Birnbeck Pier

Coordinates: 51°21′23″N 2°59′40″W / 51.3565°N 2.9945°W / 51.3565; -2.9945
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Birnbeck Pier
Birnbeck Pier and Island
TypePleasure Pier with RNLI lifeboat station
LocaleWeston-super-Mare, Bristol Channel, England
Official nameBirnbeck Pier
OwnerNorth Somerset Council[1]
Total length1,150 feet (351 m)
DesignerEugenius Birch
Opening date5 June 1867
Coordinates51°21′23″N 2°59′40″W / 51.3565°N 2.9945°W / 51.3565; -2.9945

Birnbeck Pier, also known as the 'Old Pier', is a pier situated on the Bristol Channel in Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset, England, approximately 18 miles (29 km) south-west of Bristol. It is the only pier in the country which links the mainland to an island, linking to Birnbeck Island, a 1.2-hectare (3-acre) rocky island just to the west of Worlebury Hill. The grade II* listed pier was designed by Eugenius Birch and opened in 1867. Birnbeck Pier is one of only six Grade II* piers surviving in the country.[2] The refreshment and waiting rooms of 1898 were designed by local architect Hans Price and the clocktower and the piermaster's house have been attributed to him.

During the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries the pier was popular with locals and tourists. As a boarding point for steamers plying their trade in the Bristol Channel, it underwent various extensions and modifications over the years. During the Second World War the pier was commissioned as HMS Birnbeck by the Admiralty as part of the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (DMWD) for research into new weapons. Its work included conducting trials on the Barnes Wallis 'bouncing bomb'.

The pier reopened after the war, but the number of visitors and steamer passengers declined. The final excursion visited the pier in 1979. The pier has been closed to the public since 1994 and is on the Buildings at Risk Register and part of it collapsed during storms in 2015. The pier was purchased by North Somerset Council in July 2023 with the aim of restoring it and reopening the lifeboat station which was moved off the pier in 2011.


The origin of the name Birnbeck is unknown but may take the 'beck' from the Scandinavian word 'bekk', a bench in literary Old Norse. Alternatively Birnbeck could be from the Old Irish 'berna bec', a 'little gap' because of the narrow channel separating the island from Worlebury Hill.[3].

The rock is limestone, giving rise to the geological term "Birnbeck Limestone Formation".[4]

Prior to the construction of the pier, Birnbeck Island could be accessed by a natural causeway at low tide.[5] A proposal was made in 1845 to connect Birnbeck Island to the mainland at the western end of Worlebury Hill. Work commenced on a suspension bridge two years later under a design by James Dredge, architect of the Victoria Bridge in Bath.[6] He patented the taper principle based on using chains rather than cables, as is more common in suspension bridges.[6] Dredge's bridge design was considered "a very significant yet relatively short-lived phase in suspension bridge development".[7] During a strike by stonemasons, what little had been built was damaged during a storm, bringing about the end to the suspension bridge scheme.[8]


The piles and girders

In 1864, a new proposal was made to build a pier across to the island, funded by 2,000 shares which raised £20,000. Cecil Hugh Smyth Pigott, the four-year-old son of the lord of the manor, laid the foundation stone on 28 October 1864 when a public holiday was declared in the town and a celebratory dinner was held in the town hall.[9]

The main pier was originally 1,150 feet (351 m) long,[10] and it is 20 feet (6 m) wide with a cantilever construction.[11] However the low water jetty was damaged in a storm in 1903, rebuilt in 1909 and finally dismantled in 1923 meaning that the pier is now 1,040 feet (317 m) long,[12] Due to architectural features such as abutments at either end of the pier, the pier resembles a bridge more than other pleasure piers. Fifteen groups of piles support a continuous lattice girder, each set comprising four piles screwed into the river bed at an angle with an X-brace between each adjacent pair. The fitting of screw blades to iron piles, as opposed to the then accepted wooden pile, created a deeper and far more resilient base support. This was one of the innovations brought by Eugenius Birch which have enabled many of the piers he designed to survive.[13] There were problems with oscillations in the structure when bands marched on the pier, both on the opening day and again in 1886. As a result, further horizontal cross braces were added to the piles, and a law was passed banning marching on the pier.[14] The gothic toll house and pierhead buildings were designed by local architect Hans Price.[15]

