A pier at war

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Lots of things get requisitioned in time of war - land, vehicles, even animals. But an old Victorian pleasure pier? True, it really happened in the south Wales seaside resort of Penarth.

The pier had been built and opened in 1894 by the Penarth Promenade and Landing Pier Company. It had proved an immediate success, thousands of holiday makers flooding to the seafront at Penarth every summer to sit on the pier or walk easily and elegantly along its length.

Penarth Pier (photo: Gale's Photographs, from the BBC Wales Nature group on Flickr)

In 1914, when darker days fell across the country, the pier and the open land around and above it assumed far graver responsibilities. When World War One began in August most of the paddle steamers that ploughed their way up and down the Bristol Channel, always calling at Penarth Pier, were immediately 'called up' for service. These shallow draughted vessels were invariably used for mine sweeping duties around the British coast. Many of the staff of the pier also went into the forces at about this same time.

Then, in 1915, Penarth Pier itself was requisitioned by the army. It was to be garrisoned by a detachment of Royal Engineers (RE) and a single heavy duty searchlight was positioned on the seaward end.

It was there for the sole purpose of illuminating the approach to Cardiff Docks and was deliberately stationed low down on the water level. This would give far better illumination, it was felt, than any light positioned high up on the cliffs - from high up the beam would produce only an arc not a sheet of light.

With two artillery pieces stationed on the cliffs high above the pier and seafront, the guns and searchlights commanded the stretch of water known as Penarth Roads. It was felt that these defences would make short work of any German raider that tried to gain entry into what was still the premier coal exporting dock in Britain.

In the event, no German raiders ever tried to gain access to Cardiff Docks but the searchlights were maintained, firstly on the pier and, later, a few hundred yards away, until the end of hostilities in 1918.

By 1916 the officer in charge of the RE detachment was Lt Christopher John Evans, a man who had been Sergeant Major in the REs and then commissioned whilst serving at Penarth. The soldiers were billeted in various shops along the seafront while Lt Evans had his office at the seaward end of the pier, alongside the old entertainment pavilion, the Bijou Pavilion as it was known.

The RE unit had a mascot, a black and white terrier called Tiger. He used to run up and down the pier, unconcerned about the sheer drop on either side of the walkway. Unfortunately, Tiger's lack of fear led to his eventual downfall. In 1917 the REs moved off the pier onto a purpose-built base on nearby Penarth Head, their searchlights (and there were, by this time, more of them) mounted on tall structures at the foot of the cliff.

Tiger continued with his running. But sadly, he was now performing on grass and this was nothing if not slippery. One day, he went charging towards the cliff edge, skidded and was unable to stop. He went head first over the cliff and was killed in the fall.

Some public use of the pier did continue during the war years. The occasional paddle steamer called on a passenger trip to Weston and casual strollers were sometimes allowed. The soldiers put on several shows for the people of Penarth, using the Bijou Pavilion as the venue. Amateur dramatic companies also performed in the pavilion for the benefit of the soldiers and the general public.

Relations between the soldiers and the people of Penarth had been cordial for most of the war. But in 1919 things took a decidedly more vitriolic turn for the worst.

The pier had received something of a battering during the war years. After all, the first concern of the RE detachment was for the job in hand. Maintenance of any seaside pier was always difficult and the army had, frankly, ignored the task.

When Penarth Pier was returned to the Pier Company in 1919 there was much work to be done. After assessing the damage the Pier Company put in a claim to the War Compensation Court. It amounted to £7,228.

Processing claims such as this took time and it was not until 1922 that a decision was reached. Then, in December of that year, it was announced that the claim had been virtually rejected. The Penarth News for 7 December 1922 announced that:

"Nobody can justify the absurd award of the War Compensation Court of £353 on the £7,228 claim of the Penarth Promenade and Landing Pier Company. It is an ill reward for war service."

The Pier Company had made the mistake of alleging that soldiers constantly tramping up and down the pier in their heavy army boots had seriously damaged their property. Lt Evans, called as a witness, was able to prove that the soldiers never - at any time - wore boots on the pier. Army orders were quite explicit: soldiers would wear plimsolls whenever they were working or walking on the decking.

In any case, the main problem was with the landing stage at the seaward end of the pier and this was due to lack of maintenance, not willful or even accidental damage. The landing platform was made of greenheart timber and like all wooden structures embedded in water it required constant and careful attention - which it had not received.

Despite the matter being raised in parliament, the decision of the War Compensation Court was not changed. Stanley Baldwin, then Chancellor of the Exchequer was clear that he would not countenance any re-hearing of the case.

Public opinion in Penarth was outraged. As someone wrote in the Penarth Observer: "Without doubt, more would have been paid for commandeering a fried fish shop in a back street."

In due course, the storm died away. The pier was repaired and paddle steamers began to call again. The day of the Pier Company was over, however, and in 1924 the structure was sold on to council ownership.

It remains open to this day, reaching out like a stubby finger into the Bristol Channel, and is still a central part of any day out in Penarth. It is now in need of a fair degree of restoration but, hopefully, this will happen during the next few years.

It was an interesting interlude in the life of the pier and the town. You do have to wonder, however, how many people - visitors and locals alike - are aware of the role this splendid piece of Victorian architecture played in one of the great conflicts of the 20th century. Probably very few.

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