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
DesignJames Brunlees
ConstructionHardwood decking on iron piles
OwnerSouthend Council
Total length2,158 metres (7,080 ft)
Opening date1830 (Iron pier, 1889)
CoordinatesTQ884849 (shoreside)
TQ897830 (pier head)
Southend-on-Sea UK locator map.svg
Southend-on-Sea district map

Southend Pier is a major landmark in Southend-on-Sea. Extending 1.34 miles (2.16 km) into the Thames Estuary, it is the longest pleasure pier in the world.[1] Sir John Betjeman once said that "the Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier".[2] The pier is a Grade II listed building.[3]


Creation [edit]

In the early 19th century, Southend was growing as a seaside 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. However, the coast at Southend consists of large mudflats, so the sea is never very deep even at full tide – between 13 and 20 feet (4 and 6 m) – and recedes over one mile (1.6 km) from the beach at low tide. Large boats were unable to stop at Southend near to the beach and no boats at all were able to stop at low tide. This meant that many potential visitors would go past Southend and on to Margate, or other resorts where docking facilities were better.

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 the City of London Sir William Heygate, 1st Baronet, a resident of Southend.

Wooden pier [edit]

On 14 May 1829 the first Pier Act received the Royal Assent. 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 600-foot (180 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 extended to three times its length and by 1848 was the longest pier in Europe at 7,000 feet (2,100 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 Southend Local Board (the local government in place at the time).

In 1887 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.

Iron pier [edit]

Pier Pavilion in 1923. Destroyed by fire in 1959, it was replaced in 1962 by a bowling alley. This was destroyed by a fire in 1995. The area is now open decking.

The pier was designed by James Brunlees, who had built the first iron pier at Southport, Lancashire, in 1860. Work began in early 1887 and the new pier was opened to the public that summer, though it wasn't completed until 1889 at a cost of 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. The construction work was undertaken by Peter Lind & Company that still trades today. The work was carried out to accommodate larger steamboats. It was formally opened on 8 July 1929 by Prince George, Duke of Kent. This new part of the pier was on the east side and was named the Prince George Extension; it was 326 feet (99 m) long and cost £58,000. The work of doubling the electric railway, completed in 1931, cost £35,000.

On 27 June 1931 the Pier was the scene of a tragic accident. Ernest Turner fell from and was run over by one of the electric trams on the railway and was killed instantly. Turner, who was 38, 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 it had arrived earlier that day. At the inquest, which was held two days later, the jury returned a verdict of accidental death.

The Pier's centenary was celebrated on 23 July 1935 when Lord Richie of Dundee, chairman of the Port of London Authority unveiled a bronze plaque on the pier head. (Rather than 1930, as this date reflects the date when the Admiralty began to include Southend Pier on their navigation charts.)

HMS Leigh[edit]

During the Second World War Southend Pier was taken over by the Royal Navy and was renamed HMS Leigh[4] with surrounding areas being renamed HMS Westcliff. It was closed to the public on 9 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 Westcliff. 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 and Southend beach at low tide, and continues to pose a threat to navigation and the surrounding area to this day.

Post-war history[edit]

Southend seafront from Southend Pier, 2005

In 1945 the pier reopened for visitors. Visitor numbers exceeded pre-war levels, peaking at 5.75 million in 1949–50.[5] In the 1950s more attractions on the pier opened including the Dolphin Café, Sun Deck Theatre, the Solarium Café and a Hall of Mirrors.

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.[6]

The pavilion was replaced by a ten-pin bowling alley in 1962, however, by then 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.

Burnt section in 1983

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.[citation needed]

temporary bridge, railway station and collapsed section in 1987

However, on 20 June 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 (21 m) gap in the pier. While this was temporarily bridged to restore access, full repairs were not completed until 1989.

On 7 June 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 of the debris cleared in time for the summer of 1996.[citation needed]

During the summer of 1999, the famous former pirate radio station Radio Caroline moored their radio ship Ross Revenge at the end of the pier 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 the ship was there, though, workmen working on the electrics at the pierhead end accidentally cut through electric cables, leaving the entire pierhead end without power. The Radio Caroline staff came to the rescue by hooking the electricity cabling up to the spare generator aboard their ship, enabling the cafe, shops and amusement arcade to run normally for a few days until the supply from the shore could be restored.

