Fred Pontin opened his first holiday camp just after the Second World War (during which he had established hostels for construction workers in Scotland and in England) when he took advantage of an abandoned seven acre U.S. tank regiment base at Brean Sands near Weston-super-Mare in Somerset.The ex-stockbroker who had left school at fifteen without qualifications, hadn’t the £23,000 to buy it but formed a syndicate for £25,000, ensuring that he held 50% control by buying half the equity with a bank loan. Twenty-five years later, at its peak, the company was running twenty-two holiday camps with a million visitors a year.
Pontin always insisted that he offered affordable holidays for ordinary people although he patently owed initial inspiration to Billy Butlin, who had opened his first holiday camp in Skegness in 1934. Pontin had “bluecoats” rather than “redcoats” and called his self-service restaurants “tray-away” rather than “take-away”, but he realised after the war, quicker than his rival, that the future was self-catering rather, as Dennis Barker put it in the Guardian, the ‘“Wakey, wakey!” ambience’.
Pontin was far less exuberant than his holiday rival Billy Butlin and far less happy to appear in the limelight. But when he found out that Butlin had tried to discretely visit a Pontins camp to get ideas from the rival company it enabled Pontin to respond with a publicity brochure that included a photograph of Butlin at a Pontins bar, and the caption: “All the best people come to Pontins.”
Pontin usually managed to stay on the right side of his employees and in the major recession of the early 1970s he gave himself a pay cut of £928 a week. This, he said, was because his workers were only getting small wage increases. He later admitted that this would have all gone in tax anyway.
In 1963, again prescient as far as the holiday business was concerned, opened ten “Pontinental” camps on the Mediterranean, where he offered two weeks’ holiday for just £50 (actually the equivalent of £1000 today). He once boasted that he provided more beds than Butlin’s, although he admitted that he probably made less money. With the arrival of cheaper package holidays, the camps’ popularity waned, and Pontin retired in 1978 after a takeover by the bookmakers Coral. Pontin died in October 2000 aged 94 a year after marrying his second wife Joyce Hey.
Pictures courtesy of Glen F on Flickr.