If you’d gone down to the beach at Ryde 200 years ago you would have happened upon a very strange thing: Britain’s first pier.
On July 26, 1814, a ‘simple wooden deck carried on brick arches at the shore end and driven wooden piles’ was opened to allow holidaymakers to promenade and boats to land passengers – previously they’d had to wade through the water.
True, this construction was very unlike the elegant, exotic structures we see today. But it was Britain’s first official pier and sparked the craze for all that came after. And there were many of them. By 1914 Britain had more than 100, including ones at Bournemouth, Boscombe, Swanage and Weymouth.
According to Anthony Wills and Tim Phillips of the National Piers Society, there are sound reasons why piers became so popular – the coastal access granted by the railways, the 1833 Factory Acts which gave people more leisure time, and the Bank Holiday Act of 1871.
“It’s worth noting that on the first ever August bank holiday in 1872, Hastings Pier opened,” they say. Cleethorpes Pier followed suit a year later.
Perhaps, too, it was the sheer frivolity of it all. Even that terminal grump Napoleon III was moved to dub Brighton’s West Pier ‘Britain’s finest structure’ and the fascinating facts that Wills and Phillips have dug up about the piers of our realm show their diverse history and appeal.
According to Wills and Phillips we have haunted piers (Skegness), machine-gun piers (Eastbourne, which also took a direct hit from the Luftwaffe), Rolling Stones piers (they played Hastings) and celebrity chef piers (Jamie Oliver, no less, allegedly claims to have been conceived under one).
The oldest pier in Dorset was built at Swanage in 1859 for the princely sum of £7,000 as a suitable point for a paddle-steamer service to Bournemouth. When it became inadequate, a second structure was built, opening in 1896, although its wooden piles soon became the victim of the delightfully-named ‘gribbles’ – wood-boring crustaceans – and they had to be clad in concrete.
Boscombe’s pier opened in 1889. Resting on cast iron struts it promised to be a little money spinner as 10,000 people crowded on during the first day. But, say Wills and Phillips: “The pier lost money from the start.”
A private investor tried to run it, then handed it back and it was reopened by Bournemouth Borough Council in August 1904.
A photograph from this time shows an almost Brighton Pavilion-esque construction, very different from the clean, futuristic structures that replaced it during the early 1960s.
Bournemouth’s first pier started life as a jetty, which lasted from 1855-1857 before storms lashed it away. Undeterred, the town opened another wooden pier in 1861, but this one was attacked by shipworms. While it was being rebuilt in1876, it was destroyed by heavy storms.
By 1880 the town had learned its lesson and the flamboyantly-named Eugenius Birch was called in to design a work in iron. The Victorian Gothic entrance and clock tower cut an impressive shape on the beachfront – no wonder 10,000 visitors paid 2d to stroll it on August Bank Holiday in 1901.
But, like all piers, it had a tricky time. It was breached in July 1940 to prevent enemy landings and after an initial burst of enthusiasm the fortunes of its theatre waned. In 1968, say Wills and Phillips, there were so few people at the matinee of Uproar In The House that show star Bob Monkhouse invited them to the cafe, instead!
Not that any of this appears to have been noted along the coast in Weymouth, where, despite opposition from local residents who feared it would destroy their sea views, the town council went ahead with the construction of its Bandstand Pier in 1939. As with all its Dorset cousins there was great excitement – followed by relative indifference and so, after receiving what was presumably a shocking repair bill, the council decided to blow it up with dynamite, leaving just the 48 feet for the public to enjoy.
Perhaps Weymouth’s antipathy was more understandable when you realise they already had a perfectly adequate pier, the prosaically named Pile Pier. Weymouth Commercial and Pleasure Pier, as it later became known, had a pavilion with seven towers and had its new, concrete pier opened in 1933 by the Prince of Wales. After a hiatus during the war, it did very well until 1954 when a fire destroyed the pavilion.
It was repaired and improvements made. Famously Ken Dodd gave a record-breaking five-and-a-half-hour performance in the theatre there on September 9, 2007, but it went the way of seemingly all piers and tottered financially until a community association took out a ten-year lease in July 2013.
None of this, of course, explains our perennial fascination with piers – we still have more than any other country. Perhaps, as Tim Phillips suggests, it really is because they allow us to escape into our own fantasy worlds.
- British Seaside Piers by Anthony Wills and Tim Phillips is published by English Heritage