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Southend-on-Sea Pier (1890)
Southend-On-Sea, Essex, UK
Southend-on-Sea Pier (1890)
associated engineer
Sir James William Brunlees
Sir John Wolfe Barry
date  1888 - 1890, opened 24th August 1890, 1896-98
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Pier, seaside  |  reference  TQ884847
ICE reference number  HEW 79
photo  Peter Cross-Rudkin, courtesy ICE
At 2.16km, or 1.34 miles, this is the longest pleasure pier in the world. It replaced an older timber pier that was the longest in Europe by 1846. Extension and improvement works continued on the present iron structure until 1929. Thereafter it was repaired many after fire damage and ship collisions. Thankfully, it has escaped demolition.
The original timber pier at Southend-on-Sea was built between 1829 and 1846, opening in stages from 1830. It suffered the predations of marine borer and weather damage, and was replaced by the present iron pier, which was constructed alongside. The old pier was used as a materials store for the works, then demolished once the new one was completed.
The Act of Parliament authorising the works was passed on 29th March 1887. In September 1888, a contract was awarded and construction commenced shortly afterwards. The new pier was designed by James Brunlees (1816-92, knighted 1886), with ironwork by Arrol Brothers of Grimston Works, Glasgow.
The pier deck is supported on trestle bents (transverse beams joining each column group) on cross-braced cast iron columns sitting on cast iron screw piles (probably Mitchell’s type) sunk 3m into the clay by steam hoist. The piles, in rows of three, 2.7m apart, are at 9.1m centres. The inner piles are 1.22m in diameter and the outer ones 990mm in diameter. The pier's landing stage is constructed on greenheart timber piles coated with tar, driven 15.2m into the clay.
The timber decking is carried on wrought iron joists, generally 152mm x 76mm at 1.37m centres, laid over wrought iron plate girders — outer ones 457mm x 229mm and inner ones 457mm x 305mm. The columns are 229mm in diameter, with 25mm thick walls. Longitudinal and transverse column bracing consists of 45 degree diagonal 35mm diameter tie rods.
A new pavilion — 42.7m by 22.9m and costing £6,643 — was constructed at the pier's landward end. The original high level entrance building was retained and a raised promenade constructed connecting it to the pavilion, removing what was formerly a steep slope.
The new pier was equipped with a 1.07m gauge electric tramway, claimed to be the first of its type in the country. It was designed by Crompton of Chelmsford, with a toast rack car by Falcon of Loughborough. The tramway began at shore level, accessed by stairs from the high level, passed under the pavilion and rose gradually to promenade level, separated from pedestrians by railings.
The pier was officially opened on 24th August 1890, and cost £68,920. It was then 1.95km long, heading south south east from the shore.
Two years later Southend Borough Council was created. One of its first challenges was how to stop the silting-up that was happening at the pier head. In 1894, a 137.2m extension and a new pier head, with minimum 4.6m water depth at low tide, were proposed. In the meantime, in July 1895, two piles were broken when a Thames Lighterage Company vessel crashed into the pier.
The engineer for the extension works was John Brunlees (1850-1924), James' son. A construction contract was let to Murdoch & Cameron in March 1896 for £17,191. However, slow progress led to litigation and Sir John Wolfe Barry (1836-1918) replaced Brunlees as engineer. The extension and new pier head provided 9.1m of water at low water spring tides. The work cost £21,660 and opened in January 1898.
From 1st September 1897, the Lloyds maritime signalling station on the original pier head (established 30th July 1883) began operating as a public telegraph office. It was moved from the old pier (later demolished) to the end of the new extension.
By July 1898, a tramway passing place costing £3,000 or £4,100 (sources vary) had been constructed mid length, with local widening, enabling more cars to run. The pier was now 2.14km long, running south south east in a straight line. Its width increased too, with progressive widening on the east side between 1893 and 1929. Additional cast iron piles were driven to a set of capacity 25.4 tonnes. The new columns are braced back to the structure with bracing similar to the original, but using horizontal tie members of 89mm square angles.
