Pleasure Piers

Clevedon Pier, Somerset

Another History lesson, culled from some draft notes I wrote on seaside resorts. Yes, I need a life.

Pleasure piers

Pleasure piers are the most idiosyncratic feature of British seaside culture. Around 77 survive, although there were over 90 at their peak. Their development helped to feed the growing popularity of a resort, and was often actually the key factor in this.

Pleasure piers originated as what the name literally means; functional walkways allowing access to deeper water for loading and unloading vessels. The first was arguably that built in 1813 at Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Ryde is fronted by a kilometre of shallows, so boats from Portsmouth would unceremoniously dump visitors and their luggage on the sands, to be transported ashore by pack horses. The new pier built to shorten this trek was 527m long and 4m wide. It unexpectedly became a popular attraction in its own right, being extended to 681m and decorated in subsequent decades. From 1840, visitors were charged admission from landward via a tollhouse, and a ‘pavilion’ was added in 1842.

Sam Brown, an engineer who had built piers for coal loading, constructed Brighton Chain Pier in 1822, 106m long with a 24m wide platform at the end; steam ships for France would dock there, but the pier also boasted shops and amusements in booths along its length. This lead to a spate of pier building in the south-east, aimed at tourists from London. Thomas Telford played a part in designing 914m Herne Bay Pier in Kent, but this was soon dwarfed by Southend Pier which was 183m when opened in 1830, soon being extended to 457m and eventually a staggering 2100m. A railway was added to reach its end.

Pleasure piers really took off after the railways linked to (or created) resorts. Their popularity fuelled a pier-building craze from the 1860s, with 60 constructed up to 1900. 16 of the 22 built in the 1860s were originally plain and utilitarian, built to dock steamers. As the realisation dawned that people were willing to pay merely to ‘promenade’ upon them, these piers soon acquired decoration and entertainments. Piers became increasingly extravagant in design; Eugenius Birch’s Eastbourne Pier (1870) was fancifully adorned with Italianate kiosks, exotic towers and turrets. They were built wider and wider, ending in pavilions with concert halls, theatres and ballrooms suspended improbably above the waves. In Scotland, piers developed in close relation with the paddle steamer trade which transported Glaswegian workers down the Clyde to resorts like Helensburgh, where two piers were built to offload visitors. Piers in England and Wales still docked steamers but function had been almost completely replaced by frivolity. The craze for pier-building perhaps reached its illogical extreme on the Isle of Wight, back where it all started; a total of nine Wight resorts had piers (four survive today).

The building of the pleasure piers has been compared to the creation of the rock lighthouses in terms of engineering challenge (but obviously not necessity!). Of course, piers were usually constructed on soft sand or mud and completely exposed to weather, waves and tide. Pointed cast iron piles were originally driven or screwed into the seabed; this was the favoured approach of the celebrated Eugenius Birch who built 14 piers, starting with Margate (1853-7). In building 1335 metre Southport pier in 1860, railway engineer James Brunlees pioneered the use of pressurised water jets to force metal piles ending in disk plates down into the sand.

Clevedon Pier in Somerset (built 1867-69) is generally acknowledged as the masterpiece of pier-building, in terms of both engineering and design. Now protected as a Grade 1 listed building, the pier juts out into the Bristol Channel’s fast flowing tide streams and 15m tidal range, supported gracefully atop eight elliptical spans of 30m. The key construction material was ‘Barlow’ rails from Brunel’s broad gauge South Wales Railway, supplying strength and reduced resistance.

The pleasure piers which survive today have done so against considerable odds; almost all have suffered major damage at some point from storms, boat collision or fire. Many were breached during World War II, lest they be used for enemy landings. Demolitions removed more in the post-war years, but in recent decades there have been many restoration projects such as that which rescued Clevedon. Weston-super-Mare Pier was gutted by fire in 2008, but redeveloped and reopened in 2011; clearly there is still public appetite for pleasure piers.

In 1870, Birnbeck Pier in Somerset opened an extra landing stage. In the first three months, 120,000 people paid 1p merely to walk along it. Why were piers so extraordinarily popular? Obviously they offered entertainments, but there was nothing upon them which could not be found along a resort’s promenade. Yet, they became the central focus of resorts, and often the highlight of a holiday. Whilst second-guessing the mindset of a Victorian or Edwardian holiday-maker is fraught with pitfalls, it seems likely that people walked upon the piers to ‘experience’ the sea, possibly even for the thrill of venturing across a liminal threshold into a ‘dangerous’ or unfamiliar environment, albeit in a safe and formalised manner. An 1834 commentator described Brighton’s new Chain Pier as an ‘agreeable walk’ where one could ‘enjoy the pure breezes, without the danger or difficulty of going out in an open boat’. Promenading along one for yourself is perhaps as authentic a way as any to assess the contemporary significance of pleasure piers; upon reaching the end, look back towards land and form your own judgement.

Llandudno Pier

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