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West Pier Story

Geoffrey Mead MA. Convenor for Local History. CCE.University of Sussex

Brighton’s West Pier was the finest pier -ever! As a Grade One listed structure it epitomised the exuberance and exoticism of the British seaside combining raffish buildings and superstructures, with the utilitarian engineering of its pilings and struts, girders and bracings. As with many things ‘Brighton’ the pier was at the cutting edge of contemporary style but also engineering innovation and social change. The West Pier’s sad latter days have been well recorded but less is understood about the early years, as much of the documentation has been lost. It certainly had all the features that came to mean ‘seaside’ in British culture and was a major part of the assemblage of resort activities that added up to ’Brighton’. The original pier in the resort, the 1823 Chain Pier, was looking its age by mid-century and a scheme was voiced to erect a new ‘Western Pier’ further along the coast near the Hove border and thus up amongst the ‘swells’ at the resort’s west-end at the foot of Regency Square, however the local residents, who put up stiff opposition, did not view this with favour.

Building commenced on Easter Monday 1864, and as with many major projects-was late. The pier navvies, a highly skilled body of men, had to finish Deal pier before heading west to Brighton. Progress was slow, components which were constructed at Baileys shipyard on Clydeside, were carried south to Shoreham by steamer, then barged along the coast to the beach opposite Regency Sq. The date of summer 1865 for opening was hopelessly optimistic, as was the next logical time to open -spring 1866. Summer also passed, and it was a misty October 6th 1866 before the pier opened to tumultuous crowds and the band of the 68th Light Infantry. It was an immediate success and from the outset sold itself as the ‘west-end’ pier with strict adherence given to the style of dress adopted by the patrons.

What was it about piers, and the West Pier in particular, that the Victorians so took to heart? It was a part of the great technological progress of 19th century Britain, giving the almost blasphemous idea of walking on water; in the fiercest gale, the heaviest of seas, visitors were able to stroll above the waves impervious to drowning or seasickness. Man conquering Nature. Many ‘resorted’ to the coast as part of a health cure; Victorian cities were a stew of pollution, of air, water and of land, it was the antithesis of that urban squalor to visit the coast with its clean air and healing waters. Patients were advised by doctors to take copious draughts of ozone, preferably over the sea; while this could be done on a boat tossing in the Channel it could equally be taken by strolling the deck of the pier. It had a very important role in the resort as an extension of the promenade, both in the sense of the physical seafront, but also the social sense, of parading in your finest attire [the better to attract the opposite sex!]. The West Pier was described by the Hove author Patrick Hamilton as- “that great sexual battleship”- and piers were always seen as places of assignation and naughtiness; their situation, removed from the physical hold of the land was also seen as removed from the strict mores of Victorian society. If resorts, and all that they implied, were on the dangerous edge of the land, piers themselves were an extension of even further danger, thrusting into an excitable element, the wild Channel waters.

The West Pier with its exotic ornamentation, twisted serpent gas flares and oriental domed kiosks was the epitome of seaside style, but as with all new ventures it was subject to fickle fashion and by the 1880’s the uses of piers were changing and the West Pier had to adapt. No longer content just to stroll and observe the view, patrons needed to be kept on the pier and keeping them spending, an elaborate Winter Garden was constructed on an extended pier-head, enabling an all year use. This so increased the visitor numbers to the pier that by the end of the 19th century this had been rebuilt as a grand theatre, one of the best loved in the resort.

One last major change to the pier was the erection of the Concert Hall mid-deck in 1916; this was the last major addition to the structure and was a main reason for its eventual Grade One status as the only unchanged Edwardian pier in the UK and as such its collapse and demise was a tremendous loss to the landscape of the city and to the world of seaside piers. The new i-360 planned for the site will evoke those memories of new technology and architectural grace of the original structure.

Posted in History on Jul 01, 2009