On 10th December 1898, a length of pier approximately 27m long was wrecked by the ketch Dolphin, causing £1,000 of damage.
In 1901, a windscreen was installed between the toll house and the pavilion, and a water chute constructed alongside the pier at the landward end. The chute closed in 1905, and its pool was used for bathing and boating until converted to hold a replica of the Golden Hind.
Further attractions were added as the pier became more popular. A bandstand, covered seating and six shops by C. Wall & Co. of Grays (£6,650) were built. In 1907, seven new cast iron piles 17.4m long were sunk to 6.4m depth at the pier head, to enable construction of an upper promenade deck, which would open on 25th July 1908. Meanwhile, on 7th December 1907, the barge Robert hit the structure near the pier head works, breaking more than a dozen piles and creating an 18m gap. A temporary suspension footbridge was used to access the end of the pier until repairs were completed.
On 23rd November 1908, the Thames Conservancy vessel Marlborough breached the pier between the old and new pier heads, destroying an 18m section of decking and isolating the seaward end. On 12th July 1909, the barge Alzima struck the pier between the third and fourth shelters, causing pile damage.
Between 1910 and 1915, the tramway stations were extended at a cost of £7,210. The pier-head station was also extended in 1912, costing £4,010. In September 1913, an additional berth on the east side was approved, along with extra decking. The work appears to have been delayed by World War I (1914-18), and three prison ships — Ivernia, Royal Edward and Saxonia — were moored off the pier head (circa 1917).
Ultimately, the main deck area was increased by 710 sq m and the upper deck by 836 sq m, with alterations to the accommodation for passengers at the landing stages. The works allowed larger steamboats to dock and were not completed until 1927, at a total cost of £21,300.
On 18th January 1921, concrete motor schooner Violette collided with the pier landward of the pier head, causing damage to the surrounding piles. Repairs cost £5,554. Red lights were then installed along the full length of the pier.
Between 1928 and 1931, the deck was widened to make room for a second full length rail track, including loops at the shore end and pier head. A fourth row of cast iron columns on driven piles was added to the east side, 2.74m from the existing piles. The existing longitudinal edge plate girder was replaced with a 406mm x 254mm girder and a 457mm x 305mm girder laid along the new east edge. The arrangement resulted in a 3.7m wide pedestrian promenade on the west side and a 5.18m wide, double 1.07m gauge, railway on the east side. The work cost £34,220.
The seaward end of the pier was extended once more, but in a south easterly direction, to accommodate steamer vessels. Called the Prince George Extension, it was designed by the borough engineer and opened by HRH Prince George (Duke of Kent) on 7th July 1929. The total cost was £57,700. When completed, the pier reached its present length of 2.16km.
The reinforced concrete extension structure is 99.4m long. Its width tapers from 22.9m at the pier head to 7.6m at the seaward tip, with two decks at the same levels as those on the adjacent pier head. The lower deck is of precast concrete slabs. Both decks are supported by transverse reinforced concrete frames at 5.5m centres. Each frame consists of an upper beam 940mm x 356mm, a lower beam 914mm x 356mm, and columns 711mm x 356mm fixed to the piles.
The extension's 162 main piles, three per support, are of reinforced concrete, 406mm square and 21.3m long driven through the soft clay into ballast below. The peripheral piles are 457mm square and 16.8m long in battered pairs. Fender piles are of 330mm square greenheart, driven at 2.74m centres.
In 1930, the Lloyds signal station was moved east onto the extension, with signalling becoming semi-automatic from 1931. In 1932, the 1885 entrance building was replaced by a higher level access to facilitate entry to a new seafront road. Also in the 1930s, an upper deck was added to the Prince George Extension.
After inspection in May 1934 by Sir William Arrol & Co Ltd, various remedial works were undertaken. In 1934, some of the existing deck joists were replaced with new 127mm x 102mm x 9.1kg rolled steel joists. In 1935, the most of the remaining joists were replaced by either 152mm x 127mm or 152mm x 114mm rolled steel joists. Some of the original 152mm x 114mm joists remain in situ under the rail tracks.
