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Brighton West Pier
Brighton, East Sussex, UK
Brighton West Pier
associated engineer
Eugenius Birch
date  1863 - 1866, opened 6th October 1866
era  Victorian  |  category  Pier, seaside  |  reference  TQ301038
ICE reference number  HEW 212
photo  Paul Dunkerley
In its day, this was the finest seaside pier on the British coast and it is considered to be the masterpiece of its designer, Eugenius Birch. The West Pier was the third pier in the country to incorporate cast iron screw piles. Over time, it deteriorated through lack of maintenance and became derelict. Damaged by storms and fires, it progressively collapsed, and little of the structure remains (2018) ó with no prospect of restoration.
West Pier was the second on Brightonís seafront. It was constructed between 1863 and 1866 to compete with Brighton Chain Pier (a suspension pier, destroyed in a storm in 1896), some 900m to the east, built in 1822-3 by Captain Sir Samuel Brown (1776-1852).
A major development in the successful construction of pleasure piers was the use of screw piles for the foundations. Each pile consisted of a cylindrical cast iron column, usually 254mm diameter, with screw-shaped wings above a pointed or conical toe enabling it to penetrate the ground by rotation. The technique was patented in 1833 (UK patent No.6446) by blind Irish engineer Alexander Mitchell (1780-1868) and used initially to anchor lighthouses. Its first application to piers is thought to be in 1847, near Courtown in County Wexford, Ireland.
Screw piles can be used on any type of foreshore including compact sand, which resists the percussive driving of solid piles, and soft mud, which does not have enough friction to support plain piles. In 1853, Eugenius Birch (1818-84) employed screw piles for the first time on a seaside pier in mainland Britain, at Margate Jetty (opened 1855, completed 1857). He went on to use them on the West Pier and for 12 more piers ó Blackpool North, Deal, Lytham, Aberystwyth, Eastbourne, Birnbeck, New Brighton, Scarborough, Hastings, Hornsea, Bournemouth and Plymouth. However, West Pier is considered his finest work.
Its screw piles formed the lower tubes of the structureís cast iron columns, arranged in groups of two rows of three, and braced diagonally with wrought iron tie rods. The columns supported cross heads carrying longitudinal lattice girders and cross beams to carry the timber decking. In keeping with the era, its columns, brackets, lanterns and railings featured elegant cast and wrought ironwork ornamentation, such as the entwined serpents on the gas lamp posts.
The West Pier is 340m long and originally cost £27,000. It was opened on 6th October 1866, by Henry Martin the Mayor of Brighton. At that time, it had an 88.4m long by 42.7m wide entrance platform, leading onto a 15.2m wide open promenade deck. It was furnished with two square tollhouses at the entrance, six octagonal kiosks with minarets and glass screens around the pierhead (seaward end) to shield visitors from wind and sun.
In 1875, the central portion of the pier was widened and a covered bandstand added. In about 1886, a series of brick arches were constructed at the shore end of the pier to contain stores and kiosks. In 1890, weather screens were erected along the centreline of the promenade for the full length of the pier. In 1893, the pierhead was widened to 94.5m over a distance of 42.7m and a large pavilion constructed, used initially as a 1,400 seat concert hall.
Landing stages were added in 1896, to facilitate steamer excursions, and extended in 1901. On 4th December 1896, a storm destroyed the neighbouring Chain Pier. Some of the wreckage collided with West Pier, causing £6,000 worth of damage. West Pier was not unrivalled for long, Palace Pier was under construction 1.1km to the east and opened on 20th May 1899.
In 1903, the pierhead pavilion was converted into a 1,000 seat theatre. The building was of three storeys with a ground floor veranda flanking its west side.
In 1916, the central section of the pier was widened again to accommodate a large concert hall. The extension's structural grid did not line up with the original columns so transfer beams were installed to support the new building. The beams, spanning up to 15m, consisted of compound plated and riveted trusses in wrought iron and mild steel. The concert hall above was oval in plan with a continuous arcade of arched windows between pilasters, coved roof, top light and dormers.
In 1919, records showed 2,074,000 paying customers visited West Pier ó its highest ever footfall.
In 1932, a new top deck and entrance were constructed. In the second half of the 1930s, the pier closed and did not re-open until 1948, owing to repairs after wartime damage. The concert hall was used as a team room, while the top floor of the pavilion was converted into a restaurant and its theatre became an amusement arcade. Despite the installation of a funfair, the pier failed to regain its earlier popularity and fell into disrepair.
