West Pier Brighton Guide

West Pier Brighton Guide


The pier was first opened on Wednesday 2 May 1866, by Lady Ashburton, and became extremely popular. By the 1890s the West Pier had become a place of leisure and entertainment that rivalled Blackpool as a destination for the working classes. It had built up quite a reputation for itself in this regard and on 4 May 1897 it played host to Harry Houdini during one of his high-wire acts when he performed The Great Escape.

However, the pier became victim to age and weather and gradually deteriorated until it had become dangerous. In 1976 the first discussions took place between Sol LeWitt and Richard Durden about designing a structure to replace much of the original West Pier, but these were initially. The pier was built in 1866 at a cost of £40,000. It was 1,192 feet (366 m) long and consisted of piles driven into the sandstone to support wooden beams and a decking.

Although it is commonly called a pier, technically it was a jetty. The original design featured an entrance building on the shoreline, but two extra floors were added to make it taller and allow more rooms for visitors and accommodation for the keeper. The main design of the building has been attributed  to Birch's wife Barbara Smith but is more likely to be by James Hankinson who Birch originally employed as his clerk of works.

Over the next few decades however, the pier fell into disrepair, with several of its buildings burnt down. In 1906, Brighton Corporation took control of it and began renovations.  This proved difficult due to a depression in trade caused by the outbreak of World War I. Following the war, the West Pier was also used as a filming location for a number of films including 1922's The Eternal Sinner. The fifty-second Brighton Festival takes place from 19th May to 26th June and for the first time ever in the festival’s history, it will be held entirely in Brighton Pier.

Restoration Attempts

In 2003, locals were horrified when a sinkhole appeared on the beach and the sea bed was eroded close to the pier's landing stage – a section of coastguard hut collapsed into the water, and officials feared that the pier itself might collapse. With support from English Heritage and money from West Sussex County Council, repairs began in 2004, but had to stop when engineers discovered that the piles holding up the pier had been left just 6 inches (150 mm) below the seabed instead of being buried at least 50 feet (15 m) deep.

In April 2006, it was announced that Brighton & Hove City Council would have to postpone its plans to repair the pier due to an offer by a private company, Pavilion. There were a number of development plans. In 1984, there was a proposal to replace the pier with a landing jetty and an offshore platform for oil transfer. This was estimated to cost £27 million. An alternative plan by architect Graham Wyatt was proposed in 1992, which would see the existing pier being retained while being rebuilt in steel and glass.

However it would lose its roof and internal floors. Wyatt told The Argus that it was an "imaginative undertaking" In 1994, Brighton & Hove City Council announced that they had rejected all plans to develop the pier into a land-based attraction including a five-star hotel. These proposals were estimated to cost £77 million. In October 1981 the town council considered whether to demolish the pier or sell it. Objections were raised by Dr Isambard Owen, a major Brighton benefactor and heritage campaigner, who threatened to set up a preservation society and urged the council to spend money on restoring it.

The council commissioned a survey of the structure from engineers Mowlem and the Criminal Justice Act was invoked to stop all restoration work pending an application for listed building consent. A specification for pier restoration (during which the majority of the original pier would be removed and replaced with a modern structure) has been prepared. But the main obstacle was funding the scheme. The Brighton Society and local MP Caroline Lucas supported a National Lottery application: The Pier application became one of 12 finalists, with a £1 billion grant eventually awarded to the Eden Project.

19Th Century

Eugenius Birch was a prolific Victorian architect who left an enduring legacy of buildings in Brighton and Hove, which is where most of his work can be found. Although he didn’t design the West Pier, he was key to its conception and construction. In 1853, the towns wanted to expand and grow but had no obvious source of income, until they discovered that the Victorian building boom meant there would be considerable investment in seaside attractions.

They put all their eggs into one basket and decided to concentrate all their energies on developing Brighton as a seaside resort. In 1863 Eugenius Birch became town surveyor for Brighton and it was his job to provide proposals for the redevelopment of the area known as Western Steyne. His plans were. Construction of the pier began in June 1866 and was completed on 11 July 1869. In its early years, it was primarily a recreational pier, with a restaurant at the landward end of the pier, an inn and numerous stalls offering trinkets and refreshments to visiting pleasure-seekers.

The West Pier soon expanded further, incorporating shops and cafés along its length, although this expansion did not occur without some local controversy; it was said that the building works blocked access to local boats. Sometime around June, 1866 the first stage of construction was completed. This included three pavilions at the end of the pier and an open deck with a viewing platform further down. On the deck visitors could enjoy walks in the fresh air and listen to music played by a band who played in one of the pavilions at either end.

20Th Century

The first recorded deaths of British citizens in the 20th century were caused by a freak accident that took place on 1 September 1901, when a pleasure trip to Orpheus Island ended in disaster, with the boat going aground at night near Dobroyd Head in heavy fog. The next significant event recorded at sea was in 1909, when three members of the British Army were killed by a German naval mine while swimming 400 yards off the coast.

Decline And Damage

Since 1999, the pier has suffered from structural decline due to water ingress, corrosion of its cast iron and steel structures, and severe erosion of its wooden piles caused by persistent worm infestation; in 2000 English Heritage listed it on its survey of England's historic buildings at risk since it was in danger of collapse. Experts have warned that the derelict pier will not survive another winter storm when heavy seas cause further damage.

Since then the owners have been committed to beginning the task of restoring West Pier and planning to open the historic site to visitors once again. (Wikipedia). In spite of the damage, there was some commercial effort to rebuild the pier, which was subsequently denied by the local council on grounds of its high projected maintenance costs. Although a few structures were built in 1999 to provide shelter from inclement weather and fishing platforms for local fisherman, access to the pier remains closed.

Visitors can view the decaying remnants of the pier, and walk along the still-functional quarter-mile promenade within the site. The pier suffered structural damage in December 1992 when the central steel span collapsed under high winds. A fire in October 1993 destroyed the West Pier Hotel, and the remains of the building were subsequently demolished. In December 1994, Westbourne Borough Council abandoned plans to regenerate the pier, citing a lack of funds and council tenants'unwillingness to move.

On Saturday 26 December 1997 there was a storm surge. The pier received extensive damage, with only the north side remaining – the seaside end had been destroyed and the structure at the top had been wrecked by a ship. This signalled the end of any further organised visits to the pier, although it was still possible to visit and climb over the remains as an unofficial visitor. Prior to the South Pier, which opened in 1881, Ramsgate was served by ferries that took passengers across the channel.

Author face

Eva Cloud

Author at Brighton Town Press

Recent post