A new lifeboat station was constructed on raised platform 20.9m by 7.8m at the tip of the Prince George Extension. The first launch occurred in January 1935, and the station opened officially on 23rd July 1935.
During World War II (1939-45), the pier was closed. On 25th August 1939, it was taken over by the Royal Navy as HMS Leigh, headquarters of Thames & Medway Control, which organised more than 3,000 convoys from Southend Pier. On 17th May 1945, the pier reopened to the public.
Its popularity remained high. By 1949, more than three million people paid for admission, and the railway carried 4,713,082 passengers. The old toast rack trains were replaced at a cost of £112,000. However, on 6th October 1959, a fire destroyed the pavilion, and some 500 people had to be rescued by boat. In 1962, the pavilion was replaced by a bowling alley approximately 55m wide and 33.5m long, supported on six transverse lines of cast iron columns.
By the 1970s, the pier’s fortunes were in decline amid the growing popularity of package holidays abroad. Demolition became a real possibility. On 19th December 1973, Southend Pier was Grade II listed (listing amended 7th June 2012). In 1974, the west railway track closed.
In 1976, the council initiated a £3m five-year restoration programme. The work included strengthening corroded steel and cast iron members, replacing handrails, load testing the longitudinal beams, replacing timber decking and repairing reinforced concrete corrosion on the Prince George Extension. However, on 29th July, a fire in the pier head complex caused extensive damage. The 350mm square greenheart framing and bracing timbers suffered the worst damage. Around 500 people trapped at the seaward end of the pier were rescued by boat and the single track railway. The estimated cost of repair was £1.4m.
In November 1977, the ten-pin bowling alley at the landward end was badly damaged by fire. In October 1978, the pier railway was closed for safety reasons. In 1980, the council planned to close the pier completely with a view to demolition. Local opposition prevented the closure, and from 1st October 1980, the Lecorgne brothers managed the pier on behalf of the council. No trains were run, and in 1982 the rolling stock was scrapped (two trains were bought later for Southend Pier Museum).
In 1983, with a grant from the Historic Buildings Committee, an £808,000 refurbishment package was agreed with May Gurney. The pier deck was made narrower to accommodate a new single track 914mm gauge railway with a passing loop, running two diesel trains by Severn-Lamb Ltd of Stratford upon Avon.
The pier reopened in 1985. On 2nd May 1986, HRH Princess Anne officially opened the new railway. Rebuilding took place between November 1984 and 1986, and cost £1.3m including £223,627 for the railway.
Unfortunately, on 30th June 1986, the 54.9m long tanker Kings Abbey sliced a 21.3m gap through the walkway to the pier head, destroying the lifeboat station and severing its slipway, causing £500,000 of damage. A temporary footbridge (ex-railway) bridged the gap while the council carried out repairs.
Between February 1986 and March 1988, Brent-Walker managed the pier. In 1989, a cafe and new toilets opened on the pier extension, and a new museum under the shoreward railway station. The new lifeboat station on the Prince George Extension, supported on cast iron columns and steel girders, was opened by Princess Anne in January 1991.
On 7th June 1995, the bowling alley pavilion and walkway were destroyed by fire. The railway was also fire damaged and closed temporarily. In 1996, the pier head superstructure was blast cleaned and repainted. In 1998, the landward end was rebuilt by French Kier Anglia Ltd. In 2001, Southend Cliff Lift reopened. In 2002, the pier was remeasured and its length recorded as 2.22km, or 1.38 miles.
A new RNLI station, designed by Bond Design Associates and constructed by Dean & Dyball, was constructed in 2000-1. It features a glazed watchtower, high-level deck and gift shop, and opened in June 2002. The following month, work began to refurbish the pier structure. Between September 2002 and July 2003, the 1976 fire damage to the pier head was repaired at a cost of £2.5m.
