Holiday revolution: We’re all going on a summer holiday

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

Crowds flock to the beach at Hastings in August 1938. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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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.

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.

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

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.

A postcard from 1932 depicting the joys of a seaside staple, fish and chips. (Photo by Alamy)
A postcard from 1932 depicting the joys of a seaside staple, fish and chips. (Photo by Alamy)

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.

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, notably 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.

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

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.

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

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Book: Holiday Camps in Twentieth-Century Britain: Packaging Pleasure by Sandra Trudgen Dawson (MUP, 2011)