Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Southend Pier on Fire

As I write, yet another disaster has befallen Southend Pier, the iconic structure in my home town. The Pier Head caught fire on Sunday night, and some of its buildings collapsed into the Thames Estuary in the dark. By now, the fire should be under control, but the damage is probably irreparable.

The Pier was first built early in the 19th century, and was constructed in its present form in 1889.

Sir John Betjeman, the late Poet Laureate who loved many of the best things in life, and who said that Southend air is like wine, called the Pier “beautiful and incomparable”.

I once read an excerpt from a book about the English coast by somebody who didn’t let a few facts get in the way of a jibe. Who but the English, he asked, would build a thing like Southend Pier, which has no function except eccentricity. How we laughed.

In fact, there was a very good reason for building the Pier. Southend became a very fashionable resort after Caroline, the Princess of Wales, brought her daughter Charlotte there to improve her health. Members of society wished to be seen where the Princess was seen.

Unfortunately, the roads at the time were fairly rudimentary, and the best way to approach the fledgling town was by water. As the tide at Southend goes out for a mile, passengers had to disembark onto the shoulders of burly porters, who would carry them to the shore. Not everybody appreciated this arrangement, and the Pier was built to allow more civilised access.

After the Second World War, Southend was part of a network of places served by regular steamers, involving such places as Tower Pier, Gravesend, Margate, Clacton and even Southwold.

I first went abroad on a boat from Southend Pier in the early 1960s. The rockboat, featuring performances by some of the town’s leading rock groups, took us to Calais and back.

Because of the changing states of the tide, it was necessary to vary the place from which one embarked. In addition to the main deck, there was another lower one, reached by stairs, and yet another below that. It was a common sight to see crabs and starfish on these lower levels.

The Pier has its own railway, and always has – the first, of course, was horsedrawn. A common way of enjoying the Pier is to walk out and ride back.

On the landward side was the Pier Pavilion, which had Summer Shows. This was destroyed by fire in October 1959. I was walking down the High Street, reading the placards which told me that Mario Lanza had died, and smelled burning. I followed my nose, and found that the Fire Brigade were struggling to bring the conflagration under control.

On the site of the Pier Pavilion a Bowling Alley was built. This was very popular for some years, but eventually went the same way.

In the 1980s a vessel sliced through the Pier. One would think that Southend Pier, the longest in the world and internationally famous, would obviously be there. If you did not actually know it was there, you could see it on your charts. If you couldn’t find your charts, it was big enough to see anyway.

In spite of all that, the master contrived to let his vessel carry on regardless, causing an enormous amount of damage. I understand that the vessel’s owners managed to avoid payment of any compensation, leaving Southend’s ratepayers to foot the bill.

Another fire destroyed much of the Pier Head, leaving the few buildings that have been consumed today. Lost in the earlier fire was the Lifeboat Station. The lifeboat is now launched from a slipway to the East of the Pier.

Last year an elegant modernised entrance complex has been constructed, including a lift from the High Street and a new Tourist Information Centre.

Obviously, there will be more news when things have settled down a bit, but I hope that this will be of interest in the meanwhile.