(Copyright 'A.J' Marriot 2007)
There are several mentions of 'The Big Fire of 1974' at Butlins Skegness on the Internet - few, if any, of which are accurate. Now you can get the facts, as I was actually in charge of the Princes Ballroom when it went up.
At 2-15pm on Wednesday 5th June 1974, myself (Redcoat IC), and Steve Johnson (Camp Compere), began the 'Miss Personality Competition' in the Princes Ballroom. This was followed at 4.15pm by the 'Modern Miss Competition,' for which Steve and I stayed on. During this, a guest approached me and told me that there was smoke coming out of the top of the escalator. Thinking it was overheating I immediately switched it off and put another Redcoat, Sylvia, on station duty there, to stop people from using it. I then broke the code of interrupting the Compere during a competition, and whispered in his ear to wrap the competition up quickly, and to announce that everyone must leave immediately by the stairs at the other end of the ballroom.
Steve didn't know exactly what was going at this stage, but he knew me well enough to respect my decision, and carried out my request. The guests did just what was asked of them, and vacated the premises in record time. By this time, the amount of smoke issuing from the escalator was increasing by the minute. Steve and I split up and ran into the Ladies and Gents toilets to warn anyone who might be in there to pull their pants up and get out. We next went to the bars and warned the staff that they, too, must vacate. We then spotted the cleaner sat in among the row of chairs around the ballroom floor. 'What are you doing here,' I asked. 'I'm waiting for everyone to leave, then I can clean the ballroom floor.' I told him, in no uncertain terms, that that wasn't a sensible thing to do - so he reluctantly left.
Satisfied that everyone was now clear of the upper part of the Princes Complex, Steve and I prepared to make our own exit when, without warning, there was an almighty explosion, which blew an enormous hole in the ballroom floor. So much for staying behind to clean it.
Having negotiated the stairs quicker than a cannonball being dropped from the upstairs window, we reached the street outside. However, our job wasn't over, as we next had to make sure that no-one was in the downstairs premises:- the Amusement Arcade, The Beachcomber Bar and Restaurant, and the Cafe.
Two of the girls from the cafe were hysterical, as an older lady who worked with them was trapped behind the cafe door. It was hinged to open inwards but the pressure, caused by the heat and smoke, was jamming it shut. Steve and I jointly kicked it, and kicked it again, until the lady behind it managed to stagger out during the split second it stayed open before slamming shut again. Thankfully that was the nearest it got to there being any casualties.
We then spent considerable energy encouraging everyone to move back from the building, which was now well alight. The windows had shattered with the heat, and flames were licking through the vacant frames. The speed of the fire, and the heat it generated, was incredible. The asbestos roof was just "popping," and pieces were flying everywhere (The following day we found pieces of it on the Sportsfield, which was about half-a-mile away). Twenty minutes later the massive complex was just a tangled wreck of twisted metal girders. Cue the sound of approaching fire engines.
The following morning when we went to survey the damage, we couldn't believe what we saw. During the night an 8ft. high ply-board fence had been erected, and now surrounded the whole site. By lunchtime the fence had been painted green, to blend in. The instructions from the management had overtones of the Fawlty Towers sketch 'The Germans' - only here, the message was: 'Don't mention the fire.' All the Cabaret acts who had been booked to appear at the camp during the coming weeks were told that, if they did any gags about the fire, their contracts would be instantly terminated. None did.
The frontage of the Radio Butlin building had been caught by the fire, and had put the Tannoy system out of action. So, at 7-30am, a large possee of Redcoats had to walk up and down the Chalet lines, knocking on doors to wake people for breakfast. We weren't the only ones who weren't pleased at having to get up at that early hour. In fact, over half of the guests didn't want waking up, as they were scheduled for second-sitting at 9-30. Most made their feelings known with phrases beginning with 'f' - and it wasn't 'fanks.'
To make up for the missing Ballroom and Bars, the Ingoldmells Hotel, which was just outside the fence, was brought inside the fence, by moving the fence. All the events scheduled for the Princes Ballroom were then shared out between the Empress Ballroom, the Queen's Showbar, and the Ingoldmells building.
The speed and thought which went into continuing as if nothing had happened was faultless, and a text book lesson to all. As for myself and Steve Johnson, within five weeks we both left Skegness. The commendation we got for handling the situation never materialised - not even so much as a "fank you." Such is Butlins. Bring on the next recruits.
(Copyright 'A.J' Marriot 2007)