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Southend Pier, Southend on Sea, England

July 3rd, 2006 / / Links: Google Earth, Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps, Virtual Earth / Nearest places

Southend Pier is a major landmark in Southend-on-Sea. Extending 2,158 m (a mile and a third) into the Thames Estuary, it is the longest pier in the world. Sir John Betjeman is noted as saying that "the Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier". The pier is a Grade II listed building.

In the early 19th century, Southend was growing as a resort. At the time, it was thought that spending time at the seaside was good for one's health, and since it was close to the capital, many Londoners would come to Southend for this reason. However the coast at Southend consists of large mudflats, so the sea is never very deep even at full tide, and recedes for well over a mile at low tide. Because of this large boats were unable to stop at Southend and no boats at all were able to stop at low tide. This meant that many potential visitors would travel past Southend and go to Margate, or other resorts where docking facilities were better.

In order to counter this trend local dignitaries pushed for a pier to be built. This would allow boats to reach Southend at all tides. The campaign was led by former Lord Mayor of London Sir William Heygate, a resident of Southend. In 1829, Parliament passed an act giving authorisation for the construction of a pier at Southend. When Sir William brought the news back from London he was mobbed by enthusiastic crowds.

Soon after authorisation was granted in 1829, the Lord Mayor of London laid the first foundations for the pier. By June 1830 a 600ft (182 m) wooden pier was opened, based on oak piles. However this was still too short to be usable at low tide, so by 1833 it had been exteneded to three times its length and by 1848 was the longest pier in Europe at 7,000ft (2,133.6 m). It was sold by the original owners for £17,000 in 1846 after getting into financial difficulties.

By the 1850s the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway had reached Southend, and with it a great influx of visitors from East London. The many visitors took their toll on the wooden pier and in 1873 it was sold to the local board (the local government in place at the time).

In 1877 the board decided to replace the pier with a new iron pier.

Part of the wooden structure of the old pier was used in the construction of a new mayoral chair in 1892.

The pier was designed by James Brunlees, who had built the first iron pier at Southport in 1860. Work began in 1887 and the new pier opened to the public in the summer of the same year, though it was only completed in 1889. The cost was almost £70,000. It was an immediate success, so much so that demand outstripped the capabilities of the pier and a further extension was proposed. This extension was completed in November 1897 and formally opened the following January.

An upper deck was added to the pierhead in 1907, and the pier was further extended in 1927 to accommodate larger steamboats. It was formally opened on the 8th July 1929 by HRH Prince George, Duke of Kent. This part of the pier was named the Prince George Extension.

In 1931 the Pier was the scene of a tragic accident. On 27th June a Mr. Ernest Turner fell from and was run over by one of the electric trams on the railway. He was killed instantly. Mr Turner, who was 38 at the time, was one of a party of over 500 workers and family members on the annual works outing from Ansell's brewery in Birmingham, where he worked as a Brewer's Drayman. The party had arrived at the pier having travelled down the River Thames from Tower Pier in London where they had arrived earlier that day. It was whilst travelling from the pier head into Southend that the accident occurred. At the inquest, which was held two days later, the Southend-on-Sea Coroner, Mr. H. J. Jefferies, determined that there were no extenuating circumstances and the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. At the time of his death Mr. Turner was married to Elsie and was father to their daughter Ivy who was just 4 years old.

The Pier's centenary was celebrated on 23rd July 1935, rather than 1930, as this date reflects the date the Admiralty began to include Southend Pier on their navigation charts.

During World War II, Southend Pier was taken over by the Royal Navy and was renamed (along with the surrounding area) HMS Leigh. It was closed to the public from 9th September 1939.

Its purpose in the war was twofold. Firstly it served as a mustering point for convoys. Over the course of the war 3,367 convoys, comprising 84,297 vessels departed from HMS Leigh. Secondly, it was Naval Control for the Thames Estuary. Notable in its career was the accidental sinking of the Liberty ship SS Richard Montgomery which, still containing several thousand tons of explosives, is visible from the North Kent coast at low tide, and continues to pose a potential threat to navigation over 60 years later.

In 1945 the pier reopened for visitors. Visitor numbers exceeded their pre-war levels, peaking at seven million in 1949. In the fifties, more attractions on the pier opened including the Dolphin Cafe, Sun Deck Theatre, the Solarium Cafe and a Hall of Mirrors.

However the success was not to last. In 1959 a fire destroyed the Pavilion located at the shore end of the pier. Over 500 people were trapped on the other side of the fire and had to be rescued by boat.

