Living Between the Lines,  Remember when

Behind the scenes at Butlins

This post was written back in 2011 in answer to a question from my youngest daughter who had recently become a mother. I was recently reminded of it by a reference made to Butlins Holiday Camp, Clacton-on-Sea, in a Facebook post. It is evident from the comments within that post, that many people hold fond and nostalgic memories of their holidays at Butlins, back in the fifties, sixties and seventies. I have never holidayed there so I cannot comment. My own experience of Butlins, it has to be said, was memorable but for the wrong reason. I was not a carefree holiday maker of course, I was staff. I was a Nursery Assistant to be precise, fresh from A levels and eager to spend the summer of 1975, working at the iconic holiday camp

So what was so remarkable about my time as a Nursery Nurse? Well, it was remarkable for its briefness for one thing.

It lasted little more than one week.

That week felt like a month it has to be said.

The placement was supposed to last for the entire summer holiday, just after I had left school. I was eighteen and though some of my friends were heading off to foreign climes, I chose to work at a holiday camp some 60 miles from home.

The recruitment leaflet boasted staff quarters second to none. I would have my own room, the nightlife was to be enviable, by day I would be caring for holiday makers’ children and I loved children so where was the problem?

I packed up and off I went.

I arrived at the entrance with my suitcase in tow, to be greeted by security guards who fancied themselves as the Gestapo. Having convinced them I was here to work – I had a letter and a passport photo which they were to fix to a permit and laminate later – I was directed to the  Nurses’ quarters.

Butlins Pass
laminated pass
Back of Pass
In case one forgot…

Here, I was greeted by a sour faced Matron who spoke to me briefly about rotas and timetables and the need to be up at the crack of dawn before issuing me with a uniform and ushering me off to my cell – sorry, room. I had begun to feel that I had committed a crime and was here to do penance I must say.

Shaking this feeling off, I walked up the narrow stairs and along the dimly lit corridor to what was apparently my room.  

The blurb in the brochure had shown a nice, clean, single room with en-suite shower. In the picture there had been a single bed with a bedside cabinet, a chest of drawers, a wardrobe and a TV. I wondered if I had been given the wrong room.

I stepped outside to check the number on the door. Nope, this was it!

To my right was a single bed. To my left were bunk beds. The wardrobe was a rail that had been hurriedly put up across the far corner and there was no room for a bedside cabinet. A chest of drawers stood next to the window with a scratched mirror above it. The window had security bars across it. Nice!

I looked from bed to bed – which one was mine?

It turned out that I was sharing with two slightly older girls who had been there since Easter. I was on the bottom bunk. They were friendly and it wasn’t too bad at all really, at first.

My introduction to the nursery began the next morning. As I was a Nursery Nurse in name only and had no formal qualifications, a qualified nurse was meant to be present at all times. I was really more of a Nursery Assistant. This fact, rather worryingly I thought, was never revealed to the parents it seemed.  

Angela was the fully trained Nursery Nurse on my shift. She was efficient and calm. She dealt with every little emergency swiftly and competently. She took charge of Kelly, a severely mentally disabled child who at eight was almost as tall as her and ten times as strong it seemed. I watched in awe as she brought the flailing arms and limbs to some sort of order and elicited a smile from Kelly. I watched again as Kelly flew into a tantrum that shook the walls. Angela was scratched and bruised but she managed to calm Kelly down again and peace was restored.

Two days later when I was given charge of Kelly I would remember all this and admire her even more as I bathed my wounds.

After a full day of washing up, cleaning up, children throwing up and dealing with tantrums and teething – all under the watchful eye of Angela of course, I was ready for a night out. My room mates had it all planned. Dressed to the nines we stepped out into the camp and headed for the exit.

“Discos are sleazy on camp,” Sue said.

The Gestapo were at the gates. The camp was secure behind barbed wire.

“Can I see your pass?” the burly chap at the desk barked. We handed over our identity cards. What did he need those for? We were going out, not coming in. After a few questions and warnings that we wouldn’t be able to get back in after 11 o’clock, we escaped – I mean we left.

I had not realised how oppressive the place was until we stepped out into what seemed like fresh, untainted air. Being naive, I had to be dragged away  from one pub having been bought a drink by a gentleman at the bar. Apparently it was not the done thing to do. Accepting a drink could get one into all kinds of trouble. But he had been so insistent and sweet – how was I to know? It wasn’t like that in the pubs at home.

We found a nightclub and danced a while, way past curfew.

“It’s ok, we know a back way in,” grinned the girls. Well, I had always wondered what it would be like to be at boarding school and steal away for a midnight feast, as in ‘the Chalet School Stories’ that I used to adore. Now I had an inkling of how that felt.

At 2.00 am we crept back to camp and slithered under the barbed wire. Well, ok, it was a gate, a gate that some kind soul had unlocked for us earlier actually. Sue locked it behind us and we tip-toed up the back stairs to our room.

