The 1930s hol­i­day craze

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Kathryn Ferry is the au­thor of The Na­tion’s Host: But­lin’s and the Story of the Bri­tish Sea­side (Vik­ing, 2016). She is cur­rently writ­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of Billy But­lin

Eighty years after its in­tro­duc­tion, Kathryn Ferry re­calls the im­pact of the 1938 Hol­i­days with Pay Act

Eighty sum­mers ago, thou­sands of work­ing-class Bri­tons got their very first tastes of sun, sea and sand, cour­tesy of the 1938 Hol­i­days with Pay Act. Kathryn Ferry chron­i­cles the fraught birth of a hol­i­day­mak­ing revo­lu­tion

In Au­gust 1938, a Coven­try fac­tory worker took his fam­ily on a hol­i­day to the Bri­tish sea­side. To the 21st-cen­tury mind, there’s noth­ing par­tic­u­larly ex­tra­or­di­nary about this. But to this par­tic­u­lar worker, 80 sum­mers ago, it was a cause for cel­e­bra­tion. For he was among the first co­hort of work­ers to take ad­van­tage of Bri­tain’s brand new Hol­i­days with Pay Act. So en­thused was he by the ex­pe­ri­ence that he wrote to his lo­cal news­pa­per, the Mid­land Daily Tele­graph, to tell them all about it. He didn’t give his name, con­tent to sign him­self ‘Sunburned’.

“My wife, two chil­dren, and my­self have just re­turned home after en­joy­ing our first ‘ hol­i­day with pay’,” noted the cor­re­spon­dent. “We have had a good hol­i­day, feel­ing for the first time that we could af­ford to pay for it with­out hav­ing to apol­o­gise to the butcher and baker for be­ing un­able to meet his bills the week after. I feel I am jus­ti­fied in say­ing ‘thank you’ to who­ever it was who did the trick.”

The peo­ple who “did the trick” were the trade union­ists, politi­cians and or­di­nary Bri­tons who had spear­headed a 25-year cam­paign for all work­ers – no mat­ter what their so­cial stand­ing – to re­ceive paid leave from their an­nual toils. It was a tough bat­tle, one that pit­ted cam­paign­ers against gov­ern­ment in­tran­si­gence and re­sis­tance from em­ploy­ers. And it would be a num­ber of years after 1938 be­fore the leg­is­la­tion truly trans­formed Bri­tain’s hol­i­day­mak­ing land­scape. But, as the mil­lions pack­ing their cases for des­ti­na­tions as di­verse as Bog­nor Regis and Bali will at­test, the long-term im­pact of the Hol­i­days with Pay Act has been truly rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

For Bri­tain’s man­ual work­ers, the prospect of spend­ing a week at the beach was noth­ing more than a pipe dream

Trail­blaz­ing pack­ages

The con­cept of hol­i­day­mak­ing wasn’t, of course, born in the sum­mer of 1938. Bri­tons had been head­ing for the coast and be­yond for cen­turies – and, in the first three decades of the 20th cen­tury were do­ing so in ever-greater num­bers. By 1937, it was es­ti­mated that 15 mil­lion peo­ple, around a third of the pop­u­la­tion, went away for a week or more.

One of the drivers of this growth was the hol­i­day camp. Cais­ter Camp in Nor­folk opened as early as 1906, although its first guests stayed in tents rather than huts. By 1934, there was such a plethora of camps nes­tled along the coast be­tween Great Yar­mouth and Low­est­oft that the Lon­don and North East­ern Rail­way be­gan run­ning a spe­cial ‘Suf­folk Camp Ex­press’ ser­vice. The big­gest op­er­a­tor was soon But­lin’s, which opened its first camp at Skeg­ness in 1936. By 1938, when a sec­ond camp opened at Clac­ton, such was the de­mand for Billy But­lin’s trail­blaz­ing hol­i­day pack­ages that he had to refuse three out of four ap­pli­ca­tions for a chalet.

Sea­side towns re­sponded to the But­lin’s chal­lenge by up­grad­ing their prom­e­nades, build­ing ten­nis courts and lay­ing out new plea­sure gar­dens. But this wasn’t al­ways enough to win over the new breed of hol­i­day­maker. In the first decades of the 20th cen­tury, more and more Bri­tons were choos­ing hik­ing, cy­cling and camp­ing breaks as ac­tive hol­i­days grew in pop­u­lar­ity. The newly formed Youth Hos­tels As­so­ci­a­tion went from op­er­at­ing a sin­gle hos­tel in 1930 to more than 200 in 1939. Oth­ers de­cided to leave the coun­try en­tirely. In the mid-1920s, the Work­ers’ Travel As­so­ci­a­tion (WTA), es­tab­lished by unions and the co-oper­a­tive move­ment, started of­fer­ing early pack­age hol­i­days, for those on a bud­get, to des­ti­na­tions such as France, Switzer­land and Bel­gium. Over the Au­gust bank hol­i­day of 1938, South­ern Rail ran 240 ex­tra long-dis­tance ex­press trains, 82 of which were bound (via ferry) for Europe.