To allow steamers to bring day trippers to Weston-super-Mare from ports on both the English and Welsh side of the Bristol Channel, a landing jetty was extended on the west side of the island. The Severn Estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world[16][17] second only to the Bay of Fundy in Eastern Canada.[17][18] The estuary's funnel shape, its tidal range, and the underlying geology of rock, gravel and sand, produce strong tidal streams and high turbidity, giving the water a notably brown colouration.[19] The tidal range means that the legs of the pier are largely exposed at low tide and hidden at high tide.[20]


When the pier opened on 5 June 1867,[21] again by Cecil Hugh Smyth Pigott, many of the people of Weston-super-Mare were given a holiday and a banquet was held in the Town Hall. The toll to walk on the pier was 1d (an old penny), but this was quickly raised to 2d, which was the maximum fee permitted by the General Pier and Harbour Act 1861 (24 & 25 Vict. c. 45). 120,000 people paid the toll in the first three months.[22] A tramway system was installed to carry the luggage of passengers arriving at the pier.[11]

The north jetty built in 1905

A new wooden northern jetty was added in 1872 which allowed the removal of the original western landing place. Another jetty was built on the south west corner in 1898 which reached deep water even at low tide, thus allowing steamers to use the pier at all states of the tide. This was damaged in a gale in 1903, and although it was rebuilt in 1909, it closed in 1916 and was dismantled in 1923. The northern jetty had also been damaged in the 1903 storm but was replaced by the present steel structure in 1903–4.[23][24]

A second pier, known as the "Grand Pier", was opened in the centre of Weston-super-Mare in 1904. Although it had the capacity to accommodate steamers, it was seldom used due to difficult currents around the structure. An electric tram along the seafront ran to and from the pier approach road at Birnbeck.[25]

Amusements on the pier, circa 1910. The lifeboat station of 1902 is on the left.

Many visitors arriving on the steamers never left the pier and Birnbeck Island which between them housed the cafe, pavilion, amusements and funfair. These were destroyed by fire on 26 December 1897 and replaced by the present buildings, although these have been altered over the years. The attractions included Mutoscopes, a shooting gallery, merry-go-round, park swings, a theatre of wonders and a licensed bar. In 1891 a telephone was installed only six months after the first one was installed in the town.[26] In 1909, the amusement area was expanded by an extension on iron supports along the south side of the island. However, this was not built to the proper specifications so was demolished in 1912; a larger concrete platform was added in its place in 1932.[27]

The pier was taken over by the Admiralty in 1941 as an outpost of the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (DMWD). It was commissioned as HMS Birnbeck and was used for secret weapons development and storage with testing.[28] The "bouncing bomb" was tested at the Brean Down Fort on the opposite side of Weston Bay.[29][30][31] After the war, the pier resumed its role as a tourist attraction,[32] but business declined due to competition from the Grand Pier which opened its amusement arcades in 1946.

In 1962 the Birnbeck Pier Company sold the pier to P & A Campbell, the steamer operators.[33] After the withdrawal of their ships it was sold to John Critchley,[34] who redeveloped it as a "Victorian pleasure centre" which even had special permission to issue its own currency to visitors.[35] There have since been several proposals to make the pier a commercial success again, including converting it into a hotel, casino, residential use, or the centre of a marina.

The most successful steamer company serving the Bristol Channel was P & A Campbell's "White Funnel" fleet. Their operations were suspended during the Second World War, after which the number of passengers decreased with the availability of cheap foreign holidays and the opening of the Severn Bridge in the 1960s. Regular ferries ceased serving Birnbeck in 1971 and the final excursion was made 19 October 1979.[36] The pleasure "steamers" PS Waverley and MV Balmoral still operate in the Bristol Channel, but any calls at Weston are made by a connecting tender from Knightstone Harbour.


