18-19 Harry’s Ramblings. Camera Obscura latest
Eastbourne has a camera obscura atop the building at the end of its Victorian pier. Originally built in 1870, the pier had two previous buildings, both theatres, until the present construction in 1896. On top of the theatre building, with access via wooden steps, was the camera obscura.
This was quite a popular invention, as the basic principle means that on Eastbourne pier the viewer stands around a 6ft convex dish with the colour image projected onto the middle.
During WW2 the pier was commandeered by the army, with a machine gun on top of the end. This must have been pretty precarious for the men, with the pier attacked on numerous occasions. The most successful enemy sortie was when a fighter plane machine gunned the end of the pier, no casualties except for the workings of the camera obscura.
The principle is pretty basic, there is a square funnel in the roof, the image comes through a series of glass from the outside, an operator turns a handle, and the whole of the outside apparatus rotates via rope and pulley system. The outside is based on the same idea as a chair, usually with four legs. These four legs are never even, however skilled the constructing craftsman, so the original camera could have not been quite on a level platform. However, with the machine gun damage, it now sits on three parts, making it far firmer.
The camera was in disrepair for many years, only being restored for public viewing during two summer months of 2003, when I was fortunate enough to see it in fully operational mode. It cost £2, to stand in the dark room with a dozen other strangers, waiting for the outside image to be revealed. The hole in the roof is parted to reveal people in colour walking along the pier, completely unaware that they are being watched by willing voyeurs. Then the wheel is turned, the apparatus slowly turns, you can see tiny people walking along the promenade toward Beachy Head, the 600ft cliff to the west.
Then, nothing but sea. Completely boring for the next 300 degrees, no ships, no seagulls, no fishermen, nothing. Slowly, land comes into sight again, this time to the east, with Hastings visible to the naked eye, but not in this room, because the magnified image is still too weak to distinguish a town fifteen miles distant. Then there’s the eastern part of Eastbourne’s promenade, then people, then it comes to a stop, halting where it started. Wow, it’s very easy to understand how the ordinary visitor 120 years ago was transfixed by seeing secret scenes, in colour.
The pier has been in various ownership, now under the stewardship of a local hotelier who also owns Hastings pier. Before he bought it in 2016, it suffered a serious fire, so David Cameron’s government allocated £2m for tourism projects for Eastbourne. £65,000 was earmarked for the camera obscura, but only the access, not the mechanism itself. This has been spent, public can now safely walk up the many wooden steps and staircases to the very top, with its spectacular views, strong winds, and if the unwary don’t hold onto possessions, they are whipped away, despite there being no wind at all below.
Every August there is a free to the public four day air show, 2019 saw the camera obscura open to the public for the first time in 16 years. The window was only between 9-11am for the four days, very little publicity, but when I went on the Friday there was a good attendance. There is a waiting room at the bottom of the stairs to the camera obscura itself, with a wooden painted sign stating that it was in use, please wait here. This is the original unrestored sign they found when working on it.
The owner has appointed a pier engineer, a man who has been involved with piers for all his working life, passionate about his job, now lives in the Eastbourne area, and who loves his job so much he regards it as his mission to have the camera working again. So far so very successful.
We filed into the dark room, with only light coming from the open door. We stood round the convex dish, waiting for the outside world to be revealed to us. The door was shut, it was now impossible to see, then the upper shutter was opened to reveal the moving images of people on the pier. John the engineer gave us a potted history of the pier, and the camera obscura, answering all questions which were pretty knowledgeable. The intention is to have the apparatus working fully by spring 2020, with scaffold over the top so they can work safely in the winter winds. Now that is not a job I envy.
So thanks to the enthusiasm of the pier owner and his dedicated staff, we should be in a position to enjoy and appreciate this Victorian revelation. Down below, the theatre that suffered a disastrous fire in 1980 has finally been cleared out of all worthless detritus so the room is one complete with amusement machines. It used to have 650 seats and a stage, now machines to entertain the public instead of live performers. Above, restoration. Below, regression. Traditionalists have to be subsidised, all credit to the pier owner to invest in bringing this wonderful pier back to somewhere for families to enjoy.