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