The pier’s Grade II listing directed that pier-head repairs should replicate the original structure as closely as possible. However, in the 1990s, Southend Borough Council adopted a new environmental charter minimising use of tropical hardwoods. Recycled hardwood from the demolition of other schemes was used for most of the work, with additional certified sustainable timber. Recycled greenheart and ekki were used to reconstruct the damaged framing, beams and joists. The 50mm thick upper deck was replanked in massaranduba, and the 75mm thick lower deck in red angilim.
A new entrance to the pier, with a bridge over the seafront road to allow disabled access from the High Street, was completed in May 2003 at a cost of £1.9m. On 9th October 2005, fire destroyed the pier-head railway station, the hexagonal pavilion, a public house, restaurants, toilets, shops and 40m of timber deck. The old pier head structure was razed to pile level. The undamaged part of the pier reopened on 1st December.
In 2007, Southend Pier was named Pier of the Year by the National Piers Society.
Repair of the recent fire damage began in September 2008. The £2.4m project involved reconstructing the timber and cast iron structure, reinstating decking and railway track and rebuilding the train station. The piles were repaired below fire level but the burned pile tops, cross beams, ledgers and decking were renewed. Where possible, steel beams were replaced in timber and decking was prefabricated into panels.
The new pier-head railway station, with a ticket office powered by solar panels on the canopies over the platforms, opened officially in September 2009. An £830,000 refurbishment programme was announced, which included reinstatement of windbreaks from 50 years earlier and repainting of the windows in the museum and other areas.
Also in September 2009, Swedish architect White Arkitekter was announced the winner of a competition to design a new pier head complex and cultural centre. The project, called Sculpted by Wind and Wave, was approved by the council in March 2010. Further improvements were made that year to the walkway and entrance area. In 2011, the pier closed for a short time when a 24.4m barge collided with its seaward end. A similar closure occurred in 2012, after a fishing boat struck the pier.
On 17th May 2012, the new cultural centre was lifted onto the pier head by a 400 tonne marine shear leg crane. The 350 sq m, 170 tonne, steel framed building sits 1.5m higher than the pier deck on a footing of new steel beams. It was constructed at Tilbury docks, 27km upriver, between February and May. Once completed, it was transported by barge to Southend. The cultural centre cost about £3m and opened to the public at the end of July. On 17th July 2013, HRH Duke of Kent officially renamed the cultural centre as The Royal Pavilion and unveiled a plaque.
On 17th January 2014, plans for a £1m refurbishment were announced, including a 100 seat amphitheatre on the pier head. On 16th February, the pier closed temporarily owing to storm damage. In September 2017, the council commissioned ADP Architects to design a new pavilion to replace the former bowling alley destroyed by fire in 1995. The new building would provide panoramic views over the Thames estuary. It could be built by 2022.
In January 2019, the council proposed a £3.25m rolling stock upgrade for the pier's railway.
Architect (2000-1): Bond Design Associates
Architect (2010-2): White Arkitekter
Architect (2010-2): Sprunt
Contractor: Arrol Brothers, Glasgow
Contractor (1896-8): Murdock & Cameron
Contractor (1929): Peter Lind & Co Ltd
Contractor (1984-6): May Gurney
Contractor (1998): French Kier Anglia Ltd
Contractor (2002-3): J Breheny, Ipswich
Contractor (2008-9): Nuttall John Martin
Piles and precast slabs (1929): Samuel Williams & Sons, Dagenham
RNLI station (2000-1): Dean & Dyball
Rail tracks (2008-9): Allen Keef
Cultural centre (2012): Kier
Research: ECPK
"Southend on Sea Pier: A Brief History", Southend on Sea Borough Council, brochure, date unknown (circa 2014)
"Reuse of materials in coastal and river engineering" by J.D. Simm, M.J. Wallis, K.J. Collins and R. Atkins, Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Engineering Sustainability, Vol.157, pp.113-121, September 2004
reference sources   CEH E&CSurvSPBDCE2

Southend-on-Sea Pier (1890)