Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Southend Pier (Southend)

[An image showing Southend Pier]Southend Pier, in the very popular Essex seaside resort of Southend, is a world famous icon. It is the longest pier in the world.

It reaches out one and a quarter miles into the Thames Estuary, where the River Thames meets the North Sea. Until the disasters of the last few years, an extension around the corner took the total length to one and a third miles.

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”.

A book about the English coast was once written 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 in London, Gravesend, Margate, Clacton and even Southwold.

Steamers from Southend Pier were many people's first trips abroad. At one time there was an annual rock boat, featuring the town's leading rock bands.

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.

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 were consumed in 2005. Lost in the earlier fire was the Lifeboat Station. The lifeboat is now launched from a slipway to the East of the Pier.

In 2005 an elegant modernised entrance complex was constructed, including a lift from the High Street and a new Tourist Information Centre.

with all its problems, Southend Pier continues to be a very popular attraction.

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