Southend Pier

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Coordinates: 51°31′33″N 0°43′03″E / 51.525731°N 0.717461°E / 51.525731; 0.717461

Southend Pier
Southend Pier Autumn 2007 - crop.jpg
Southend Pier in 2007
TypePleasure, RNLI lifeboat station
CarriesPedestrians, shuttle train, lifeboat crews/supplies
SpansThames Estuary
Maintained bySouthend Council
DesignerJames Brunlees
ConstructorHardwood decking on iron piles
Opening date1830 (Iron pier, 1889)
OwnerSouthend Council
Total length2,158 metres (7,080 ft)
CoordinatesTQ884849 (shoreside)
TQ897830 (pierhead)
Southend-on-Sea UK locator map.svg
Southend-on-Sea district map

Southend Pier is a major landmark in Southend-on-Sea. Extending 1.33 miles (2.14 km) into the Thames Estuary, it is the longest pleasure pier in the world.[1] The bill to build the new pier, to replace a previous timber jetty, received Royal Assent in May 1829 with construction starting in July 1829. The timber pier was replaced by an iron pier that opened to the public in August 1889. The Southend Pier Railway, opened in the early 1890s, was the first pier railway in the country.

The pier played a role through both of the world wars, such as during World War I when ships housing German prisoners of war were moored off the pierhead. In the Second World War, the pier was taken over by the Royal Navy and was renamed HMS Leigh, closing to the public in September 1939. The pier has experienced several fires, notably in 1959, 1976, 1995 and 2005, with the latter causing significant damage to the old pierhead and surrounding structures.

Sir John Betjeman, English poet and broadcaster, once said that "the Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier".[2] The pier is a Grade II listed building.[3]


Creation [edit]

Seaside towns became popular with tourists in the second half of the 18th century. By the early 19th century, Southend was growing as a holiday resort. At the time, it was thought that spending time by the sea was good for one's health and since it was close to the capital, many Londoners would come to Southend for this reason. Travellers would often arrive by boat, which presented problems as boats could only dock during high tide.[4] The Southend coast consists of mudflats that extend far from the shore, with a high tide depth that seldom exceeds 5.5 metres (18 ft). Large boats were unable to port near to the beach and no boats could approach at low tide.[5] Many potential visitors would travel beyond Southend on to Margate or other resorts with better docking facilities.[2]

To counter this trend, local dignitaries pushed for a pier to be built that would allow boats to reach Southend at all tides. The campaign was led by Southend resident Sir William Heygate, who was the former Lord Mayor of the City of London. Heygate was mobbed by crowds upon returning from London with the news that the bill for construction had been passed.[2]

Early pier[edit]

During the late 1820s, a bill for construction of a pier to replace the existing jetty was put to the House of Commons and subsequently referred to the House of Lords where it was approved on 7 May 1829.[6] On 14 May 1829, the pier received the Royal Assent.[7] Just over two months later on 25 July, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Thompson laid the foundation stone of the first section of the pier. By June 1830, a 180-metre (590 ft) wooden pier was opened, using around 90 oak trees in its construction.[6] The pier was extended around 1834 and again in 1846 to stretch just over a mile before a later rebuild extended it to a length of around 1.3 miles (2.1 km).[4] By 1848, it was the longest pier in Europe at 2,100 metres (7,000 ft).[8] It was sold by the original owners for £17,000 (equivalent to £1,658,386 in 2019) in 1846 after getting into financial difficulties.[9]

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 1875 it was sold to the Southend Local Board.[10] In 1887, the board decided to replace the pier with a new iron pier, built alongside the old wooden one.[11] Part of the wooden structure of the old pier was subsequently used in the construction of a new mayoral chair in 1892.[2] A mortuary located under the old pier remained after construction of the new pier, despite complaints about the smell by passers-by and traders in 1898.[12]