The decking and girders are in poor condition (2023 photograph)

In 1984, £1 million of damage was caused to the pier by drifting equipment during engineering work in Sand Bay, to the north of the pier.[37] The damage was quickly repaired, despite fears that Birnbeck might become like nearby Clevedon Pier, which at the time was severed by a collapsed span.[37] The pier was again badly damaged by storms in 1990 and was closed for safety reasons in 1994. Daily trips during the summer months to and from Cardiff, Clevedon, and Penarth were suspended indefinitely.[29] Due to the decline, English Heritage has placed it on the Heritage at Risk Register.[38] In 1999, the lifeboat station installed a walkway across the pier to allow them safe access to the island, at a cost of £20,000.[citation needed]

In 2006 the pier was sold to Manchester company Urban Splash.[39] The new owners and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) launched a competition in August 2007, inviting people to submit ideas for the regeneration of the pier and island.[40] At the time, the repair work required was estimated at £4 million.[41] There were 95 entries for the competition from around the world. Architect Antonino Cardillo's design included the existing buildings and added a large curvilinear concrete building to the island. The design called for many windows in the building to create a large panorama of the surrounding seascape.[42] The winner of the design competition, Levitate Architecture and Design Studio Ltd, was announced in March 2008.[43][44] The winning design included a dozen luxury apartments and a 50-room hotel.[45]

The north landing pier after its partial collapse in 2015

In September 2010 Urban Splash placed the pier up for sale, citing a downfall in business caused by the recession as their reason.[46]

In September 2011 Wahid Samady and Michael Ross were reported to have bought Birnbeck Pier for an undisclosed sum; Samady had also been awarded planning permission for a new development at the nearby Royal Pier Hotel site, just yards from the pier.[47] In August 2012 further reports suggests the sale had not proceeded and that Urban Splash were still the owners.[34] It was bought by CNM Estates of which Wahid Samady is chairman and Michael Ross is a director[48] in 2014.[49] In 2015 the Victorian Society included the pier on its list of the ten most endangered buildings.[50][51]

Part of the north pier collapsed during storms on 30 December 2015.[52] In May 2019, Neil and Ryan Andrews were each sentenced at Bristol Crown Court to 18 months imprisonment for the attempted theft of the clock face from the pier's tower. The judge, noting that the tower and clock had survived the 1897 fire, an attack by the Luftwaffe and an accidental mine attack, said the damage caused was "highly visible and irreparable" and that the Andrews "will always be known as the two men who destroyed the history; it was vandalism and theft for greed".[53]

Restoration plans[edit]

In February 2020, North Somerset Council started a compulsory purchase order on the pier.[54] In November 2021, it was announced that CNM Estates had agreed to sell the pier to the council.[55] The council bought the pier in July 2023, with the intention of repairing and restoring it, allowing the lifeboat station to relocate back to Birnbeck island.[1]

Architects and engineers were appointed in September 2023.[56] Restoration work is planned to be carried out in phases between 2024 and 2027 and will be funded by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), the government's levelling-up fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.[56] A planning application for the first phase (repairs and alterations to buildings at the landward end) were submitted in April 2024.[57]

Weston Lifeboat Station[edit]

The William James Holt is launched from the boat house which was in use between 1889 and 1902.

Due to the extreme tidal range in the Bristol Channel, finding a suitable launching site for lifeboats proved an arduous task for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). Davits were installed on the pier in 1882, enabling a lifeboat to be lowered into the water below, even at low tide. A new, larger lifeboat was stationed here in 1889 and a boathouse was built for it on the north-east side of the island with a 100 feet (30 m) slipway beside the pier. This facility was replaced in 1902 when a new boathouse was built on the south-east side of the island. This had a 368 feet (112 m) slipway which enabled the lifeboat to be launched at most states of the tide and was the longest in England.[58][59] The slipway was closed in 2007 due to its poor condition, since when the lifeboats have been launched from the north-east side of the island. The crews continued to use the 1889 boathouse[60] but the two inshore lifeboats were kept on their launch trolleys in the open air on Birnbeck Island. In April 2011 a new "temporary" boathouse was erected to give them cover. The structure cost £70,000 but has been designed so that it can be dismantled once permanent facilities are built and transported to be reused elsewhere.[61] In 2015 the RNLI announced that it would seek planning permission for a permanent lifeboat station at Knightstone Harbour along with deep-water anchorage at Anchor Head and the facilities on Birnbeck Pier were closed.[62]