21st century [edit]

The new shoreward end of Southend Pier

In recent years Southend Council has invested in the pier to restore it as a visitor attraction. Funding for this has been coordinated 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 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 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.

2005 fire[edit]

On 9 October 2005 a fire severely damaged much of the Old Pier Head including the railway station, pub, shell shop, snack bar and ice cream shop.[7]

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 49 feet (15 m) 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

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 pier head – a Sweden-based architecture firm, White, with London-based structural engineers Price & Myers. The winning Culture Centre design was carried out by Sprunt Architects[11] 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.[12][13]

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.[14] Now completed, it is used as a theatre and for art exhibitions,[15] holding up to 185 people.[14]

Panorama view of the pier head, 2016

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 pier head. It operates every day on which the pier is open, providing a quarter or half-hourly service.[16]

The original wooden pier built in 1830 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. 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.[17]

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. Pier Head 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.[18]

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.[19]

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 pier head 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.[19] The current boathouse was constructed by Dean & Dyball Construction Limited with the Project Architect being Bondesign Associates.

In fiction [edit]

  • Southend Pier featured in the end credits of the British television series Minder. The sequence showed unscrupulous businessman Arthur Daley and his bodyguard (or "minder") Ray walking down the pier. When they reach the end Arthur realises that he has left his lighter at the far end and they proceed to walk the return journey. The comic implication is that he is too mean to pay for the train ride.
  • The pier is mentioned in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; after Ford and Arthur are thrown off a Vogon construction ship and are picked up by the starship Heart of Gold, Arthur remarks that it looks as though they're standing "on the seafront at Southend"; however, in the 1981 BBC TV adaptation neither the set used for the pier nor the view of the buildings on the shore looks anything like Southend.
  • 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.

In the early 1970s, Kelvin Hughes ran marine radar training courses in a small room at the end of the pier. Students were billeted at various bed and breakfasts locally.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "History of Southend Pier". Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. 16 June 2011. Archived from the original on 29 September 2010. Retrieved 3 September 2011.
  2. ^ "Why it's not time for the end of the pier show". The Times. 31 October 2005. Retrieved 3 September 2011.
  3. ^ "List of listed buildings". Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. 28 March 2011. Retrieved 3 September 2011.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Matthews, P. (1995). The New Guinness Book of Records 1996. Guinness Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-0-85112-018-8.[page needed]
  6. ^ "Southend Pier Blazes - 500 Trapped". Daily Herald (13560). 8 October 1959. p. 1. Retrieved 14 March 2019 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  7. ^ "Pier to cost millions to restore". BBC News. 10 October 2005. Retrieved 3 September 2011.
  8. ^ "Pier gloom for town's next season". BBC News. 17 October 2005. Retrieved 3 September 2011.
  9. ^ Foote Wood, Chris (2008). Walking over the waves: quintessential British seaside piers. Dunbeath, Caithness: Whittles Publishing. p. 126. ISBN 978-1904445-67-8.
  10. ^ Gillan, Audrey; Johnson, Bobbie (28 October 2005). "Trio jailed for £300,000 fraud on eBay 'idiots'". the Guardian. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  11. ^ "Southend Pier case study" (PDF). Sprunt. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
  12. ^ Murphy, Mark (22 September 2009). "Southend Pier – Pier Head Design Competition" (DOC). Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. Retrieved 3 September 2011.
  13. ^ Holmes, Damian (16 September 2009). "Southend Pier Head design contest winner unveiled". World Landscape Architect. Retrieved 3 September 2011.
  14. ^ a b "Southend Pier gets a new £3m Cultural Centre". Southend Council. 17 May 2012. Retrieved 27 May 2012.
  15. ^ Hackwell, Stephen (27 March 2012). "Work under way on Southend Pier's new cultural centre". Southend Echo. Retrieved 27 May 2012.
  16. ^ "Opening Hours, Ticket Prices and Pier Train Information". Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. Retrieved 19 August 2010.
  17. ^ "Transport Miscellany article on the Southend Pier Railway". Greywall Productions. Retrieved 19 August 2010.
  18. ^ Waite, Richard (30 September 2009). "Southend Pier restoration and new train station by Saville Jones Architects". Architect's Journal. Retrieved 19 August 2010.
  19. ^ a b "Southend Lifeboat – About Us – Our Station". Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Retrieved 19 August 2010.

External links[edit]

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

Succeeded by
Deal Pier