Eugenius Birch

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Eugenius Birch
Born(1818-06-20)20 June 1818
Shoreditch, Middlesex, England
Died8 January 1884(1884-01-08) (aged 65)
London, England (buried in Highgate cemetery)
AwardsTelford Medal
BuildingsEastbourne Pier
ProjectsEast Indian Railway
DesignPromenade piers
The Grade II*-listed Eastbourne Pier, designed in 1870 by Eugenius Birch.

Eugenius Birch (20 June 1818 – 8 January 1884) was a 19th-century English seaside architect, civil engineer and noted builder of promenade-piers.[1]


Both Eugenius and his elder brother, John Brannis (born 1813), were born in Gloucester Terrace (later Pitfield Street), Shoreditch, London to architect and surveyor John and his wife, Susanne. He attended schools in Brighton and at Euston Square. Fascinated by engineering from a young age, he would often visit major engineering works being built in north London (such as the Primrose Hill Tunnel). While still a boy he submitted a design for a passenger carriage to the London and Greenwich Railway company. His innovation, to place the wheels beneath the carriage as opposed to the side, thus freeing more room for the passengers was adopted by the railway.[2]


As a result, aged 16 he joined Messrs. Bligh’s engineering works in Limehouse, London as an apprentice, and then studied at the Mechanics' Institute at the request of Dr George Birkbeck. In 1837, aged 19, he received a silver Isis Medal from the Society of Arts for his drawing of a marine steam engine, and the following year a Silver Telford Medal for his drawings and description of Huddert’s rope machinery.[2]

On 19 February 1839, Birch was elected a Graduate of the Institution of Civil Engineers, becoming a Member on 5 May 1863. In 1845 he formed a general design engineering partnership with his brother, John Brannis Birch, which worked across various projects including railways (such as the East Indian Railway from Calcutta to Delhi), viaducts and bridges (including the Kelham and Stockwith bridges).[2]

He also designed the Devon and Somerset Railway, Exmouth docks, Ilfracombe harbour, West Surrey waterworks and Brighton Aquarium, the oldest operational aquarium in the world.[2][3]


On his return to England from India, Birch brought his global experiences to bear on the developing English fascination with seaside holidays, specifically the construction of piers. With the railways now allowing easy and cheap access to the seaside, and the known health benefits of clean air, businessmen in coastal towns were competing against each other to create the longest and most ornate piers to attract the greatest number of tourists.[2]

In 1853, a group of Margate businessmen approach Birch to build the first screw-pile pier in Britain. In its design and construction, he brought two innovations:[2] firstly, stylistic innovations directly influenced by his travels, and secondly, the adoption of screw blade added to iron piles making for a deeper and far more resilient base support. The result was a stylish and resilient Margate Pier, which survived storms and two world wars until it was destroyed by a storm in January 1978. The pier's foundations survive to this day, despite direct attempts at demolition.[2]

The Margate pier led to a series of new commissions, which eventually ran to 14 piers in total, the most famous of which is the West Pier, Brighton.[4][5] On top of this he designed the piled Royal Netley Hospital pier. His effect on pier construction techniques can be measured in the fact that, from 1862 to 1872, 18 new pleasure piers were built, the majority using screw piling.[2] His last pier was at Plymouth, opened in the year he died, 1884.[4]

In the BBC Radio 2 sitcom It Sticks Out Half a Mile (the radio sequel to Dad's Army), Birch is the builder of the fictional Frambourne-on-Sea pier.

Later life[edit]

Later in his life, particularly during his travels, Birch produced numerous watercolour paintings, particularly those of Italy, Egypt and Nubia during a tour taken during the winter of 1874–75.[4] He died on the 8th January, 1884 and is buried on the west side of Highgate Cemetery (plot no.25915). His grave, which is set back on the left of the main path up from Comfort's Corner, no longer has a headstone or identifiable memorial.

Personal life[edit]

In 1842 Birch married Margaret Gent, the daughter of a silk manufacturer from Cheshire. She was the sister-in-law of Birch's sister. The couple had no children, but Birch had two children, Eugene (born 1879) and Ethel (born 1881), with his wife's niece, Marion Morris.[6]

List of piers[edit]

Location Built Contractor Status Comments
Margate Pier, Margate 1855–57 Closed 1976 First iron pier. Also known as Margate Jetty. Hit by storm-driven ship 1 January 1877. Hit by storm 11 January 1978. The wrecked pier remained for several years, surviving several attempts to blow it up, before final demolition though part of pier head remains.
North Pier, Blackpool 1862–63 R Laidlaw and Son, Glasgow Open Grade II-listed. The oldest remaining example of a Birch pier.
West Pier, Brighton 1863–66 R Laidlaw and Son, Glasgow Closed 1975 Major sections collapsed in late 2002, and two fires in March and May 2003 left little of the original structure. Structured demolition took place in 2010 to make way for the observation tower i360; further structural damage from storms has occurred since.
Deal Pier 1864 R Laidlaw and Son, Glasgow Final demolition 1954 Hit by ship 1940, destroying 200 feet of ironwork. Demolished by the army. Final demolition 1954. Replaced by a concrete pier, which opened in 1957.
Lytham Pier 1864–65 R Laidlaw and Son, Glasgow Closed 1938. Demolished March/April 1960 In October 1903, sliced in two by drifting barges and repaired. The pavilion destroyed by fire in 1927.
Aberystwyth Royal Pier 1865 JE Dowson Open Grade II listed. Following storm damage, the pier is currently a third of its original length.
Eastbourne Pier 1866–72 Open Grade II*-listed. The pier's arcade building, called the Blue Room, was destroyed in a fire in 2014. However, the pier continues to attract healthy numbers of visitors.
Birnbeck Pier, Weston-super-Mare 1867 Closed 1994 Grade II*-listed. No successful regeneration attempts have been made, so the pier continues to be in an extremely poor condition.
New Brighton Pier 1867 JE Dowson Closed 1972 Demolished 1977.
Scarborough North Pier 1866–69 J E Dowson and another Destroyed 1905 Destroyed by storms in 1905. Entrance building remained until 1914.
Hastings Pier 1869–72 R Laidlaw and Son, Glasgow Open Re-opened in 2016 following a major restoration project.
Hornsea Pier 1880 Demolished 1897 Demolished following financial difficulties.
Bournemouth Pier 1880 Open Pier head rebuilt in concrete in 1960, followed by the neck in 1979. Pier zip-line built in 2014.
Plymouth Pier 1884 Demolished 1953 Demolished 1953 following WWII bombing in 1940.


  1. ^ "Eugenius Birch (1818-1884) Obituary". Grace's Guide. Retrieved 4 May 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Eugenius Birch". 28 June 2008. Retrieved 31 May 2010.
  3. ^ "About Us and Our History". SEA LIFE Brighton Aquarium. Retrieved 27 June 2022.
  4. ^ a b c Jonathan Glancey (11 March 2002). "A blot on the seascape". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 May 2010.
  5. ^ "West Pier, Brighton". Arthur Lloyd. Retrieved 31 May 2010.
  6. ^ "Eugenius Birch". Retrieved 13 September 2023.

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