The following night there was a staff disco – the girls were right, it was extremely sleazy. The night after, I was given an evening shift which entailed wandering between chalets with a torch, listening for any unusal noise coming from the cabins where children slept. A  baby crying, a child calling out – each would send us scurrying to inform the parents who were enjoying their own taste of  ‘nightlife’.  This was the camp’s babysitting service. 

We travelled in pairs for safety.

From our treks along the dimly lit paths we could clearly see the camp’s private beach. It would have looked lovely had it not been cut off from the rest of the beach by barbed wire. Did the barbed wire extend into the sea? I wondered at one point.

So my week progressed. By the fourth night I knew my new friends so well that we had swapped addresses and promised to keep in touch. Matron gave us girls a stern talking to about safe sex and there being safety in numbers. Was I to believe that sex was safe in numbers? She reminded us of the rule about there being no boys allowed back to our rooms and lights out at eleven. I wondered if she had spotted us creeping back the other night way beyond the curfew hour? Of course she had! She had also seen a man leaving our building early in the morning. A boyfriend of one of the other girls apparently. I had to wonder when Matron slept.

On the fifth night we had an intruder and all girls were confined to the building while the grounds were searched. We secretly believed it had been another girl’s boyfriend but the rumour soon spread that he had a knife and had been trying to get in one of the bedrooms. The barbed wire did not seem to be doing a very good job of keeping people out then.

My room mates admitted that they were fed up with Matron treating them like children.  They had christened the camp,


It was the sixth night that proved to be my undoing. After a busy day in the nursery, I was starving and had decided to eat at one of the campsite canteens. I was not too sure about the cleanliness of the kitchen having seen some of the kitchen staff at the camp disco the previous night. I decided to play safe and go for a salad. That was probably not the most sensible option. The salad looked unwashed and there was just something not quite right about the entire meal. I bought a drink to take back to the room. I chose a bottle of fizzy orange.

In the middle of the night I awoke feeling very hot. I needed a drink. The room did not possess a fridge so the fizzy orange stood on the chest of drawers where the evening sun had no doubt heated it up. I didn’t have much option, I drank a cup of the stuff and went back to bed. Half an hour later I felt even worse and the rest, well, let’s just say that if the salad had upset me originally, then the warm fizzy orange finished me off. I didn’t get any more sleep that night and by the time morning came was a washed out wreck.

My new friends were very sympathetic.

“Tell Matron you can’t work today – you can’t go in like that,” they suggested. “You are due a day’s holiday anyway.”

 I dragged myself to Matron’s office. She was not best pleased.

“I’ll put you on the evening rota then,” she said and moved my name down the list.

“I thought I’d take it as my day off?” I whispered, clutching my stomach again. I had heard that people did actually get a day off a week and I had just worked six days in a row. It seemed reasonable. Matron ignored me.

I tried to explain that I thought I had eaten something that had given me food poisoning. She laughed and shook her head. I am sure she supposed I was just hung over.

“You can start at 7pm,” she decided and that was that.

I shuffled back to my room and to the girls.

Their combined indignation at my news, surprised me. They were looking for new jobs, they’d already applied for a couple at a holiday camp in Wales which looked a far better place than this, they told me. I should leave.

I had already decided that perhaps this job was not for me. The thought of having to turn up for work this evening when I felt so ill was the last straw. I spent the next few hours trying to recover enough so that I could travel home.

The girls helped me pack. They advised me not to use the main stairs. Matron would see me and persuade me to stay. (I doubted it but I did not relish the prospect of speaking to her again.) I let the girls lead me to the fire escape, where we hugged and promised to keep in touch again before I waved goodbye and dragged my suitcase down the stairs.

I kept to the outer edges of the camp lest I be spotted but had to pass through the main gates to get out. Every step of the way I thought I would feel a hand on my shoulder and a voice in my ear,

“And where do you think you’re going?” the voice would say.

The security guards waved me through without a word as I flashed my identity card and smiled wanly.

I was free! I felt better already.

I would like to say that my experience was unique but I know it wasn’t. I did keep in touch with the other girls for a while. They went off to work at the holiday camp in Wales from where they wrote telling me how lovely it was – why didn’t I join them? I thought about it but decided against it.

I still cannot see a length of barbed wire without remembering ‘Colditz’ and the feeling of dread that almost overwhelmed me as I crept down the back staircase and out of the building.

I have never drunk fizzy orange again either.

No doubt you are wondering what I did after that. Well, back home and recovered, I answered an add for Christmas staff, to start September, at Debenhams, in the toy department. That job is legendary amongst my grandchildren, it is, after all, the time when Grandma was an Elf! But that really is another story…

I am an Author, wife to one, mother to five and grandmother to six. I live in the English countryside in Hampshire, UK, with my husband and two dogs and am a non exec Director for Glow

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