The humble Mumbles Pier

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The British fascination with seaside piers dates from the second half of the 19th century.

There had been piers for many years before that such as Ryde Pier which opened in 1814 and Brighton’s famous Chain Pier in 1823.

Yet the huge growth of the tourist industry thanks to the railway boom of the 1850s and the passing of the 1871 Bank Holiday Act, meant that by the late 1800s, day trips to the seaside had become readily available.

More importantly, they had become available for ordinary working men and women as well as the rich and privileged who had previously considered the seaside their own personal domain. 

Ryde pier as it stands today. Copyright David Dixon, licensed under Creative Commons

Trips out on the water, enjoying the sea air and the spray and taking in the views soon became an essential part of any day out.

Enterprising businessmen were quick to jump on the bandwagon and shipping companies like P & A Campbell were formed to offer paddle steamer cruises up and down waterways like the Bristol Channel and the north Wales coast.

Pleasure piers were soon built on various parts of the Welsh coast at places like Penarth, Aberystwyth and Colwyn Bay.

Strangely, given the immense popularity of the Mumbles Railway (the first passenger carrying railway in the world), Mumbles Pier came late in the pantheon of pier building. But when it did arrive it came with an enormous burst of energy and enthusiasm.

Promoted or sponsored by the Rhondda and Swansea Bay Railway in the mid-1890s, the pier was located just to the west of Mumbles village in Swansea Bay.

Designed by W. Sutcliffe Marsh, constructors for the project were Arthur and Joseph Mayoh of Manchester, an engineering firm that had already built piers at Great Yarmouth, Morecombe and Penarth.

Penarth pier today. Copyright Adrian Platt, licensed under Creative Commons

Unlike other pleasure or seaside piers, the structure at Mumbles was essentially a landing pier.

It was to be the terminus, not just of the Mumbles Railway which brought day trippers by the thousand from nearby Swansea, but also a major port of call for the paddle steamers of P & A Campbell’s White Funnel Fleet.

Unlike Penarth where people came to stroll and sit on deck chairs Mumbles Pier was entirely functional, loading passengers from the trains to the paddle steamers.

As it was intended the clientele was to be, essentially, men and women from the working classes of Swansea and the surrounding area.

These were the miners or steelworkers and their families who gave the town its prosperity. They arrived in carriage loads on the Mumbles Railway to just sit on the sand and doze.

More often than not, they would walk the length of the pier and then climb aboard whichever paddle steamer from the White Funnel Fleet was on duty that day.

A view towards Mumbles. Copyright Ben Brooksbank, licensed under Creative Commons

As a consequence, the pier at Mumbles had few of the usual amenities associated with pleasure piers.

There were, for example, no concert halls, theatres or pleasure pavilions and precious few entertainments. Nothing like the minstrel shows or pierrots, the pier-divers or magicians you could find at other seaside piers. There was, however, a bandstand where people could listen to music and a few amusement stalls were set up.

Just across the road from the new structure was The Pier Hotel where visitors could have a cup of tea or indulge in something a little stronger.

The pier was formally opened on 10 May 1898 and had cost around £10,000 to build. Some estimates give a larger figure of £17,000 but with tolls being levied to pass across the decking, the promoters were soon clawing back their money.

The pier comprised lattice steelwork, not dissimilar to the style used by the Mayoh Brothers at Penarth and set on cast iron piles. The decking was made from pitch pine and stretched for 835ft across the water with a landing stage at the seaward end.

In the early 1920s the Royal National Lifeboat Institution built a landing and launching stage, accessed by a walkway, leading from the eastern half of the pier.

Many a curious visitor stood at the railings of the pier, watching the lifeboat station, hoping to see a launch, little realising that the launch of the Mumbles lifeboat invariably meant that someone was in danger out at sea.

Mumbles lifeboat station. Copyright Rob Farrow, licensed under Creative Commons

The pier prospered but by the 1930s entertainment and what people expected during their holiday was beginning to change.

On 1 October 1937 the pier was licenced to the Amusement Equipment Company (AMECO). It was sectioned and closed for security reasons during World War Two, but the company obtained the freehold in 1957. Various improvement and developments were then made including a £40,000 refit and the building of a new arcade.

Despite a fire in October 2012, Mumbles Pier continues to thrive, but the entertainment has altered irrevocably. The Victorian men, women and children who once paraded down the pier would not recognise or acknowledge what passes for fun these days.

Apart from an occasional visit, the paddle steamers have largely gone. In their place are cafes and amusement arcades that still manage to draw in the day trippers. 

Mumbles pier. Copyright Rob Farrow, licensed under Creative Commons

The views of the nearby lighthouse and the English coast, are spectacular and the sense of history remains.

The old pier is an essential stop on anybody’s visit to the Mumbles, and remains a wonderful place to get a breath of fresh air.

The pier closed in July 2011 for the new lifeboat station to be built and restoration work to take place. 

It re-opened in April 2014 for the summer season to allow visitors to see the new Mumbles RNLI lifeboat station but will close again in the autumn for further renovation work.

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