by Harry Pope
When Eastbourne’s pier was built in 1870, it was just a promenade out to sea, with no buildings.
Unfortunately, the pier suffered severe damage on 1st January 1877, with the landward side completely disappearing into the sea, leaving the middle and far end detached from the shore.
The pier owners had a dilemma. Write off their investment, or borrow in the hope of increasing revenue. They chose to borrow, restoring and improving the structure. There was a nominal fee for entering the pier, but as Eastbourne was still a growing resort, there was only one entertainment venue, a 600 capacity back-street pub with variety theatre attached.
Large pleasure steamers came along. These were a glorified type of bus service, with local resorts connected from Hastings in the east, then Eastbourne, Newhaven, Brighton and possibly even Worthing. People staying in one resort would catch the boat to another, or even possibly stay on for the round trip. They were paddle boats in the main, basic seating with beer for the men and lemonade the ladies. Each location either had a pier or a natural harbour. Eastbourne was considered to be the poshest of the lot, because no commercial activities are allowed on the seafront except for hotels. No amusement arcades, no restaurants, no pubs, so visitors were considered to be a cut above the others.
Even though there were insufficient funds for building a theatre, with imagination and a small investment a compromise was arrived at. A canvas variety theatre on the end of the pier. This was to seat 200 patrons on wooden benches. No sophistication, just basic entertainment. The tent was sited so people exiting from the pleasure ships would have to pass by closely. The basic stage and even more rudimentary changing area were temporary, draughty, and very uncomfortable. There was a piano alongside the raised platform, room for no more than ten performers at any one time. The standard of the acts would have been quite high, local people with some degree of talent supporting London music hall stars who would come down for a week. They would be booked to appear at the end of the pier in the afternoon, and in the Britannia variety pub in the evening. Two completely different types of audience.
Think about entertaining an audience at the end of a windy pier, no structures to shelter from the constant wind, patrons sitting on unyielding to the posterior wooden boards, not afraid to show their displeasure. The season was short, less than ten weeks, but like any other seaside resorts Eastbourne can have weather vagaries with the middle of July blowing so strong that more hats blow into the sea than stay on heads. The next day it’s so warm that the lack of bathrooms in the guest house is obvious in enclosed spaces such as a theatrical tent at the end of the pier.
No photos of this canvas tent exist, the only record in a reference book. The tent was erected in every year from 1880, until in 1888 savings meant pier owners could build a permanent 400 seat theatre. Such luxury, especially as in the meantime two mainstream theatres had been built, in 1883 the Theatre Royal (later to become the Royal Hippodrome), and the next year the Devonshire Park, on land owned by the Duke of Devonshire. By now the resort had established its popularity with visitors who came for their summer holiday, as well as day trippers on the train, or charabanc. This was a large single deck long bus, open top, hold onto your hats when the speed picked up.
Eight years later, the pier theatre was sold to a local farmer, now still used as a cowshed about ten miles away in Lewes. A new palace of varieties was built, this time accommodating over 600 patrons, and the pier’s fortunes were assured with the erection in the mid-1920s of the Blue Room, a ballroom close to the pier’s landward entrance. The theatre was very popular during the summer season, which by now lasted for five months, so was sufficiently viable to attract Clarkson Rose, who was a theatrical impresario of the old school variety. He was responsible for putting on a series of shows called Twinkle, and for fifty years from the mid-1920s his productions were a byword for entertainment.
He didn’t own the pier, but came close to owning the theatre. A good friend was Sandy Powell, who purchased a three storey family house in Elms Avenue, within 50 yards of the pier. Sandy was a famous northern comedian, renowned for his miserable appearance on stage and incompetence as a ventriloquist. By 1980 the theatre was long passed its popularity peak, so it was no surprise that there was a fire that badly damaged the auditorium. The rest of the pier was undamaged, but the building was disused for many years, still with some original seating kept in storage. It was renovated and used as a night club for youngsters for many years, but since ownership of the pier changed about six years ago has been converted to an amusement arcade.
Since Harry Pope moved to Eastbourne in 2003, he has been a sight-seeing guide (now retired), hotelier (now retired), active writer of numerous books including Buried Secrets, all about his time as a funeral director. He is a local speaker, a P&O cruise ship lecturer, and funeral celebrant.