Weston-super-Mare is the busiest RNLI station on the south side of the Bristol Channel; in 2011 its two lifeboats were called out 42 times.[63] Historically, the largest number of people rescued at one time was on 22 September 1884 when 40 passengers were taken off the SS Welsh Prince which got into difficulties after leaving the pier.[58]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Council buys derelict Birnbeck Pier 'for future generations'". BBC News. 13 July 2023. Retrieved 13 July 2023.
  2. ^ "Fresh plan to save crumbling Victorian pier announced". ITV News. 10 November 2021. Retrieved 6 December 2021.
  3. ^ Coates, Richard (2012). "A toponomastic contribution to the linguistic prehistory of the British Isles". Nomina. 35: 49–102.
  4. ^ "A lithostratigraphical framework for the Carboniferous successions of southern Great Britain (onshore)" (PDF). British Geological Survey. p. 104. Retrieved 5 January 2013.
  5. ^ Rutter, John (1829). Delineations of the north western division of the county of Somerset, and of its antediluvian bone caverns, with a geological sketch of the district. John Rutter, Longman, Rees, & Co. pp. 50–51.
  6. ^ a b "James Dredges Suspension Bridges". SABRE. Retrieved 17 November 2011.
  7. ^ McQuillan, D. (February 1994). "From brewer to bridge builder: reflections on the life and work of James Dredge". Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers. 102: 34–42. Archived from the original on 25 April 2012. Retrieved 5 January 2013.
  8. ^ Terrell (2001), p. 4
  9. ^ Terrell (2001), p. 5
  10. ^ "Birnbeck Pier (Weston-super-Mare)". Crosby Heritage. Retrieved 5 January 2013.
  11. ^ a b "Birnbeck Pier". Pastscape. English Heritage. Retrieved 24 December 2012.
  12. ^ "Weston-Super-Mare Birnbeck Pier". National Piers Society. 28 March 2016. Retrieved 5 February 2022.
  13. ^ Glancey, Jonathan (11 March 2002). "A blot on the seascape". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 5 January 2013.
  14. ^ Terrell (2001), pp. 12–13
  15. ^ "Birnbeck Pier History". Friends of the Old Pier Society. Retrieved 24 December 2012.
  16. ^ "Severn Estuary". Joint Nature Conservation Committee. 2001. Retrieved 3 November 2016.
  17. ^ a b "Coast: Bristol Channel". BBC. Retrieved 27 August 2007.
  18. ^ Chan & Archer (2003), p. 151
  19. ^ "The Severn Estuary a very special place". Avon Wildlife Trust. Archived from the original on 12 June 2010. Retrieved 2 February 2013.
  20. ^ Avent, Jon (Spring–Summer 2011). "Birnbeck Pier" (PDF). CARE Conservation Accreditation Register for Engineers Newsletter. 5: 11–15. Retrieved 2 February 2013.
  21. ^ "The New Pier at Weston-super-Mare". Western Daily Press. 5 June 1867. p. 3 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  22. ^ Terrell (2001), p. 9
  23. ^ Terrell (2001), p. 19
  24. ^ "Weston Mercury". 26 March 1904. p. 8.
  25. ^ Maggs (1974), p. 7
  26. ^ Terrell (2001), pp. 21–23
  27. ^ Terrell (2001), p. 36
  28. ^ van der Bijl (2000), pp. 119–123
  29. ^ a b "Birnbeck Pier". The Heritage Trail. Archived from the original on 18 February 2010. Retrieved 18 April 2010.
  30. ^ "Experimental weapon rails, Brean Down". Somerset Historic Environment Record. Somerset County Council. Retrieved 6 May 2008.
  31. ^ Evans (2004), pp. 5–11
  32. ^ "The end of the pier". Inside Out. BBC. Retrieved 24 December 2012.
