British Seaside Piers

by Gethin Thomas October. 11, 2020 445 views

This is a post giving some background to the history of the British Seaside Pier. The history of the Seaside pier is closely associated with the Industrial Revolution the birth of the railways and the subsequent birth of holidays for the workers of the industrial cities. Most of Britain's seaside resorts were associated with a particular city or region usually with good railway links which enabled the holiday industry to emerge.

In exactly the same way, the birth of cheap air travel in the 1970's led to the demise of many of these resorts, a resulting lack of incoming finance to those economies and often to the decline and even fall of many of the piers.

Official definition of a pier. A pier is a raised structure that rises above a body of water and usually juts out from its shore, typically supported by piles or pillars, and provides above-water access to offshore areas. Frequent pier uses include fishing, boat docking and access for both passengers and cargo, and oceanside recreation. Bridges, buildings, and walkways may all be supported by piers. Their open structure allows tides and currents to flow relatively unhindered. Piers can range in size and complexity from a simple lightweight wooden structure to major structures extended over 1,600 m (5,200 ft). In American English, a pier may be synonymous with a dock.

This is Cleveden pier, near Bristol, one of the most beautiful and elegant in Britain with it's elongated iron arches and a castle for an entrance. It's also probably one of the shortest. Most of the photos are of Clevedon Pier, but I have added some other shots of other piers I was able to dig up from my dark and distant past. I was surprised after a digital dig through the dusty innards of my hard drive, how many I had photographed over the years.

The official opening of Clevedon pier was held on Easter Monday, 29th March 1869. Throughout the morning, large numbers had congregated at Clevedon railway station. The 10:15 train from Bristol alone had brought five hundred passengers.

The opening day was a great success according to at least one contemporary newspaper report. Floral arches were erected throughout the town and a salute of guns was fired when the flag by the tollhouse was hoisted. Four hundred people were treated to lunch and the Board of Directors dined together at the Rock House Hotel.

It is hard to believe looking at the pier today that in 1970 the seventh pier collapsed under a stress test applied for insurance purposes. The seventh and eighth arches collapsed as a result, leaving the pier head marooned as an island. Thankfully the funds were raised and great efforts made to restore it to it's former beauty.

A grand reopening on the late May Bank Holiday by David Bryant and Sir Charles Elton on 25th May 1998 marked the completion of the restoration. Through a combination of vocal local support, heritage engineering expertise and lottery funding the pier had been saved for future generations.

The pier had at last been restored to its true glory and was voted Pier of the Year in 1999 by the National Piers Society. This honour was repeated in 2013 after the pier promenade had its first full repainting and repairs at a cost of £795,000 twenty four years after it had been restored. Repainting of the structure of the Pier Head had been carried out in 2005 for £398,000.

The pier’s status as an icon of national importance was acknowledged by the awarding of Grade 1 listed status in 2001. The only Grade 1 listed pier in England left intact.

Most of the excitement of going to the seaside when we were kids was always to walk along a pier. They were always different but the common feature was usually a boardwalk through which you could see the water below. Not for those with a fear of heights.

Some piers were mostly just for walking on, some held pavilions with theatres, or amusements, some offered boat trips from the pier head, possibly even paddle steamer trips and some even featured a railway. Some were a very long walk. The longest I have experienced was Walton on the Naze, 2,600 ft (790 m) long, the third longest in the UK.

Blackpool's North Pier. Eugenius Birch's earliest surviving pier. Grade II-listed. Originally 1410 ft long, now 1318 ft. Eugenius Birch (20 June 1818 – 8 January 1884) was a 19th-century English seaside architect, civil engineer and noted builder of promenade-piers. On his return to England from India, Birch brought his global experiences to bear on the developing English fascination with seaside holidays, specifically the construction of piers. With the railways now allowing easy and cheap access to the seaside, and the known health benefits of clean air, businessmen in coastal towns were competing against each other to create the longest and most ornate piers to attract the greatest number of tourists.

Blackpool Central Pier, 1868. The success of the North Pier prompted the formation of the Blackpool South Jetty Company one year later in 1864. Impressed with the construction of Blackpool Pier (North Pier), the company hired the same contractor, Richard Laidlaw and Son of Glasgow for the project. This time, however, the company used the designs of Lieutenant-Colonel John Isaac Mawson rather than those of Eugenius Birch. When the pier was opened on 30 May 1868, it was 503 yards in length, 131 yards of which was a landing jetty for use at low tide.

