East­bourne Pier

A Story of Sur­vival

This England - - The English News - MARK LEAREY

Wed­nes­day 30th July 2014 was a sad day for the sea­side town of East­bourne, East Sus­sex, dubbed by Vic­to­ri­ans the “Em­press of Wa­ter­ing Places”. Hol­i­day­mak­ers and lo­cals stood aghast and help­less as the beau­ti­ful old pier be­came a rag­ing in­ferno. The na­tional me­dia went wild, car­ry­ing live aerial pic­tures of the hor­rific scene. But it wasn’t the first time in its cen­tury and a half of his­tory that this fear­less vet­eran had faced de­struc­tion.

The East­bourne Pier Com­pany was founded in 1865, pur­chas­ing a strip of seabed from the Crown and leas­ing the land­ward end for five shillings a year, an op­er­at­ing cost which per­sists to this day! Con­struc­tion was com­pleted by 1872 but, less than five years later, tragedy was to strike as the Great Gale of New Year’s Day 1877 mer­ci­lessly pulled half the plat­form into the sea. Un­de­terred, orig­i­nal de­signer Eu­ge­nius Birch (re­spon­si­ble for a num­ber of Eng­land’s most iconic piers in­clud­ing Mar­gate, Black­pool, Bournemouth and Brighton’s doomed West Pier) re­turned to over­see re­pairs. This ex­plains the puz­zling slope from the land­ward end of the pier — the re­place­ment was made de­lib­er­ately much higher than the orig­i­nal.

May 1940 pre­sented a very near miss when the mil­i­tary de­fend­ing our coast­lines de­cided to blow up the pier rather than have it fall into en­emy hands. As an un­sus­pect­ing au­di­ence left the pier’s the­atre one evening, ex­plo­sives were al­ready in po­si­tion and or­ders to det­o­nate them awaited! Thank­fully, a last-minute al­ter­na­tive so­lu­tion was reached — the mid­dle sec­tion of deck­ing was sim­ply re­moved, ren­der­ing the struc­ture tac­ti­cally use­less.

The Pavil­ion the­atre at the sea­ward end of the pier had, since 1888, been host to pop­u­lar year-round va­ri­ety shows. An im­proved de­sign re­placed the orig­i­nal build­ing at the turn of the cen­tury and con­tin­ued to en­ter­tain the masses un­til Jan­uary 1970 when it was set on fire by a the­atre em­ployee. The beau­ti­ful Cam­era Ob­scura (which projects a 360-de­gree view of the sur­round­ings onto a can­vas screen and is the largest in the coun­try) was fortunately spared and sur­vives to this day, al­though it is sadly no longer open to the public. With times rapidly chang­ing, the re­built the­atre reopened as the Dix­ieland show­bar, host­ing dis­cos, pop bands and cabaret.

The scene of 2014’s as­ton­ish­ing blaze, an amuse­ment ar­cade in­stalled in the 1960s was orig­i­nally a 900-seat mu­sic pavil­ion. Built in the mid 1920s and later used as a dance-hall and ball­room, the so-called Blue Room had al­ready been badly dam­aged in De­cem­ber 1942 when an ex­plod­ing mine com­pacted the side of the build­ing and caused 10 tons of beach de­bris to land on the roof; mirac­u­lously, the un­der­struc­ture re­mained in­tact! Dur­ing the war, the pier suf­fered badly at the hands of loot­ers and van­dals and a 10,000-gal­lon wa­ter tank was hit by air­craft fire, flood­ing the pier of­fices be­neath. But, where once the sea­ward end was pro­tected by ma­chine guns, it is now a much more serene af­fair, fre­quented by am­bling lo­cals and tourists.

East­bourne pier has al­ways been en­twined in Eng­land’s his­tory, even suf­fer­ing hur­ri­cane dam­age dur­ing the in­fa­mous storms of Oc­to­ber 1987. The land­ing stage was com­pletely wrecked and it took four years, and a cost of half a mil­lion pounds, be­fore the grand open­ing of a new en­trance build­ing by the cur­rent Duke of Devon­shire could take place.

De­spite these and other set­backs, the pier has con­tin­ued to thrive through suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions. For over 50 years, start­ing in 1906 and with a brief pause dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, pad­dle steam­ers (in­clud­ing the fa­mous Waver­ley) ran along the south coast from the pier — as far as the Isle of Wight and even across the Chan­nel pass­port-free to Boulogne! Plea­sure boats have op­er­ated from the shores ei­ther side of the pier since 1861, tak­ing rev­ellers on trips along the coast to Beachy Head’s iconic light­house and back and num­ber­ing more than 140 in their hey­day.

The pier was al­ways in­tended as a place of en­ter­tain­ment and orig­i­nally hosted a small band­stand near the en­trance, though this was quickly moved to the mid­dle deck which was sup­pos­edly less windy. The first sea­son had reg­u­lar con­certs by Mr. Wolfe’s Ger­man Band, even­tu­ally re­placed by a 16-piece Hanove­rian out­fit. There were also fre­quent per­for­mances by mil­i­tary bands, min­strels, mime artists and the like. One ex­tremely pop­u­lar act came from the nearby Sum­mer­down con­va­les­cent camp (opened for wounded sol­diers in 1915) — Knuts Kamp Kom­edy Kom­pany! Clark­son Rose’s Con­cert Party com­pany per­formed in the Blue Room for many years while Sandy Pow­ell and his Starlight com­pany put on sum­mer sea­son shows for 15 years in the Pavil­ion the­atre.