Pier during the late 19th century

The pier was designed by James Brunlees, who in 1860 had built Southport Pier, the first iron pier at Southport, Lancashire. Work began in early 1887[2] and the new pier was opened to the public in August 1889, built at a cost of £68,920 (equivalent to £7,673,826 in 2019).[13] A single track electric railway starting running the following year and was the first pier railway in the country.[4] Its first extension was added in 1897 and formally opened in January 1898.[13] An upper deck with a bandstand and shops opened in 1908.[14]

War and inter-war period[edit]

During the early part of World War I, three prison ships were moored off the pier, the first of which held German soldiers who had been captured in France, while the other two mostly held civilians. Prisoners would walk along the high street and the length of the pier to board the ships.[15] The Admiralty, responsible for the Royal Navy during the war, paid for a war signal station at the pierhead, although the pier remained open for recreation.[16] During the spring of 1915, prisoners on the ships were moved away from the pier to other camps due to safety concerns.[17]

Pavilion in 1923. Destroyed by fire in 1959 and replaced in 1962 by a bowling alley, also destroyed by fire in 1995. Now open decking

The years following the war saw the heydey of Southend Pier and it became necessary to increase facilities to allow for a greater number of boats to dock.[18] The pier was extended in 1927[19] with construction undertaken by Peter Lind & Company who still trade today.[20] The 99 metres (326 ft) extension cost £58,000 (equivalent to £3,552,026 in 2019) and was formally opened on 8 July 1929 by the Duke of Kent. The extension, named the Prince George Extension, allowed for an increased number of steamers to visit the pier.[18] In June 1931, brewery drayman Ernest Turner was on a works outing from Ansell's brewery in Birmingham when he fatally fell underneath an oncoming train.[21]

Southend Pier celebrated its centenary on 23 July 1935 when Lord Richie of Dundee, chairman of the Port of London Authority unveiled a bronze plaque on the pierhead.[22] The centenary was not celebrated in 1930, which would have been 100 years after its first opening, as 1835 reflects the date when the Admiralty began to include Southend Pier on their navigation charts.[23]

During the Second World War, Southend Pier was taken over by the Royal Navy and was renamed HMS Leigh, closing to the public on 9 September 1939 and becoming the Naval Control Centre for the Thames Estuary.[24] A 90-minute German air raid on 22 November 1939 was deterred by the pier's defenders. The pier served as a convoy mustering point by organising 3,367 of them over the course of the war, offering protection from dive bombers by using inflated barrage balloons. Out of over 84,000 ships that passed Southend, the only casualty was the SS Richard Montgomery, containing over 1,500 tons of explosives.[25] The ship, which sunk in August 1944 and split in half, is visible from the North Kent coast and Southend beach at low tide, although subject to a 500-metre exclusion zone due to the present day threat posed to navigation and the surrounding area.[26]


Following World War II, the pier reopened for visitors and saw nearly 6 million visitors during 1949, exceeding pre-war levels.[27] The pier railway trains were replaced in 1949 with stock similar to those used on the London Underground[13] and around 5 million passengers travelled on the railway in its first year after reopening.[28] In the 1950s, more attractions on the pier opened including the Dolphin Café, Sun Deck Theatre, the Solarium Café and a Hall of Mirrors.[27] In 1959, a fire destroyed the pavilion located at the shore end, trapping over 500 people on the other side of the fire who had to be rescued by boat.[29][30] The pavilion was replaced by a ten-pin bowling alley in 1962[31] at a time when Southend was reaching its heyday.[32]

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 resulting in repairs and replacement to much of the pier railway throughout the decade. In 1976, a fire destroyed much of the 1908 pierhead.[13] Early efforts to fight the fire were hampered by a limited supply of water, requiring additional water in the form of crop-spraying light aircraft.[33] The investigation into the cause was inconclusive, with the official reason recorded as unknown, although a discarded cigarette end was considered likely. In the early stages of the fire, many bystanders observed but did not call the fire brigade. Conditions for fighting the fire were unfavourable, with strong winds and a low tide.[34] In November 1977, another fire badly damaged the bowling alley and in October the following year, the pier railway was deemed unsafe and had to be closed.[35] By then, British holidaymakers were turning to package holidays abroad.[36]