From the start, the new pier's emphasis was on fun rather than the genteel relaxation provided at North Pier. In the early days fun was provided mainly by dancing facilities, but in the 20th century, roller skating was introduced along with fairground rides and amusement machines. Steamboat excursions departed from the landing jetty as they did from North Pier. The dance halls became less popular after the Second World War and the facilities were adapted into a theatre, bars and amusement arcades by the 1970s.

South Pier (originally known as Victoria Pier) located on South Promenade on the South Shore, the pier contains a number of amusement and adrenaline rides. It opens each year from March to November and is owned by The Sedgwick family.

The Blackpool South Shore Pier & Pavilion Co. Ltd. was registered in November 1890 and work began to build the pier in 1892. It was constructed, at a total cost of £50,000, using a different method than that used for North and Central piers, the Worthington Screwpile System. It opened, with a choir, two brass bands and an orchestra on Good Friday, 1893. The 3,000 capacity Grand Pavilion opened on 20 May. At 163 yards (149 m) long, it was the shortest of the three piers, and had 36 shops, a bandstand, an ice-cream vendor and a photograph stall. It was built shorter and wider than North and Central piers to accommodate pavilions.

On the beach in the foreground you will see that other great seaside institution, the donkey ride. Donkeys were presumably invented for it, as I cannot recall ever seeing a donkey doing anything else.

The Royal Pier, Aberystwyth, another by Eugenius Birch, is a pleasure pier located in Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, Wales. The first pier to open in Wales in 1865. After a series of storm attacks, it is now a much shortened version of its originally constructed length of 242 metres (794 ft).

In the health conscious Victorian era, Aberystwyth had developed quickly as a holiday resort. Lying at the centre of the West Wales coastline, with Cardigan Bay beyond, it was billed as the "Biarritz of Wales." Commissioned by a consortium of local business people under the name of the Aberystwyth Pier Promenade Company, the pier was designed and constructed by noted pier-engineer Eugenius Birch, in conjunction with local contractors J. E. Dowson. The structure had iron rod braces, cast iron piles and supporting columns concreted into the rock. Total construction costs were £13,600.

I love that "Biarritz of Wales" and as much as I love Aberystwyth that is a slight stretch of the imagination although I guess even Biarritz has probably seen better days too by now. Aberystwyth does still have a beautiful frontage of pastel coloured hotels and is home to The National Library of Wales which is the national legal deposit library of Wales. It is the biggest library in Wales, holding over 6.5 million books and periodicals, and the largest collections of archives, portraits, maps and photographic images in Wales. It also has a mountain railway which gives you that great aerial view of the town and bay.

Hythe Pier. Hythe Pier, the Hythe Pier Railway and the Hythe Ferry provide a link between the English port city of Southampton and the Hampshire village of Hythe on the west side of Southampton Water. It is used both by commuters and tourists, and forms an important link in the Solent Way. Hythe Pier stretches 700 yards (640 m) from the centre of Hythe to the deep water channel of Southampton Water. It is approximately 16 feet (4.9 m) wide, and carries a pedestrian walkway and cycleway on its northern side and the Hythe Pier Railway on its southern side. During normal high tides the pier is 4 feet (1.2 m) above the surface of the water. Construction started in 1879 and the pier opened on 1 January 1881 having cost £7,000 to construct.

In 1922 the current electrified railway was constructed on the southern side of the pier. The track is laid to 2 ft (610 mm) narrow gauge and is electrified at 250 V DC by a third rail on the seaward side of the track. The line consists of a single track with no passing loops, with two non-electrified sidings at the landward end. One of the sidings enters the line's covered workshop. Stations, equipped with low wooden platforms, exist at both ends of the line. The pier head station has an overall roof, whilst the landward station has a ticket office and waiting shelter.

The line is operated by two four-wheeled electric locomotives built in 1917 by Brush with works numbers 16302 & 16307 (simply renumbered as No. 1 & No. 2 today. They were originally battery powered, being used at the World War I mustard gas factory at Avonmouth. They were transferred to Hythe after the war, where they were converted to collect power from a third rail and had their batteries removed.

Cromer Pier is a Grade II listed seaside pier in the civil parish of Cromer on the north coast of the English county of Norfolk, 25 miles (40 km) due north of the city of Norwich in the United Kingdom. The pier is the home of the Cromer Lifeboat Station and the Pavilion Theatre.

There are records of a pier in Cromer back as far as 1391, although then it was in the form of a jetty. In the year 1582, Queen Elizabeth I, in a letter to the inhabitants of Cromer granted rights to export wheat, barley and malt with the proceeds to be used for the maintenance and well-being of the pier and the town of Cromer.

