Eastbourne pier part one
Here in Eastbourne on the south coast of England we are mid-way between Brighton and Hastings.
The population is just over 100,000, and we have a protected bay, with the promontory Beachy Head to the west, and the town of Hastings to the east. That means that we have very high tides, to very low tides. Therefore, when the Victorians built the pier, they had to raise it so it was above the worst of the winter tides.
It’s a lovely old pier, built in 1871, with quite a chequered history, owned by a variety from business people to charlatans to local authority. Today it is owned by a family with a fairground background, and they also own three other piers, all of which are reputedly for sale.
Let me give you some pier history. There was a severe storm in January 1877, when the landward part was washed away, leaving the far end completely cut off. Two years later it had been rebuilt, this time at a higher landward elevation so people could enter easily without steps.
Initially the pier had no buildings, just a promenade out to sea. A small admission fee was charged, but it was going to take many years for the investment to show a return, so in the spring of 1880 a temporary structure was erected. A canvas tent.
Sorry, no photos of this tent have survived, which isn’t that surprising, because it must have been pretty uncomfortable to have been in a canvas tent, at the end of the pier, being entertained by a singer, or a dancer, or a juggler. The tent would have been enclosed, with entrance at the front. The performer would have had their back to the sea, not exposed, and performed to twenty rows of seats.
There would have been a raised stage, a piano, and room for a maximum of ten entertainers at any one time. The audience capacity would have been about two hundred, the tent was only there for six months, being stored for the winter. After ten years, of varied financial success, it was decided to build a permanent music hall.
That stood for forty years, and was eventually replaced with a larger theatre, the old one being sold to a farmer about twenty miles inland and ultimately used as a cow shed. It rotted away and regrettably there is no trace left. Shame.
1925 saw the opening of the new theatre, and it has been there ever since. Now its purpose is as a nightclub for youngsters, who are discouraged from throwing themselves off the pier as a laugh when leaving at 2am. The alcoholic effects stop when they hit the water.
Eastbourne has been a popular holiday destination for the more mature traveller for many years, and in 1940 there was a famous impresario called Clarkson Rose who organised the pier theatre shows. March of that year saw the early holiday season in full swing, but the military authorities saw the pier as an ideal aid for the potential German WW2 landing forces. It had to go.
Early one Saturday evening, with the performance under way, the military arrived with orders to blow up the pier. ‘You can’t do that, there’s a show on’, said Mr. Rose. ‘Sorry, we have our orders.’
‘What, you are going to blow up the audience?’ ‘Well, maybe not, perhaps we’ll get some further orders’. They went away, and by the end of the evening common sense had prevailed, the pier remained, and some middle decking was removed and lots of guns put in place. At the end of WW2 in 1946 the cost of restoring the pier was £80,000.
The next part of the story concerns more historyto the present day.
Harry Pope is Eastbourne’s only official sight-seeing guide. He is an ex-Eastbourne hotelier, an historian, and takes Summer guided walks. See his web site www.harrythewalker.com