  33. ^ Terrell (2001), p. 28
  34. ^ a b "Weston-Super-Mare Birnbeck Pier". National Piers Society. Archived from the original on 2 October 2011. Retrieved 24 December 2012.
  35. ^ "Birnbeck's saviour?". Eastern Daily Press. 21 September 2006. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 3 January 2013.
  36. ^ Terrell (2001), p. 31
  37. ^ a b Coombes (1995), p. 39
  38. ^ "Birnbeck Pier". Heritage at Risk Register. Historic England. Archived from the original on 6 August 2017. Retrieved 5 August 2017.
  39. ^ "Boyhood joy led to pier purchase". BBC News. 14 September 2006. Retrieved 7 January 2007.
  40. ^ "Pier design competition planned". BBC News. 13 August 2007. Retrieved 14 August 2007.
  41. ^ Kennedy, Maev (25 July 2007). "The stately wrecks of England". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 24 December 2012.
  42. ^ Cardillo, Antonino (24 October 2007). "Birnbeck Island". Retrieved 11 November 2020.
  43. ^ "Pier design winners are announced". BBC News. 13 March 2008. Retrieved 14 March 2008.
  44. ^ "Exclusive plans for Birnbeck revealed as winner is announced". Weston Mercury. 13 March 2008.
  45. ^ Booth, Robert (13 March 2008). "Goodbye kiss me quick: developers offer new hope for crumbling piers". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 14 March 2008.
  46. ^ "Birnbeck Pier up for sale ... again". Weston Echo. 19 September 2010. Retrieved 5 August 2017.
  47. ^ "Delight at sale of neglected pier". Weston Mercury. Retrieved 26 September 2011.
  48. ^ "CNM Estates Team".
  49. ^ "Friends of the Old Pier Society". Friends of the Old Pier Society. Retrieved 16 February 2016.
  50. ^ "Weston-super-Mare's Birnbeck Pier on Top Ten Most Endangered Buildings list". Victorian Society. Archived from the original on 15 December 2015. Retrieved 16 September 2015.
  51. ^ "Pier and boat store on UK's top 10 at-risk buildings". BBC News. 15 September 2015. Retrieved 16 September 2015.
  52. ^ "Section of Birnbeck Pier collapses into sea". BBC News. 30 December 2015. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  53. ^ Bennett, Geoffrey (29 May 2019). "Father and son jailed for stealing historic clock". bristolpost.
  54. ^ "Lifeboat station could move back to Birnbeck Pier". BBC News. 26 June 2020. Retrieved 8 July 2020.
  55. ^ "Birnbeck Pier to be renovated by council as owner sells up". BBC News. 10 November 2021. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
  56. ^ a b "Restoration of Birnbeck Pier begins". North Somerset Council. 18 September 2023. Retrieved 5 October 2023.
  57. ^ "Plans submitted to restore dilapidated pier". BBC News. Retrieved 17 April 2024.
  58. ^ a b Morris (2000), pp. 1–2
  59. ^ Terrell (2001), p. 13
  60. ^ "Weston-super-Mare History". Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Archived from the original on 1 May 2009. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
  61. ^ "Temporary shelter for Weston-super-Mare RNLI lifeboats". Royal National Lifeboat Institution. 11 April 2011. Retrieved 2 February 2013.
  62. ^ "New site found for Weston-super-Mare's RNLI lifeboat". BBC News. 22 January 2015. Retrieved 22 January 2015.
  63. ^ "Weston RNLI volunteers man busiest lifeboat station on south Bristol Channel". RNLI. 9 February 2012. Retrieved 31 January 2013.


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