Brighton's Three Piers - Their history and some fascinating facts
Without a doubt Brighton’s most famous and loved attraction, the Brighton Palace Pier is visited by millions of sightseers, day trippers and holiday-makers every year and has been since it was first opened, nearly 120 years ago.
In August 2015, VisitEngland released figures showing that Brighton Palace Pier was the 5th most visited free attraction in the UK, having had 4.5 million visitors the previous year. While in early 2017 National Express named it as the 4th most popular free attraction in the country after the results of a survey it carried out.
- If every plank used in the pier’s decking was laid end to end it would stretch for 85 miles!
- The length of the pier is 1760 feet (537m), that’s as long as 65 double-decker buses.
- 67,000 long-life and energy-saving lights are used to illuminate the pier every night and it provides jobs for over 400 people.
- It had to be closed during the Second World War to prevent it being used by enemy troops as a landing point for an invasion. Most of the decking was removed and the pier was guarded by soldiers for most of the war.
- It takes 3 months to paint the pier! A task that it is performed every year by its team of engineers, known as “deck-hands”, they are also responsible for the general maintenance and upkeep of the pier.
- It was nearly destroyed before it had even been finished! In 1896 a storm destroyed the old Chain Pier and lumber from the destroyed pier repeatedly slammed into the under-construction pier causing serious damage and building work was suspended while additional funding was secured.
It wasn’t Brighton’s first pier however. It was, in fact, the third pier to be built in Brighton, after the West Pier and the Old Chain Pier.
Work began on the first “Brighton Pier” nearly 200 years ago…
Brighton Chain Pier
Construction of Brighton's Chain Pier
Construction of Brighton’s first pier, the Royal Suspension Chain Pier, began in September 1822 and it was opened on the 25th November 1823.
It was designed and built by Captain Samuel Brown, a Royal Navy Engineer and Brighton resident (his former Brighton home at 48 Marine Parade is now known as Chain Pier House). Captain Samuel Brown was already well known for building suspension bridges; in 1812 he had patented the “bar chain system” to be used for building suspension bridges.
It was called the ‘Chain Pier’ or the ‘Royal Suspension Chain Pier’ in full, because, as a suspension pier, it was made up of 4 cast-iron towers linked together by chains, similar to the kind of design seen used more commonly in suspension bridges. The heavy chains that linked one tower to the next were used to support or suspend the pier.
1,154 feet long and 13 feet wide once completed, the pier was a source of fascination for many before it had even been finished. The building process itself was so interesting to watch that a viewing charge of 6d was introduced and it was “requested that visitors will not divert the attention of the workmen from their duty”
The Chain Pier was built as a landing stage for cargo boats to load and unload. At the time transportation by sea was the most cost efficient way of transporting large quantities of cargo. The Chain Pier was also used by passenger ships sailing from Dieppe that would use the pier as a landing stage allowing passengers to board and disembark.
To capitalise on the arrival of these passengers and also from locals that enjoyed walking along the pier, kiosks soon opened on the pier. Selling souvenirs and sweets they were quickly followed by the arrival of entertainment stalls. These attracted even more “foot traffic” so much so that it was decided to begin charging people for entry to the pier. A relatively high entrance fee of 2d was introduced and visitors continued to flock to the pier, with as many as 4,000 daily visitors in the 1820’s and 1830’s. The Pier was popular enough that its owners could charge what was at the time a fairly steep price in a deliberate effort to keep it as more of an exclusive day out for wealthier people and hence keep the riff raff out!
Obsolete and Abandoned
In the 1840’s Brighton became connected to the fast-growing railway network. With rail transportation being cheaper and faster than sea transportation the number of cargo boats using the pier dwindled. The income from visitors to the pier became essential. Although it was essentially being run as a “pleasure pier” it had not been built with that purpose in mind. This meant that there just wasn’t sufficient space for new shops, stalls or restaurants and the owners were unable to capitalise on the pier’s popularity as much as they would have liked.