The pavillion was replaced by a bowling alley the following year, however by the 60s, British holidaymakers were turning to package holidays abroad. The use of the pier slowly began to decline and with it the structure began to deteriorate. In 1971, after a child was injured on the pier, a survey was undertaken and over the course of the next decade repairs had to be made including much of the replacement of the pier walkway.

In 1976 a fire destroyed much of the pier head. The massive blaze was battled by fire fighters working on the pier and from boats, and even using a crop-spraying light aircraft. The following year the bowling alley was damaged in another fire, and a year after that, the railway was deemed unsafe and had to be closed.

In 1980 the council announced that the pier was to close. Protests led the council to allow the pier to remain open until a solution could be found. This happened in 1983 when the Historic Buildings Committee gave a grant to allow repairs to be made. The work commenced in 1984 and was completed eighteen months later, when Princess Anne named the two new pier trains (commissioned to replace trains scrapped in 1982) after Sir John Betjeman and Sir William Heygate. The total cost of the repair including new buildings and pier trains was £1.3 million.

However on June 20 in that year, the MV Kingsabbey crashed into the pier, severing the new pier head from the rest of the pier, destroying the boathouse used by the lifeboat service and causing major structural damage due to the destruction of iron piles and supporting girders. This left a 70-foot gap in the pier. While this was temporarily bridged to restore access, full repairs were not completed until 1989.

On June 7, 1995, the bowling alley burnt down. Fortunately, the pier museum and railway station were not severely damaged and access to the pier was reinstated three weeks later, with all the debris cleared in time for the summer of 1996.

In recent years Southend Council has invested in the pier to restore it as a visitor attraction. Funding for this has been co-ordinated by the "S-SHAPE" (Southend Seafront, High-street And Pier Enhancements) project with funding coming from European Objective 2 funding and National Government regeneration schemes.

The pier head was extensively redeveloped in 2000 creating a new sun deck and, in partnership with the RNLI, a new lifeboat station was built. The new station is constructed in glass to give a strikingly modern style. It also houses a museum and giftshop relating to the history of the RNLI and lifeboats.

In 2003 the shoreward end of the pier was redeveloped in a similar style to the pier head. The pier bridge was raised to enable taller vehicles to pass under it (a recurring problem had been double decker buses getting stuck under the bridge) and a visitor centre/tourist information centre was built. This connected with the new Cliff Lift and redevelopment of Pier Hill that was constructed the following year.

On October 9, 2005 a fire severely damaged much of the Old Pier Head including the railway station, pub, shell shop, snack bar and ice-cream shop.

Much of the wooden planking was destroyed, but the main iron structure was largely undamaged. Heat from the fire was so intense that the Pier Railway tracks buckled and trains can now only run to within approx. 15m of the old station.

The fire was thought to have started in the pub at around 10:45pm, but due to the extreme location and the damage (several buildings collapsed into the water), the cause has not yet been formally determined, although it is being treated as an accident. No one was injured, but fire-fighters encountered difficulties extinguishing the blaze as, due to the low tide, pumps installed on the pier were rendered ineffective.

The Pier reopened to the public on 1 December for the first time since the fire.

However, insurance and security demands mean access is limited to 48 people walking or taking the train at any one time. Visitors are only able to go along the first mile of the walkway.

The pierhead station was destroyed in the blaze so a temporary halt has been constructed to take the pier trains as close as possible to the area where the blaze took place. There is a temporary viewing platform but visitors are not allowed on the old pierhead, where cafes and shops were wrecked by the blaze. Nor can the public cross to the new pierhead, which houses the RNLI station. It is thought it will be two years before the whole of the pier is restored and reopened.

Shortly after the fire, pieces of charred pier planking have turned up for sale on eBay with the proceeds apparently going to the RNLI. Sky News has some good pictures of the damaged section, as does the BBC.

The original wooden pier had employed a horse tramway to convey goods and visitors to the pier head. In 1890, with the construction of the iron pier, Cromptons installed an electric tramway with a single toast rack carriage and 0.75 miles of single track. By 1891 the line ran the full 1.25 miles and carriages were in use. The system expanded, until eventually, by 1930, four trains, each made up of seven carriages, were running on a double track.

In 1949 the rolling stock was replaced with four new trains similar in design to the London Underground stock, built by AC Cars, of Thames Ditton, in Surrey. The stock was liveried in green and cream.

In 1978 the electric railway closed, due to deterioration and the cost of repairs and didn't reopen until 1986, when two new trains began plying the pier, on a simplified single track with a passing loop. Each train consists of a diesel-hydraulic locomotive at the southern end, five trailer coaches and at the northern end, a driver control unit with passenger space. The livery is now all-over burgundy with a white waist-band.

(Source: Wikipedia)

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