Burnt section in 1983

In 1980, the council announced plans to close the pier.[35] Protests led the council to allow the pier to remain open until a solution could be found.[2] 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 in May 1986, when Princess Anne officially opened the new pier railway,[35] naming the two new trains after Sir John Betjeman and Sir William Heygate. The total cost of the repairs including new buildings and pier trains was around £1.5 million (equivalent to £4,578,158 in 2019).[37]

temporary bridge, railway station and collapsed section in 1987

On 30 June 1986, a 54.9-metre (180 ft) tanker named Kings Abbey crashed into the pier, severing a 21.3-metre (70 ft) gap from the new pierhead to the rest of the pier, destroying the boathouse used by the lifeboat service[35] and causing major structural damage due to the destruction of iron piles and supporting girders. While this was temporarily bridged to restore access, full repairs were not completed until 1989.[38]

On 7 June 1995, an electrical fault caused a fire to start in the bowling alley. The fire spread rapidly through the timber roof causing significant damage.[39] The fire had spread to the railway station within two hours before being brought under control by lunchtime and extinguished by the middle of the afternoon. While the railway track sustained some damage, the trains were unaffected.[40] The cost of repairing the pier was around £680,000 (equivalent to £1,316,823 in 2019) and was agreed by Southend Council's cabinet in January 2000, despite being £70,000 (equivalent to £135,555 in 2019) more than the original estimated cost. The fire also damaged beyond repair the timber decking and supporting structure. Reconstruction of the deck took place in 1998 and took six months to complete. While the majority cost of repairs was covered by insurance, the council had to contribute £26,000 (equivalent to £49,162 in 2019) from the pier's structural maintenance budget.[41]

During the summer of 1999, former pirate radio station Radio Caroline moored their radio ship Ross Revenge at the pierhead for about a month and conducted a 28-day legal broadcast under a Restricted Service Licence to the Southend-on-Sea and southeast Essex area. Whilst moored, a power-cut left the pier without power for two days. Radio Caroline helped generate electricity for the pier via a spare generator aboard their ship, enabling shops and attractions to function until the mains supply could be restored. A subsequent lightning strike disabled their rear tower and took out the transmitter.[42]

21st century [edit]

The new shoreward end of Southend Pier

Southend Council invested in the pier during the 21st century to restore it as a visitor attraction, with funding coordinated by the "S-SHAPE" (Southend Seafront, High Street and Pier Enhancements) project. A bid for European Objective 2 funding was agreed in principle in October 1999, with the aim to spend money on improving the area around the town centre and pier.[43]

The pierhead was extensively redeveloped in during 2000–01, including construction of a new lifeboat station in partnership with the RNLI. A significant proportion of the £500,000 cost was bequested by Peter Royal, a yachtsman who died in 1988.[44] The new station is constructed in glass to give a strikingly modern style. It also houses the Southend Pier Museum and a gift shop relating to the history of the RNLI and lifeboats. The museum features exhibits about the pier's history, including a restored working pier signal box, a tram and train carriages, photos, period costumes, and a small collection of working old penny slot machines.

In 2003 the shoreward end of the pier was redeveloped in a similar style to the pierhead. 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.

2005 fire[edit]

On 9 October 2005 a fire severely damaged much of the Old Pierhead including the railway station, pub, shell shop, snack bar and ice cream shop.[45] 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 could only run to about 15 metres (49 ft) short of the old station.

The fire was thought to have started in the pub at around 10:45 pm, but due to the location and the damage (several buildings collapsed into the water) the cause has never been formally determined, although it was treated as an accident.[46] No one was injured, but firefighters encountered difficulties extinguishing the blaze as pumps installed on the pier were rendered ineffective by the low tide. The Southend lifeboat was deployed to transport the first firefighters to the scene.

The pier reopened to the public on 1 December 2005, and in 2007 was voted Pier of the Year.[47]

The pierhead station was destroyed in the blaze, so a replacement with two platforms was constructed to take the pier trains as close as possible to the area where the blaze took place. Access to the pierhead, RNLI gift shop and boathouse is available by walking past the temporary toilets. The paddle steamers PS Waverley and PS Kingswear Castle can again call at the pierhead, and autumn 2006 saw the tall ship Khersones visit again.