In 1866, Brighton’s West Pier was opened to the public. The West Pier had been designed specifically as a pleasure pier and proved immediately popular with visitors and locals. This was the final nail in the coffin for the Chain Pier and it was essentially abandoned and left to fall into a state of disrepair. It was left this way until 1896, when, during a huge storm, it was finally washed away by the sea, causing considerable damage to the under construction Palace Pier.
Today there are only a few remnants of Brighton’s first pier to be found. The original entrance kiosks are intact and used as small shops on the Palace Pier and the original signal cannon, used to alert ships of the pier’s location in bad weather is also displayed on the Palace Pier. When the tide is completely out it is still possible to see some of the huge stone supports and petrified wooden pilings that were first put in place nearly 200 years ago.
Brighton's West Pier
The Iconic West Pier
The 2nd pier to be built in Brighton was the West Pier. Designed by Eugenius Birch, the West Pier opened in 1866. Measuring 1,115 feet (340m) long it was designed purely as a “pleasure pier” in that it was not expected to be a landing stage for cargo or passenger ships but specifically a place for relaxation and entertainment. It was successful for over 100 years, finally closing in 1975
After its 1866 opening it was extended in 1893. Then in 1916 a new concert hall was opened, built to replace the original bandstand and to compete with the Palace Pier’s 1500 seat theatre. The West Pier was at the height of its popularity around this time, with 2 million visitors between 1918 and 1919. In the 1920’s the range of activities offered at the pier included paddle steamer excursions, military bands, daredevil high divers and pantomimes.
After the Second World War it became a funfair pier with a games arcade, helter-skelter, dodgems and a restaurant. By the 1960’s however the pier began to suffer financial difficulties. It was bought in 1965 and it was listed as a Grade II building in 1969. The new owners, unable to afford to undertake the repairs needed after being served compulsory repair notices, chose voluntary liquidation.
In 1975 as the current owners were unable to afford the increasing maintenance costs the Pier was closed. Since then the condition of the pier has declined dramatically. After 1975 there were several attempts made to repair and reopen the pier but none proved successful. The West Pier Trust was formed to save the pier and in 1983 they bought the pier from the council for a nominal fee, known in legal terms as a peppercorn fee, of £100.
In 1982 it became the first pier in the country to be granted English Heritage grade I status.
West Pier Storm Damage, Fire and Collapse
In the great storm of 1987 the pier suffered structural damage and in 1991 it was decided to remove access from the shore for safety reasons.
In December 2002 the concert hall was seriously damaged in a particularly severe storm. Then in 2003 it was further damaged by 2 separate arson attacks. The first arson attack occurred on 28th March and completely destroyed the pier’s Pavilion. Less than 2 months later the Pier was attacked again. On May 11th the Concert Hall was deliberately set alight.
In this video you can see the pier still on fire the next day.
The West Pier trust commissioned English Heritage to report on the viability of restoration after such severe damage. English Heritage came to the conclusion that restoration was a viable option. There was a vast amount of photographic record of the pier and also video archives. This, combined with how much material from the pier had been salvaged, meant that they believed rebuilding was definitely possible. In 2004 they were therefore, very disappointed to hear that the Heritage Lottery fund decided to withdraw their funding from the project. The owners declared their intention to restore the pier but failed to secure funding.
In 2010 the concert hall had become so structurally unsound as to be declared a public hazard and its burnt out remains were removed.
In 2010 the West Pier underwent structured demolition to make way for the construction of a new observation tower, the i360. They left the remains of the pavilion and built at the landward end. Opened on 4th August 2016, the i360 is the tallest moving observation platform in the world, 162 metres tall in total with a viewing platform at 138 metres. It was designed by the same architectural company that designed the London Eye, Marks Barfield, who conceived it as a “vertical pier”.
There are also a number of surviving artefacts from the West Pier on display at the Brighton Fishing Museum.
“Even today with its sculptural remains casting an eerie beauty over the seafront, the West Pier is still the most photographed building in Brighton.” West Pier Trust
The WEST PIER TRUST do not have any intention to remove what is left of the structure of the West Pier. Unless significant safety concerns develop they are happy to let nature take its course and allow the pier to eventually be claimed by the sea.
