Walking on water: tales behind the piers on the Greater Anglia network
The pleasure piers that hug our coastline are synonymous with the British seaside holiday. Anthony Wills looks at the history of these iconic Victorian monuments across East Anglia
The late Sir John Betjeman once famously declared “Southend is the Pier, the Pier is Southend”, and he certainly had a point. At 1.34 miles, the pleasure pier at Southend-on-Sea is famous for being the longest in the world. Indeed, the beauty of the 50-plus piers that line our shores – including the eleven to be found in East Anglia – is that they come in all shapes and sizes.
One thing they do have in common is their dedication to the pursuit of harmless fun. Seaside shenanigans may have evolved over the years – from the 19th-century pastime of promenading by the sea in one’s Sunday best to the flashing lights of modern amusement arcades – but the basic thrills of walking over the water or sitting in a deckchair with fish and chips are a timeless pier experience.
Though this was a far cry from their original purpose. With the popularity of the seaside resort booming in the 19th-century, many of East Anglia’s piers were built by the Coastal Development Company, over a period of 60 years, as landing stages for the paddle steamers, which would ferry holidaymakers between resorts. When the present pier at Southend-on-Sea opened in 1890, this was its primary function, and by 1895 there were 250,000 passengers embarking and disembarking annually. Prior to this, they had to wade through the water or pay a porter for a piggyback ride.
Elsewhere, with the extension of railways to places such as Lowestoft, the addition of a pier was a matter of civic pride and it soon became fashionable for every popular Victorian resort to have one. By the early 20th-century there were over a hundred in the UK, several designed by the quaintly-named seaside architect Eugenius Birch.
As piers grew in popularity, their owners began to realise they could make money by providing refreshment and entertainment, not only for steamer passengers, but also for local residents. Initially they installed turnstiles and pay kiosks, so only the well-off could patronise the piers (the Ha’penny Pier in Harwich is so named because of its entrance toll) and elaborate pavilions were built for visitors to take tea while listening to live music.
But once Bank Holidays were introduced in the 1870s, the entertainment became considerably broader. The Wellington Pier at Great Yarmouth, for example, offered roller-skating, miniature golf, boxing, athletics, fishing, dancing and even whist drives (not quite as exotic as the Blackpool’s South Pier boxing kangaroo).
Another important development at this time was the arrival of travelling showmen with automated fortune-telling machines, rifle ranges, punch balls and kinematographs; they were to pave the way for amusement arcades, which continue to provide a major revenue stream for piers to this day.
The pierrot troupes (groups of entertainers), who had hitherto operated on the sands, were now allowed onto piers and proper theatres were built to house them. These so-called ‘end-of-the-pier shows’, featuring comedians, magicians, acrobats and dancers, became tremendously popular. One of the earliest examples was at Clacton-on-Sea, where a pavilion was built in 1883, while Cromer Pier’s bandstand was converted into a covered pavilion in the 1920s and, to this day, is home to the only end-of-the-pier show of its kind.
By the early 20th-century it was possible to spend an entire day on a pier and it provided a welcome shelter in inclement weather (when visitors were often locked out of their boarding houses between breakfast and teatime). However, the outbreak of war in 1939 changed everything. Britain’s beaches became off limits and many piers were ‘sectioned’ (that is cut in half) in order to prevent the Germans from invading. Because of its strategic location, the pier at Southend-on-Sea was taken over by the Navy and renamed HMS Leigh. Its trains ran day and night, carrying over 1.5 million servicemen out to the waiting convoy ships.
Recovery after the cessation of hostilities was slow; many piers had been damaged by enemy action while others had suffered considerable structural neglect. But the British public couldn’t wait to return to the seaside for a well-earned break, and piers made ready to welcome them. They offered the opportunity to watch a beauty contest, marvel at the death-defying antics of a diver or peek at a ‘What The Butler Saw’ machine.
While the 1950s were a boom period (nearly five million people visited Southend Pier in its 1949/50 season), with the advent of the inclusive overseas package holiday in the 1960s the British resort was hit hard and many piers fell into disrepair. However, foreign currency restrictions and the ‘Three-Day Week’ during the 1970s improved matters somewhat and, more recently, the phenomenon of stay-cationing has helped to create a more fluid pattern of visits.
The piers of East Anglia have been remarkable survivors – Hunstanton being an exception (it was destroyed by a storm in 1978). Despite their fair share of not just bad weather, but fires and ship collisions, world wars and economic decline, there have been some noteworthy recoveries. Southwold, for example, was restored almost single-handedly in the late 1980s by Chris Iredale, who extended it from 150 ft to something approaching its original length of 800 ft. More recently Felixstowe has had a complete rebuild, and Clacton Pier owner Billy Ball is to oversee a £4 million revamp, which will include major structural works and the addition of a number of new attractions.
The National Piers Society – founded in 1979 under Betjeman – has also played a pivotal role in the continued enjoyment of the pier. In addition to launching and overseeing the Pier Of The Year Awards (Felixstowe was runner-up in 2018), the Society runs an annual photographic competition and presents a triennial award for excellence in pier engineering. Such efforts have gone a long way to raise the profile of these iconic seaside structures, which are still largely a British institution, often imitated but never equalled.
Beside the seaside
Everything you need to know about East Anglia’s pleasure piers
Originally built in 1900, today the pier attracts holidaymakers with arcade games and Tim Hunkin’s collection of hand-built machinery.
This traditional Victorian pier is home to the only remaining end-of-the-pier show of its kind, which in summer runs from June to September.
HA’PENNY PIER, HARWICH
First opened in 1853, this remains one of the UK’s only surviving wooden, working piers and a great fishing spot.
This pier recently reopened after a multi-million pound restoration with twinkling arcades and retro-style tenpin bowling
WALTON PIER, WALTON-ON-THE-NAZE
Kids are certainly spoilt for choice here with Dodgem cars, interactive arcade games and great fishing.
CLACTON PIER, CLACTON-ON-SEA
Clacton Pier is an impressive 6.5 acres complete with circus, Seaquarium and monthly fireworks.
SOUTHEND PIER, SOUTHEND-ON-SEA
The longest pier in the world – it’s almost a three-mile round trip – features a working railway and crazy golf.
SOUTH AND CLAREMONT PIERS, LOWESTOFT
South Pier is popular with anglers. While Claremont Pier has roller-skating rink and live music venue.
BRITANNIA AND WELLINGTON PIERS, GREAT YARMOUTH
Visit Wellington for a huge bowling alley and Britannia for live shows.
About the author: Anthony Wills is former Chairman of the National Piers Society (piers.org.uk) and author of British Seaside Piers (English Heritage, 2014).
We’re offering a 2FOR1 deal on full price tickets to the famous Cromer Pier Show this summer. For more information, visit bit.ly/2HCk2w7. To book your train travel, go to greateranglia.co.uk