A Story of Survival
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.