Brighton Palace Pier: Building a “Pleasure Place”
The third pier to be built in Brighton, The Palace Pier was designed by Richard Saint George Moore on behalf of the Brighton Marine and Palace Pier Company, specifically to be a “pleasure place”. Building work began in 1891 and it was officially opened as The Brighton Marine Palace and Pier on 20th May 1899, with a ceremony on its opening night that had over 3,000 light bulbs illuminated along the pier. It would be another 2 years before work was completely finished at a total cost of £27,000, at today’s prices adjusted for inflation that is the equivalent of £2.8 million. The total construction time was more than 10 years, a record at the time for such a building project.
Once opened, the pier proved to be an immediate success with people flocking to see and be seen. Its music hall which was added in 1911 proved popular and played host to both Stan Laurel, who would later form half of the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, as well as Charlie Chaplin at the very beginning of his career before he moved to America and found Hollywood fame.
During World War I the sea surrounding the pier was extensively mined to prevent enemy attacks and during the Second World War an entire section of decking was removed to stop enemy troops using it as a landing point. After the end of WWII the pier returned to its former popularity regularly playing host to such music hall stars as Doris and Elsie Waters and Dick Emery.
It had been a condition of being granted permission to build the new Palace Pier that the owners would undertake the dismantling of the old Chain Pier which had fallen into disuse over the years and had been replaced by the West Pier. They never had to fulfil their obligation to remove and make safe the original Chain Pier however, as it was destroyed by a storm in 1896. Debris and lumber from the destroyed Chain Pier crashed into the still under construction new Palace Pier causing serious damage to the building works.
In 1984 it was bought by The Noble Group, a gambling and betting company. Their innovation was to do away with the entrance fee. Traditionally pleasure piers would rely on visitors paying an entry fee at the turnstiles at the beginning of the pier. The Noble group did away with this charge allowing visitors to enjoy the walk, the sea air and the view for free. Slot machines, a fairground, video arcade, all sorts of traditional sea-side stalls and games, bars and an award winning fish and chip restaurant all benefited from this strategy and the increased amount of potential customers.
Its popularity with visitors unfortunately made it a target of terrorism. On the 13th August 1994 a bomb that had been planted near the pier by the IRA was safely defused. This date was chosen as it was meant to mark the 25th anniversary of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. The Pier remained closed for several days while police investigated the scene. On the same day another bomb planted by the same group exploded in Bognor Regis, fortunately no one was hurt but many shops were damaged by the blast.
The biggest controversy in recent history has surrounded its name. In 2000 the pier’s owners, the Noble group, renamed the pier as simply “Brighton Pier”. This was very unpopular with residents of Brighton. They felt that naming it in such a way was an attempt to erase the history of the other 2 piers that had been built before the Palace Pier. At the time Brighton’s West Pier was still expected to reopen in the future.
In April 2016 the Pier was bought by new owners, The Eclectic Bar Group, for £18 million. Run by Luke Johnson, the former owner of Pizza Express, The Eclectic Bar Group is now known as the Brighton Pier Group. They have no plans to change the pier’s winning formula and have kept the pier’s existing management team.
Residents were hopeful that the new owners would bring back the word “Palace” in the name of the pier and in July 2016 they agreed to rename it as the Palace Pier.
Famous historical visitors known to have taken a stroll along the promenade include Greta Garbo, Winston Churchill and Grace Kelly while more recently it has seen members of The Who and The Arctic Monkeys pay a visit. An iconic part of the scenery of Brighton, it has appeared in numerous films, books and TV series over the years including Quadrophenia and Doctor Who and was the setting for important scenes in Graham Greene’s famous novel ‘Brighton Rock’ and Lynda la Plante’s 1998 novel ‘Killer Net’.
As synonymous with the city as Brighton Rock, the Palace Pier is more popular than ever, being regularly named as one of the most favourite attractions in the whole country.