For anyone who has grown up in and around Southend there is one icon that we all know and recognise – Southend Pier – the longest Pleasure Pier in the world.
Firstly, what is a Pleasure Pier? Pleasure Piers were first built in England in the 19th Century, the first being Ryde Pier in 1813. A popular pastime of the era was going to coastal towns and enjoying the sea and beaches. The building of the Piers was the answer to what to do when the tide was too far out to enjoy. They allowed the holidaymakers and day-trippers to take a stroll along the promenade while enjoying the amusements, and for some theatre shows and rides.
The Life of Southend pier began around early 1800’s when travellers who wanted to get to Southend by boat had to wait until high tide as the mudflats made it difficult to reach the shore. A wooden pier was established to overcome this problem. Work started in 1834 and it was completed in 1846 with hand-propelled carts. It was 1 1/8 of a mile long. This still seemed too short so it was completely rebuilt years later to 1 1/3 of a mile out to sea. This ‘new’ pier opened in 1889 and the additional length made it the longest pleasure pier in the world – a record it retains to this day’!
In 1889 the electric pier railway was laid (for a time they used horse drawn carts but they kept putting their hooves through the wooden planks) and officially opened in August 1890. The first public service carried 800 people in the first three hours. The new iron pier was the first of its type in the world to use toast rack trains.
Millions of people would come to visit the pier and in 1949, it reached its peak with 7 million people record as visiting it. The Pier museum would open in 1989 in the old train workshops and is still open today.
The pier is known to have had a number of mishaps and damage, including fire and being hit by boats and bombs. The first incident was in 1890 while the new iron pier was being constructed. A welder’s torch set fire to the wooden pier, fortunately no major damage was caused but the same cannot be said with future fires.
The first significant fire was in 1959 when the pier pavilion burnt down. This pavilion was replaced later and became a bowling alley (one I remember having a birthday party at when I was a child). But this too burnt down in 1995.
Another fire at the piers head broke out in 1976 and devastated the New Pier head. Fire tugs were called in to help the fire fighters try to out the blaze out in addition to Ladi Marmol (aviator who came from Czechoslovakia who lived and worked in Southend) who dive-bombed the pier with his crop spraying aircraft. The flames were 100 feet in the air. Fortunately, only two people were injured, these being two fire fighters.
In addition to fires, there have been a number of ships hitting the pier in its lifetime. The first recorded incident was in July 1895 when it was sliced in two by Thames Lighter Barge during a gale. The Ketch ‘Dolphin’ would destroy a 1200ft section of the pier in 1898 and the list goes on – 1907, 1908, 09, 21, 33… In 1986 (the year I was born) the Kings Abby sliced through the pier causing damage to its structure, this was the ninth collision to the pier by a ship.
During the second world war the pier was taken over by the admiralty and became HMS Leigh, it would closed to the public in September 1989. As with many military sites near to the cost, the Pier would become a target for the German bombers. Its first attack was in November 1939. The following year Heinkel He111’s stick bomb (where the bombers drop their bombs in one long line) the pier. There was another hit in February 1941 and on one occasion n (no date is given), a v2 rocket hits the pier pavilion and luckily did not explode.
In 2005 the pier that I had grown up with a knew would be gone forever. A fire broke out destroying a large quantity of the structure including the south station and the old pier head. The fire stretched 40 foot into the sky and could be seen from the Kent cost. It took 100 fire fighters over six hours to get the fire under control with more assisting to get put it out. Although the skeleton of the pier was saved all the buildings at its end were either burnt or with bits washed up along the shore. After a lot of restoration work, the pier would be open to the public on the 5th August 2005.
At the Piers end is the Royal Pavilion, an events venue that opened in 2012. There is also the Salt Cafe, RNLI Lifeboat Station, and a Mini Golf Course. You can walk both ways, get the train or do one of each and experience all the pier has to offer.
Even through all of this the pier still thrives and stretches out to sea like a beacon to all who look out on from the foreshore. It is a symbol of a bygone era and something so simple an activity and cheap for all ages to enjoy and do. It is part of Southend’s identity. It is living history.
For more information head to:
Skinner, N (nd) Southend Pier History. Available from: https://www.southendtimeline.com/spierhist.htm [Accessed 29/4/19]
Skinner, N (nd) Southend Pier Fire 2005. Available from: https://www.southendtimeline.com/pierfire2005.htm [Accessed 24/4/19]
Chapman, A (2018) Victorian Pleasure piers are unique to Britain, but are they under threat? Available from: https://theconversation.com/victorian-pleasure-piers-are-unique-to-britain-but-they-are-under-threat-97553 [Accessed 01/05/19]
Anon (nd) The British seaside pleasure pier. Available from: http://penny-arcade.info/the-british-seaside-pleasure-pier [Accessed 01/05/2019]
Anon (nd) Pleasure Piers. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pier#Pleasure_piers [Accessed 01/05/19]