Pier mania in our seaside towns

Tuesday 6 April 2010, 11:38

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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The last 50 years of the 19th century saw over 50 piers built around the British coast - pier mania, if ever it was. The 1871 Bank Holiday Act gave workers the right to certain 'Bank' holidays and seaside towns quickly realised that, with more and more people pouring into the resorts, a pier was an essential centre of entertainment. Minstrel troupes, dancers, boats and paddle steamers - the piers had it all. And of course, one of their greatest attractions was that ladies and gentlemen could stroll along the decking or sit in deck chairs at the end, just contemplating the sun, sea and sky. To all intents and purposes they could have been at sea but with one vital ingredient missing - no sea sickness!

When, in 1893, there was a delay in building the pier at Penarth the suggestion was made that the town should buy a second-hand pier from Douglas on the Isle of Man. There was much support for the idea. As the editor of The Penarth Observer wrote:-

"Any pier would be better than none...We do trust that another season will not be allowed to pass without one of some sort being erected, but we understand that the one proposed will be altogether superior to the condemned one at Douglas."

The editor needn't have worried. A year later Penarth got its new pier and the second-hand one went, instead, to Rhos-on-Sea where it was set up to rival the new brand pier at Colwyn Bay. The longest pier in Wales was built at Llandudno but the most famous was probably the one at Aberystwyth. This pier was designed by Eugenius Birch, the doyen of pier builders, as renowned in his own field as Capability Brown and Josiah Wedgwood. Opened on Good Friday 1865, just a few months later over a hundred feet of this, the finest pier in Wales, was washed away in a storm. Its truncated inland half remains in the town to this day.

As the Aberystwyth disaster shows, the piers were not always as sturdy as they seemed. The risk of fire was an ever-present concern. Colwyn Bay pier was destroyed twice by fire, once in 1922 and again in 1933. Penarth pier was partially burned out in 1931 and then suffered the ignominy of being rammed by a cargo ship, the Port Royal Park, in 1947. Sometimes it was simple neglect that caused the problem. Tenby's pier, the Royal Victoria pier, was a regular port of call for the pleasure steamers of the Bristol Channel but little was done to maintain it and it was eventually demolished in the late 1940s.

These days people can still walk out along piers like Penarth, Mumbles, Aberystwyth and Llandudno. They are an essential part of our social heritage, as enjoyable now as they were at the end of the 19th century.

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    Comment number 1.

    Phil Carradice's note on Aberystwyth pier was most interesting. For many years its attractions included a cinema, the Pier Pavilion, reckoned to be the poshest in town. On stormy nights the place would shake with the force of the waves below but Aber cinemagoers were a hardy lot and I can't recall anyone fleeing for their lives. Just after WW2 it screened The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell, reckoned to be a highly daring film at the time. I managed to get in and see it though under age for such an adventure. Afterwards I spotted one of my aunties outside but she didn't spot me - too busy gossiping to her cronies.

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    Comment number 2.

    I enjoyed the blog on seaside piers. I became interested in them when I was taken out on Southend Pier as a little girl. I think there was a railway in those days to take you to the end of the pier. I don't know if it still exists.
    Anyway, seeing the photograph of Penarth Pier reminded me that it was built by the firm of James and Arthur Mayoh. They were the same people who built the Mumbles Pier so it was obviously a speciality of theirs. They may not have been in the class of Birch but at least their piers lasted, which is more than can be said of Aberystwyth.


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