Shortly after the fire, pieces of charred pier planking turned up for sale on eBay with the proceeds apparently going to the RNLI.[48]

Cultural centre in the Pier Pavilion[edit]

Southend Pier Royal Pavilion

On 15 September 2009 Southend Borough Council announced the winner of a design contest for a new pierhead – a Sweden-based architecture firm, White, with London-based structural engineers Price & Myers. The winning Culture Centre design was carried out by Sprunt Architects[49] in the UK with Quantity Surveying and Employers Agent services delivered by Sweett group. Kier Group was the contractor responsible for the construction of the Pier Pavilion which is used in part as a Cultural Centre.

The company's winning entry was a design called Sculpted by Wind and Wave and was chosen from 73 international and local entries. The contest was run by the Landscape Institute for the council.[50][51]

On 17 May 2012, the structure for a new Pier Pavilion was lowered onto the pier and on 21 July it opened to the public.[52] Now completed, it is used as a theatre and for art exhibitions,[53] holding up to 185 people.[52] Recycled pier timber was used in the construction of beach huts on Shoebury's East Beach in 2013.[54]

Railway [edit]

Repainted train Sir William Heygate, approaching the shore terminus on 23 October 2006

The pier railway runs the length of Southend Pier, providing public passenger transport from the shore to the pierhead. It operates every day on which the pier is open, providing a quarter or half-hourly service.[55]

The original wooden pier built in 1830 employed a horse tramway to convey goods and visitors to the pierhead. In 1890, with the construction of the iron pier, Cromptons installed an electric tramway. By 1891 the line ran the then full length of the pier 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.[56]

In 1978 the electric railway closed, due to deterioration and the cost of repairs. It was reopened on 2 May 1986 using two new diesel trains on a simplified single track with a passing loop. Pierhead station was temporarily resited due to the fire in late 2005, until a new, modern structure was opened on the original site in September 2009.[57]

Lifeboat station [edit]

One of the Southend-on-Sea lifeboat station's two boathouses is located at the pierhead of Southend Pier. It houses an Atlantic 75 class lifeboat and a smaller D class lifeboat, both of which are launched by davit into the deep water adjoining the pier. The boathouse is a modern structure which incorporates crew accommodation and offices, an RNLI shop, and a viewing gallery from which visitors can view the lifeboats. It is topped by a sun deck to which the public has access. Lifeboat crews use an electric buggy, complete with sirens and blue flashing lights, to access this boathouse along the pier from the shore.[58]

A lifeboat has been stationed on the pier since 1879. Initially lifeboats were launched using davits, much as they are today. However, in 1935 a new lifeboat house was erected at the pierhead that provided a slipway for launching the lifeboat. This lasted until 1986, when the collision of the MV Kingsabbey with the pier destroyed the boathouse. A temporary boathouse was used until 2002, when the current boathouse opened.[58] The current boathouse was constructed by Dean & Dyball Construction Limited with the Project Architect being Bondesign Associates.

In fiction [edit]

  • The pier features in The Bill Series 18 Episode 1, "Loaded". PC Des Taviner and PC Reg Hollis drive to Southend to visit Reg's girlfriend, for Reg to propose to her. Scenes of both the Southend-on-Sea foreshore and the Southend Pier are seen.
  • Eastenders has featured the pier on multiple occasions, including in the Summer of 2011, where several characters head there for the day. One character (Rob Grayson) meets his demise here after falling off the pier during a fight with Ryan Malloy.[59]
  • Minder, the comedy drama, in the later episodes, starring George Cole and Gary Webster, showed the two main characters walking along the pier, almost reaching the shore, but having to turn round and walk all the way back again, as a lighter had been left behind at the far end.



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External links[edit]

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Worthing Pier
National Piers Society
Pier of the Year

Succeeded by
Deal Pier