But be­hind th­ese de­vel­op­ments lay an un­com­fort­able truth: sum­mer hol­i­days were very much the do­main of the white-col­lar worker. For Bri­tain’s man­ual work­ers – 14.5 mil­lion of whom earned less than £250 a year and had no en­ti­tle­ment to paid hol­i­day – the prospect of spend­ing a week sat on a beach was noth­ing more than a pipe dream. This in­equal­ity was in­sti­tu­tion­alised: while se­nior lo­cal gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees were granted up to 48 days of paid hol­i­day a year, the phys­i­cal slog of man­ual work­ers’ lives was al­le­vi­ated only by statu­tory bank hol­i­days – for which they didn’t re­ceive any wages.

To trade union and Labour ac­tivists, this dis­par­ity was un­just, in­tol­er­a­ble and a call to ac­tion. In 1911, they launched a cam­paign to force em­ploy­ers to of­fer paid hol­i­days. That cam­paign of­ten moved at a glacial pace, slowed by war, eco­nomic crises and of­fi­cial in­dif­fer­ence. But by the sum­mer of 1937 – when women from the Labour party or­gan­ised a ‘Sea­side Cam­paign’, hand­ing out more than a mil­lion leaflets and con­ven­ing 150 meet­ings at 40 sea­side re­sorts – it had gath­ered an un­stop­pable mo­men­tum.

Time to act

By now, gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion was well and truly on the agenda, and a par­lia­men­tary select com­mit­tee had been ap­pointed to ex­am­ine the is­sue. Its chair­man, Lord Amul­ree, made his stance on the sub­ject abun­dantly clear when declar­ing: “Too much mis­chief has been done in the past by treat­ing workpeo­ple sim­ply as pro­duc­tion units in­stead of hu­man be­ings.”

Not all em­ploy­ers would have agreed with Lord Amul­ree but they were fac­ing up to the in­evitable. Over the year in which the Amul­ree com­mit­tee took ev­i­dence, 1.25 mil­lion em­ploy­ees were granted paid hol­i­days, tak­ing the fig­ure cov­ered by vol­un­tary ar­range­ments up to 3 mil­lion by April 1938. Just three months later, on 29 July, the Hol­i­days with Pay Act of­fi­cially be­came law. Now, mil­lions of peo­ple could take paid hol­i­days – but would they?

The first real test ar­rived with the Au­gust bank hol­i­day of 1938 which fell at the begin­ning of the month. Sun­shine bathed the na­tion’s beaches and the press cheer­fully de­clared that Bri­tain was set for a heat­wave. Ac­cord­ing to The Caterer and Ho­tel Keeper, “Re­sort cafes were packed from morn­ing to night. Swim­ming pools and their cafes were be­sieged.” The rail net­work op­er­ated at full ca­pac­ity. Over the week­end, 300 ex­cur­sion trains ran to Black­pool while at Southend an ex­tra 70 trains were laid on to take 80,000 Londoners home on bank hol­i­day Mon­day.

Yet when the fig­ures were cal­cu­lated, it tran­spired that sea­side re­sorts had ac­tu­ally wit­nessed a re­duc­tion in vis­i­tor num­bers on the pre­vi­ous year. In th­ese early days at least, the Hol­i­days with Pay Act had proved more damp squib than revo­lu­tion.

There were multiple rea­sons for this. The low­est earn­ers needed their ba­sic weekly in­come just to pay for rent and food. Hol­i­days with Pay al­lowed them to have

a few days off work with­out the worry of mak­ing ends meet, but it didn’t mean that they could suddenly af­ford a sea­side hol­i­day.

The leg­is­la­tion may have ini­tially re­duced the num­ber of low­est earn­ers head­ing for the coast be­cause th­ese were the peo­ple who, in the past, had ben­e­fited from sub­sidised works out­ings. Em­ploy­ers who had pre­vi­ously char­tered trains to carry staff to the sea­side saw no rea­son to con­tinue to do so once they were pay­ing for an­nual leave.

In the new Bri­tain that emerged from the war, an ex­tra 11 mil­lion work­ers were en­ti­tled to an­nual paid leave

Phased in­tro­duc­tion

An­other prob­lem was that mil­lions of work­ers re­mained with­out paid hol­i­days even after the law had been passed. The surge of em­ploy­ers of­fer­ing paid hol­i­day be­fore the leg­is­la­tion was en­acted had per­suaded the gov­ern­ment that it need not com­pel em­ploy­ers to take ac­tion. The act rec­om­mended, but stopped short of man­dat­ing, one week’s an­nual paid va­ca­tion for all full-time work­ers in Bri­tain. The idea was to give em­ploy­ers space to come to their own ar­range­ments be­fore, from 1940– 41, it be­came com­pul­sory to grant paid leave.