No doubt East­bourne pier has in­spired many great artists, writ­ers and celebri­ties dur­ing its event­ful life­time. In 1905,

Claude De­bussy stayed at the seafront with his preg­nant mis­tress and it is said to be here that he com­pleted La Mer. The Rev­erend Charles Lutwidge Dodg­son (Lewis Car­roll) fell so in love with the place that for the last 19 years of his life he hol­i­dayed at East­bourne. Michael Hast­ings’ play Tom and Viv al­ludes to the hon­ey­moon night that cel­e­brated poet and play­wright T. S. Eliot spent alone, be­side the pier in a deckchair! King Ge­orge V and Queen Mary even oc­ca­sion­ally en­joyed parad­ing the prom­e­nade. Notable English fi­nancier (also jour­nal­ist, edi­tor, news­pa­per pro­pri­etor, Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment and swindler) Ho­ra­tio Bot­tom­ley made one of his fa­mous speeches from the pier’s Pavil­ion the­atre. Other celebri­ties to ap­pear in­cluded Sandy Pow­ell, Ivor Novello, Frankie Vaughan and Nor­man Wis­dom.

Film ar­rived at the pier in 1906 with the com­ing of St. Louis An­i­mated Pic­tures: the “Sen­sa­tion of the Day — Talk­ing Pic­tures by the aid of Gau­mont’s Chrono­phone… Pic­tures that talk, pic­tures that sing and pic­tures that live — the hu­man voice re­pro­duced as in life.” Nifty stuff! More re­cently, East­bourne pier has be­come an iconic movie star it­self, ap­pear­ing in nu­mer­ous film and tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tions. In 1981, com­edy leg­end War­ren Mitchell’s cur­mud­geonly Alf Gar­nett re­tired to East­bourne for the ATV se­ries Till Death, with some hi­lar­i­ous scenes filmed on and around the pier. The pier also fea­tured in an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, the 2010 re­make of Brighton Rock (dou­bling as Brighton pier), and films Last Or­ders (2001) and An­gus, Thongs and Per­fect Snog­ging (2008) among others.

Cel­e­bra­tion and cer­e­mony are a con­tin­ual part of the pier’s life. It is the prime van­tage point for thou­sands of lo­cals and tourists as they en­joy East­bourne Air Show (“Air­bourne”), which in­cludes dis­plays by the Red Ar­rows, Hur­ri­cane and Spit­fire fly­overs and a crazy bird-man event where con­tes­tants com­pete to fly the fur­thest from the end of the pier! This year’s event is sched­uled to take place on 16th to 19th Au­gust.

In 1996, at the cost of a fur­ther £500,000, the pier un­der­went ma­jor re­fur­bish­ment with the aim of re­cre­at­ing its past Vic­to­rian splen­dour. Ex­cit­ingly, and for the first time in its his­tory, the pier was prop­erly il­lu­mi­nated with elec­tric light­ing — an event which was cel­e­brated with a ma­jor fire­work dis­play. In its ear­li­est days, lanterns were pro­vided with gas from the clev­erly de­signed com­bi­na­tion ca­st­iron seat­ing/rail­ing/ gas pipes, some of which still sur­vive.

De­spite the dev­as­tat­ing fire of 2014, East­bourne pier con­tin­ues to pro­vide an at­trac­tive mix of tra­di­tional and con­tem­po­rary sea­side fare, such as fish and chips, sea­side rock, can­dyfloss, amuse­ments, tea rooms, glass blow­ing and, since the birth of disco, a ma­jor night-club­bing venue for the town. Younger gen­er­a­tions can re­call many happy mem­o­ries of nights out at Dix­ieland, later re­named The Roxy, then Odyssey and now At­lantis. The ad­ja­cent Ocean Suite can be hired for par­ties such as wed­dings — the roof ter­race and pri­vate sun-deck of­fer im­pres­sive sea views.

The re­cent fire dam­age it­self proved to be some­thing of a tourist at­trac­tion, but many smaller busi­nesses suf­fered badly with the loss of stock and a sum­mer’s trad­ing. How­ever, with the aid of gen­er­ous public do­na­tions, the struc­ture was rapidly made good, reopened and pur­chased in Oc­to­ber 2015 by a lo­cal hote­lier. Sheikh Abid Gulzar’s changes have not all been well-re­ceived — be­sides paint­ing the Cam­era Ob­scura and other parts of the Grade II listed build­ing gold, he has also added signs ban­ning pic­nick­ing, dog-walk­ing and the long­stand­ing pop­u­lar tra­di­tion of fish­ing from the sea­ward end. The en­trance now dis­plays a witty sign which reads: “Thank you for vis­it­ing Sheikh’s Pier”!

In glo­ri­ous de­fi­ance of the many con­tro­ver­sies and chal­lenges, East­bourne pier stands to­day as a prom­i­nent and much-loved sea­side land­mark. It is in­deed for­tu­nate that the mil­i­tary didn’t blow it up, as the pier re­mains one of the best sur­viv­ing ex­am­ples of its kind in Eng­land and a re­minder to many of happy hol­i­day mem­o­ries from yesteryear.


The pier in 2017.

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