Skegness Butlins Fire 1974

IT WAS business as usual at Butlin’s holiday camp, Skegness, after fire had destroyed the two-storey Princes Building one of their main entertainment centres, on Wednesdays afternoon. The evening meal at the Gloucester Dining hall next door was onl half an hour late and other venues were soon found for the activities which normally took place in the stricken building.

A new old-time dancing area has been created at the northern end of the Gloucester Dining Hall and the Ingoldmells Hotel has been brought into the camp complex to be used for dancing, which means it will not be open to the general public this summer.

Competitions and dancing will also take place in the Empress Show Bar and another amusement arcade has been opened this week in the Holiday Fayre.

Val Merrill’s Orchestra lost all their instruments in the blaze. But more were obtained from London and only two nights later they were playing again at the Queens Theatre Bar.

The only reminder of the fire was the skeleton of the Princes Building, its steel framework twisted into grotesque shapes by the fierce heat, the Tudor Lounge Bar, which had lost its windows, to the north, and the burnt out shoe shop at one corner of the dining hall to the south.

There was still a smell of smoke in the air on Saturday.

The whole area was boarded off and demolition of the Princes Building — expected to take about two weeks — was due to start on Monday.

Built 11 years ago, its steel girders had wood and hardboard cladding and the roof was of glass and asbestos. It stretched about 100 yards along the camp’s frontage next to the main reception block.

Inside was a ballroom, a lounge, coffee bar, and griddle, the Beachcomber Bar, a Chinese restaurant, two amusement arcades and a sweet, cigarettes, book and stationery shop.

This was the only building with an escalator, the bottom of which is next to the Chinese restaurant kitchen. The general manager, Mr Harry Oakes, said on Sunday that though the forensic experts who had examined the charred remains had not yet reported, the fire appeared to have started at the base of the escalator.

He estimated the total damage at over £1/4 million.

As soon as smoke was spotted, the alarm was raised and the 600 or so people in the building were hustled out in minutes without casualties. Most were downstairs where the amusement arcades were crowded.

Upstairs in the ballroom, the Miss Personality and knobbly knees competitions had just ended.

Mr Brian Callow, retail restaurant manager, described how he cleared the floor and had to dive for safety through the smoke-fined Emergency exit when he had finished.


He sent everyone down one of the staircases, carrying one elderly man, then went back to check the toilets and make sure no one was left.

“We got them out in one minute flat,” he said. “It was very lucky there were only 10 people there.

“As I was crossing a staircase, that’s when it blew. There was just one hell of an explosion and flames and smoke came up the staircase. I took a handkerchief out, put it over my mouth and ran round a big hole in the ballroom.”

Unable to get down either main staircase, he made for the emergency stairs, on the west side only to find thick smoke coming up that, too.


“The building was just away,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to get out alive. There was a platform half way down. The smoke was getting me so bad I just dived through and escaped with just a few bruises.”

Mr Callow said he ran into the building when he heard the fire siren and found the Beachcomber Bar downstairs full of smoke. Mr John Grey, assistant chief security officer, was evacuating the ground floor, and he, too, became trapped in thick black smoke before making his own escape.

“We were all carrying out the procedure we had been taught,” said Mr Callow. “We were just doing our jobs and double checking. The fire procedure was spot on.”

The Skegness snorkel was among 23 fire appliances which fought the blaze. Some came from as far away as Boston, Louth, Woodhall Spa and Mablethorpe, and altogether, about 100 firemen were engaged in the operation.

They used the two open-air swimming pools and the boating lake because the mains pressure was low. This was later boosted by the water authority.


The call came at 3.17 pm. By 4.38 the fire was surrounded and by 5.32 it was under control and the firemen were dousing the odd flames among the smoking ruins. They stayed there all night to damp down and prevent any further outbreak.

Ambulancemen treated some firemen for heat exhaustion and the camp first-air staff gave treatment for shock to some of the campers.

Skegness Ambulance Station sent two ambulances with oxygen equipment to stand by but there were no injuries needing emergency hospital treatment. Twenty policemen were also on duty to help control traffic and keep sightseers away from the fire.

One police officer said that when he arrived the flames were leaping up and the asbestos roof was exploding in the fierce heat.

A huge pall of smoke billowing out to sea could be seen from many miles away.


Skegness Hospital was on standby and local doctors and nurses — some of them off duty — volunteered to help if needed.

Tables and chairs from the Gloucester Dining Hall were carried out on to the skating rink. All the records in the reception block were removed in case the fire spread and chalets immediately behind were evacuated.

A strong, blustery wind blowing from the west blew the flames towards the rest of the camp but the firemen prevented them from catching hold on other buildings.

The chalets were untouched, except for some slight damage.

Source: Skegness Standard 12th June 1974

An eye-witness account of the Butlins Fire 1974


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