There were knots of em­ployer re­sis­tance, no­tablyy in the Lancashire cot­ton in­dus­try where fac­tory own­ers ar­gued against the cost of this re­form at a time of trade de­pres­sion. So en­raged were tex­tile work­ers at their em­ploy­ers’ in­tran­si­gence that, in Au­gust 1938, they marched through the town of Nel­son de­mand­ing the re­sump­tion of ne­go­ti­a­tions to es­tab­lish paid hol­i­days for the fol­low­ing year.

De­spite the ini­tial drop in the num­bers go­ing to the sea­side in Au­gust 1938, the act also high­lighted that re­sorts were ill-pre­pared for a mas­sive new in­flux of hol­i­day­mak­ers. Had every­one who re­ceived the new en­ti­tle­ment taken a hol­i­day in the sum­mer of 1938, Bri­tain’s trans­port and plea­sure in­fra­struc­ture would have been over­whelmed. This fact led to in-depth anal­y­sis of the is­sues, and at­tempts to im­prove the sit­u­a­tion. As one jour­nal­ist in The Portsmouth Evening News put it, the new type of tourist may not have lots of money but “th­ese peo­ple have come to stay, thanks to the most en­light­ened move­ment this coun­try has known for many years”.

One of the big­gest chal­lenges fac­ing the in­dus­try was the length – or lack of it – of the sum­mer sea­son. This placed pres­sure on sea­side busi­nesses to make their en­tire an­nual in­come in just six weeks, push­ing up prices and ren­der­ing even the cheap­est ac­com­mo­da­tion un­af­ford­able to low wage earn­ers. One so­lu­tion to this prob­lem was to stag­ger hol­i­days. Mr FG Is­sott, vice pres­i­dent of the Bri­tish Fed­er­a­tion of Ho­tel and Apart­ment As­so­ci­a­tions, sug­gested di­vid­ing Bri­tain into nine ar­eas, each with fixed hol­i­day weeks that would ro­tate an­nu­ally (many man­ual work­ers had to take leave on spe­cific dates when their fac­tory shut for main­te­nance). This idea was deemed un­work­able at scale, how­ever. The Board of Ed­u­ca­tion ar­gued for a change in school term times, but this foundered on the fact that fam­i­lies were barely a fac­tor at the 1930s sea­side. Even mid­dle-class work­ers found it hard to meet the ex­tra costs of ac­com­mo­da­tion and trans­port for their chil­dren, mean­ing that many of those who did go on hol­i­day were sin­gle, or mar­ried with­out chil­dren.

Yet that was about to change, and one of the main rea­sons was the con­tin­u­ing rise of the hol­i­day camp. By 1938, around 150 were dot­ted over Bri­tain. Most were small but, in Billy But­lin, they had an en­tre­pre­neur who thought big. By the time the Hol­i­days with Pay leg­is­la­tion be­came law, But­lin’s was cater­ing for thou­sands of peo­ple at a time, cour­tesy of an all-in­clu­sive tar­iff cov­er­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion, meals and en­ter­tain­ments.

All the same, for all their ad­ver­tised af­ford­abil­ity, the But­lin’s camps were still be­yond the means of the poor­est work­ers. In con­trast, the Der­byshire Min­ers’ Camp – which opened in Skeg­ness in May 1939 – was sub­sidised by a levy on ev­ery tonne of coal pro­duced by the 40,000 el­i­gi­ble men. In its ini­tial sea­son, it catered for 15,000 min­ers and their fam­i­lies.

But, just as many of th­ese fam­i­lies were en­joy­ing their first-ever sum­mer hol­i­days, storm clouds were gath­er­ing over Europe. In Septem­ber 1939, Bri­tain was plunged into war, and its nascent hol­i­day revo­lu­tion was stopped dead in its tracks.

This wasn’t the end of the story. In the new Bri­tain that emerged from the war, wages were higher, em­ploy­ment as good as full and paid hol­i­days a universal re­al­ity. An ex­tra 11 mil­lion work­ers were now en­ti­tled to an­nual paid leave. Fac­tor in th­ese work­ers’ fam­i­lies, and 30 mil­lion Bri­tons could now ben­e­fit from the prin­ci­ple es­tab­lished by the 1938 act. Fol­low­ing a se­ries of false starts, mis­steps and set­backs, the great Bri­tish hol­i­day boom had well and truly be­gun.

A man takes the plunge at Black­pool’s South Shore baths in Au­gust 1937. With the pass­ing of the Hol­i­days with Pay Act the fol­low­ing year, a break by the sea was no longer the pre­serve of the mid­dle classes

The Work­ers’ Travel As­so­ci­a­tion of­fered af­ford­able, or­gan­ised over­seas travel to work­ing class peo­ple, as seen in this book­let from 1929

In 1938, Billy But­lin was over­whelmed by de­mand for his trail­blaz­ing camps

Chang­ing the guard. As life starts to get back to nor­mal in 1946, hol­i­day mak­ers wave off sol­diers who were bil­leted at But­lin’s in Clac­ton

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