Butlin posing for a photograph some time after his enlistment in 1915.
Butlin was born in the Cape Colony (part of modern-day South Africa).[w 1] His father, William Colborne Butlin (born June 1867),[w 2] was the son of a clergyman; his mother, Bertha Cassandra Hill (born March 1878),[w 3] was a member of a family of travelling showmen.[w 4] They met at a young age when Bertha's parents were working a country fair that William attended and in December 1896 they were married.[w 5][j 1] Their marriage was considered not socially acceptable in Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire, where they lived, and they emigrated to South Africa.[j 2] William founded a bicycle shop to try to keep the family, and they had two children, Butlin and his brother Harry John (known as Binkie) Butlin.[j 1] When the marriage failed, Butlin's mother returned to England with her children and rejoined her own family in Coaley, near Bristol.[n 3] Within a short time Harry contracted polio, and he died in March 1907.[w 6] For a time Butlin joined his mother in travelling around the fair circuit
In his autobiography, Butlin recorded that his mother remarried and emigrated to Canada around 1910[n 4] and passenger lists of the period show Bertha travelling to Toronto via Montreal in 1912.[w 7][w 8] For two years Butlin, and his cousin Jimmy Hill boarded with a widow in Bristol.[n 5] In December 1913 his mother returned and married Charles Robotham in Swindon.[w 9] Butlin's mother and stepfather then asked him to join them in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.[j 2] He was unhappy at school in Canada, mocked because of his English accent, and he left school at fourteen. Eventually he got a job as a messenger boy at Eaton's, Toronto's largest department store. One of the best aspects of working for the company was that he was able to visit their summer camp, which gave him his first taste of a real holiday, indeed a taste of what was to become a very big part of his life.[w 10] Later he transferred to Eaton's advertising department where he drew black and white adverts, while studying at night school twice a week.[n 6]
Butlin's attestation paper from World War I
In 1915, during World War I, Butlin volunteered somewhat reluctantly for service in the Canadian Army. Knowing that the army already had a full quota of despatch riders, Butlin intended to volunteer for service in that category in the knowledge that although his application would be declined he would still receive an "I volunteered" badge for his actions without actually having to serve. While applying, Butlin forgot to tell the recruiter of this intention, and was consequently allocated to the Canadian Expeditionary Force which was taking part in the fighting along the Western Front.[n 7] He was subsequently posted to the 170th (Mississauga Horse) Battalion on 29 December 1915. His attestation papers give his date of birth as 1898 (rather than the actual 1899), allowing him to enlist although only 15 at the time. The papers give his occupation as a "Suit Case Maker". The papers also show, as Butlin himself later stated, that he had been selected to serve as a bugler.[w 11] Before his deployment to Europe, Butlin transferred to the 216th (Bantams) Battalion, with which he was sent to England.[n 8] Once in England, he was stationed at Sandgate near Folkestone before being deployed to France. In France, the 216th became part of the 3rd Canadian Division which took part in the second battle of Vimy Ridge, as well the battles at Ypres and Arras, and the second battle of Cambrai; while in France, Butlin served as a stretcher-bearer.[n 9]
After the war, Butlin returned to England aboard a cattle ship, arriving in England with only £5 (2011:£189.00) capital.[w 10] He made his way to Bridgwater in Somerset where his uncle,
Marshall Hill, was a well known showman. He purchased a hoopla stall from Hill, and ran it successfully.[j 1] In later interviews Butlin claimed that he accidentally sawed the corners off his hoopla blocks,[w 10] but some observers such as The Sunday Herald report that he did it intentionally, displaying "logic and business sense".[j 1] In either case, Butlin's actions allowed patrons to have a much higher success rate (approximately 3 in 5 for each ring)[n 10] and brought him more custom than his fellow stall holders. By contrast an average game would have odds of approximately 1 in 9 for each ring or 1 in 3 for a 3-ring game.[j 3] Butlin's stall gave him less profit per customer than his competitors, but the increase in business gave him a bigger overall profit than theirs. He moved to London and set up a successful stall in Olympia outside the Christmas Circus run by Bertram Mills. By the end of the season Butlin had been so successful that he could afford to bring his mother (by then widowed) to the UK from Canada.[n 10][w 12]