The new pier was completed in 1902 and opened to the public. This new pier was designed by Douglass and Arnott and the construction was carried out by Alfred Thorne. The new pier was 450 feet (140 m) long and had cost £17,000 to build. In the early years the pier consisted of glass-screened shelters and a bandstand on the end of the pier. The shelters were roofed over in 1905 to form a pavilion; the bandstand was later replaced with a stage and proscenium arch. From 1907 this was used to accommodate the latest craze of roller-skating

The outer piers at Whitby (Past the lighthouses after the stone piers) are known as The Pier Extensions. They were built between the years of 1908 and 1914 and stand pretty much as built right up to the present day, although a poor level of maintenance by their caretakers Scarborough Borough Council means the piers are currently in a very poor state of repair.

Paignton Pier is a pleasure pier in the large English seaside resort of Paignton, Devon. It was financed by Arthur Hyde Dendy, a local Paignton barrister and designed by George Soudon Bridgman.

The Paignton Pier Act received Royal Assent on 3 June 1874 and work commenced on its construction in October 1878 to the design of Bridgman.

The 780 feet (240 m) pier, with its customary grand pavilion at the seaward end, was opened to the public for the first time in June 1879. The pier-head pavilion was home to many forms of entertainment including singing, dancing, recitals, music hall, and most famously Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera, re-titled HMS Pinafore on the water, performed by Mr D'Oyley's full company on 27 and 28 July 1880. In 1881 the pier-head was enlarged to facilitate the construction of a billiard room, adjoining the pavilion.

On the death of Arthur Dendy, Paignton Pier was purchased by the Devon Dock, Pier and Steamship Company, under whose ownership it became a regular stop for paddle steamers travelling between Torquay and Brixham. In 1919 the pier-head and its associated buildings were destroyed in a fire. These were never replaced and a period of decline followed. Sectioned off as a defence measure in 1940, for fear of German invasion, the damaged neck was eventually repaired once hostilities had ceased.

In 1980 the fortunes of Paignton Pier took a turn for the better when a major redevelopment project was undertaken. Paignton Pier comprises an entrance building at the shoreward end along with what looks to be several individual pavilion buildings connected along the neck. These in fact form one single amusement arcade through their entire length. At the pier-head there is now an open amusement area containing karts, slides and a carousel.

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There are 16 comments , add yours!
Jovana Lakic 7 months ago

I visited the one in Brighton. It's good to read about the history of piers, thanks for sharing!

7 months ago Edited
In Reach Of The Skies 7 months ago

I confess to having a soft spot for Cromer pier. Not that its the best or anything but I realise that I have been visiting it on and off for over half a century and fundamentally not too much has changed in that time. And it still earns its keep as well grinning

7 months ago Edited
David Nurse 7 months ago

Another great post.
I remember getting off the Waverly's "sister's ship The Balmoral" at Clevedon pier, Came over from Penarth, the pier looks a lot better now than it did then.
Memories of happy days.
Time for another visit I think.

7 months ago Edited
Gethin Thomas Replied to David Nurse 7 months ago

Warning. These Cleveden ones were 2007. So check it hasn't washed away or collapsed since then.grinning

7 months ago Edited
R Kuerbovich 7 months ago

#1Excellent post and great pictures, plenty of rare info and high quality pictures. I enjoyed it so much; thanks a lot

7 months ago Edited
Gethin Thomas Replied to R Kuerbovich 7 months ago

You're welcome.

7 months ago Edited
Berckmans Peter 7 months ago

Great post

7 months ago Edited
Gethin Thomas Replied to Berckmans Peter 7 months ago


7 months ago Edited
Colin Massey 7 months ago

#30 Visited this pier only last year , even though I have lived in Plymouth for over 40 years,  lovely photo.. the arcade through the pier has to be seen

7 months ago Edited
Gethin Thomas Replied to Colin Massey 7 months ago

Doing my research I discovered Plymouth used to have it's own pier. At some point I would like to do some photos of the Lido there.

7 months ago Edited
Colin Massey 7 months ago

Exceptional post,  learnt aspects about piers I never knew

7 months ago Edited
Gethin Thomas Replied to Colin Massey 7 months ago

So did I when doing it. Glad you enjoyed it.

7 months ago Edited
Brian Scott 7 months ago

Great info as always Gethin and lovely shots.

7 months ago Edited
Gethin Thomas Replied to Brian Scott 7 months ago

Thanks Brian.

7 months ago Edited
Camellia Staab 7 months ago

Another great post Gethin. Thoroughly enjoyed reading the information and the photos.

7 months ago Edited
Gethin Thomas Replied to Camellia Staab 7 months ago

Glad you enjoyed it.

7 months ago Edited