act.
“Jimmy used to keep the doves and rabbits for her magic act at his house,’ she recalls. ‘When one of the birds died he wanted to paint a pigeon white – she however was distraught!
“I also nearly burned the Ocean Hotel down when Lorna dispatched me to buy the fuel for her fire eating act. The local garage only had pink paraffin and the whole limbo rope went up in a big cloud of smoke and cleared the ballroom with everyone screaming and running out. The ceiling was black.”
When not on stage Valerie also worked as the Filey camp’s very own Gladys Pugh, doing the early morning call on ‘Radio Butlin’s’ at 7.15am.
“We used to wake the campers up but they didn’t always like it,” Valerie laughs.
“Once I put the microphone’s volume up so high that we were a very loud alarm call for people who lived three miles down the road! In later years I heard that campers actually used to cut the wires to the tannoy system to avoid a rude awakening.”
According to Valerie you got propositioned all the time as a redcoat.
“Men were like bees to a honeypot with us – but getting attention was part and parcel of it all,” she says.
“A lot of older men and divorcees would come onto you but there were very strict rules about dating the campers and if you were caught at one of the guest’s chalets it was instant dismissal so you didn’t fool around.
“You could dance with the men if they asked but it went no further, and you couldn’t be seen dancing with the same person all the time either."
She continues: “Of course flings did go on all the time between redcoats and guests and with each other. People used to lose their job after visiting the camp nurse complaining about suffering with something itchy!”
Valerie also remembers a nightmare evening with a load of roaring drunk rally car drivers at the Ocean Hotel, which descended into a massive food fight.
“The drivers were treating us like escort girls and trashed the hotel. We were there to dance with them, nothing more, but they were being really lecherous and you have to remember we were 18 or 19 and quite innocent.
“There were slobbering all over us with wandering hands, but our manager saw what was happening and took us off duty.”
Valerie and her friend and fellow redcoat Hilary then got their revenge by taking all the shoes the drivers had left out for polishing over the three-storey hotel, mixing them up across all the floors and knotting them together.
“We had the devil in us,” she laughs. ‘During the winter season when it was much quieter and guests didn’t turn up for the afternoon competitions we’d also use fake names to ‘win’ the donated prizes.
“It sounds awful now but we ended up with a load of alarm clocks and soap and gave them away at Christmas!”
Looking back Valerie says its little surprise that the Butlin’s redcoats were ready for anything. Even the time at the Skegness camp when ‘Gertie’ the elephant wandered into the wrong end of the swimming pool and drowned and they had to bring in a crane to remove the poor animal.
“The discipline of life as a redcoat taught me a lot,” she says. “You learned to always be on time and constantly have a smile on your face.
“You learned quickly how to read people and get along with those from all backgrounds. It was a great leveller, a wonderful experience – after all it could have been your bank manager you were pulling up to take part in the knobbly knees contest.”
Wish You Were Here is out now published by Harper Elements, £7.99 paperback, £4.49 eBook.