The camera obscura is at the top of the stairs

The camera obscura is at the top of the stairs

Whoever decided to put a camera obscura on the top of the theatre on Eastbourne pier was a genius.

When they built the pier on England’s south coast, initially there were no buildings, it was a promenade out to sea. However, by 1888 it was decided that a theatre was required, and ultimately a 1,000 seat capacity building was erected. A special feature was a camera obscura.

This was built in 1899, and as far as I can research there are less than a dozen left in the UK, with half that number still working.

It is a pretty straightforward principle. At the very top of the square roof tower there is an aperture, not too large a hole, for the exterior image to enter. It then travels down a series of glass or mirror refractions until it arrives onto a five feet wide convex papier Mache dish, which is a rough surface. The colour image from outside is reproduced, and the public stand looking at the image.

the paddle steamer landing stage

the paddle steamer landing stage

The operator has a handle, which rotates the aperture at the top, so the image outside revolves onto the image on the dish.

Eastbourne’s camera obscura has not been open since 2004, and I was fortunate to be one of the last people to see it working. The cost was £2.

Since the July 2014 pier fire, the David Cameron government have pledged £2m for tourism projects for the town, one of which might be the restoration of the camera obscura, so we might have it working and open again soon.

At the end of the pier is a jetty, and paddle steamers and pleasure boats landed until the late 1950s. Both incoming and outgoing, the destinations were varied, with Boulogne being a popular destination. The boats would bring day trippers from along the south coast from as far away as Portsmouth, but they needed a low draught, because six miles off shore is a shingle reef, so boats need to enter via a channel.

Eastbourne pier had an interesting time during WW2. The beach was never mined, just barbed wire erected, and the pier’s theatre had a Bofors anti-aircraft gun installed, as well as many machine guns. The civilian population was evacuated for almost two years, but before this occurred the people were very upset with the authorities. There was no local early warning system, the nearest being in Dover over fifty miles away, so the attacks could come without warning.

The early warning system

Until 2002 Eastbourne pier had a speed boat, which was stored in this hut, not used for fishermen's tackle

Until 2002 Eastbourne pier had a speed boat, which was stored in this hut, not used for fishermen’s tackle

wasn’t installed until 1944, when the pilotless V1 and V2 high explosive bombs would come over. All Eastbourne sites where the bombs dropped were logged, and eighteen bombs fell into the sea very close to the pier. Some failed to explode. Eastbourne became known as the most raided town in the south east, with over 4,000 buildings damaged, some completely destroyed.

That’s the lot about the pier for the moment, but I will return later with another article about how it is now, and its future.

Harry is a local historian, and also has a web site where he shares his wry outlook on life about current affairs


About Harry Pope

Very few writers earn more than £10,000 annually. Harry is one of the poorer ones. He is no longer middle-aged, as he knows no-one who is getting on for 140. Literary success has come with an attempt at maturity – failed both – but marital stability with Pam has more than compensated. He is an accomplished speaker, talking on a variety of topics, including how not to run a hotel, buried secrets, and what’s it worth. See Harry The Talker. He has five published books, see Harry The Writer. He is Eastbourne’s only licensed sight-seeing guide see Harry The Walker. He has a daily blog see Harry The Blogger. The only site not purchased is but that might come, who knows. He was a London funeral director for many years, then started Cheam Limousines in 1990, selling some thirteen years later. Arriving in Eastbourne in the Summer of 2003, Harry and Pam first bought a small guest house, then a large hotel, which proved to be disastrous because of their business partnership with a moron from California. He now walks, and talks, sometimes both at the same time.