Some restoration was done in 1968, prior to making the film Oh! What a Lovely War directed by Richard Attenborough (1923-2014), which used the pavilion as a set. In October 1969, the pier was Grade II* listed to prevent the proposed demolition of its southern (seaward) end. For public safety, access to this section was prohibited in October 1970, and the whole structure closed in 1975.
In 1977, official receivers were appointed and the now derelict pier passed into the Crown Estate Commissionersí ownership the following year. The Brighton West Pier Trust was formed in 1978, and obtained an Act of Parliament for the sole right to operate the pier (Pier and Harbour Order [Brighton West Pier] Confirmation 1980).
During 1982, English Heritage raised the pierís listing status to Grade I. It remained the UK's only Grade I listed pier until 2001, when Somersetís Cleveden Pier (opened 1869) was upgraded.
In 1983, the Crown Estate sold West Pier to the trust for £100. In 1986, restoration of the first 30.5m of the landward end was undertaken, and this section re-opened on 15th September 1987. Only a month later, on the night of 15th October, hurricane force winds caused widespread destruction in southern Britain and major storm damage to the pier. A small Heritage Lottery Fund grant enabled urgent repairs and the pier partially re-opened later the same year. Another storm in 1988 prompted the removal of a 33.5m section of the promenade deck, isolating the concert hall and pavilion. Repair work stopped in December 1989.
In September 1996, a steel walkway was constructed to reconnect the seaward section with the shore. Sometime later, the pier opened to allow limited access for visitors taking guided tours. In 1998, the Heritage Lottery Fund approved a £14.2m restoration grant.
Designing and developing the restoration project began in 2002, when the estimated cost was around £34m. Following a severe storm in December that year, parts of the concert hall collapsed (29/30th December and 20th January 2003). Emergency inspections revealed some areas of the structure around the hall were too unstable to save, as the 20th century transfer beams had corroded much faster than the original structure.
On 28th March 2003, a fire destroyed the pierhead pavilion. On 11th May the same year, another fire ravaged the fragile remains of the concert hall. Both fires were believed to be arson. More of the structure fell into the sea in June 2004, and by July the concert hall had collapsed completely.
After the fires, English Heritage reported that restoration was still viable, given the quantity of material salvaged and the existing photographic archive. However, on 28th January 2004, the Heritage Lottery Fund decided to withdraw funding. In July 2004, English Heritage conceded restoration of the West Pier was "no longer possible". In 2008, it was added to the first Heritage at Risk register.
In 2010, the remains of the concert hall were removed as they were considered a public hazard. During cold weather in January 2013, part of the pier's eastern side crumbled into the sea. In February 2014, stormy weather split the pierhead section in two.
In 2014, construction commenced on a project to rebuild the pierís toll booths in their original positions, flanking a new vertical tower (TQ303040) with a rotating viewing platform, effectively creating a Ďpier in the skyí. Two of the pierís brick arches were restored and others were rebuilt. The project included salvaging 38 of the pierís cast iron columns from the foreshore for installation in a new piazza constructed to the east of the tower. Shot blasting in 2015 reduced the number of useable columns to 24.
In February 2016, another piece of the central section of the pier collapsed in a storm, leaving a few cast iron columns embedded in the foreshore and the remnants of the pavilion shell. In October 2016, the Brighton West Pier Trust announced there was no longer any possibility of saving the skeletal remains of the pier, on the grounds of cost and insufficient funding.
On 4th August 2016, the new tower opened. Designed by Marks Barfield Architects (designers of the London Eye), and now known as British Airways i360, the tower consists of an aerodynamic annular pod that ascends a 161.75m steel mast carrying up to 200 passengers to 138m above sea level.
On 6th July 2017, the trust issued a danger warning, cautioning people to stay away from the pier structure, mentioning the hazards of underwater obstructions and adding that the "West Pier ruin is not stable, it is unsafe and liable to collapse".
In August 2017, the West Pier Centre, the trustís new headquarters, opened in one of the seafront arches of the West Pier Piazza. It faces the 24 relocated pier columns, installed in an array based on the 'golden spiral', also called the Fibonacci spiral after the medieval Italian mathematician.
Each evening, from 22nd December 2017, the pierhead skeleton of the West Pier is illuminated (twilight to midnight) with white LED light beams from the i360 tower.
Contractor: Richard Laidlaw & Son, Glasgow
Research: ECPK, PD
"Historical Development of Iron Screw-Pile Foundations: 1836-1900" by Alan J. Lutenegger, The International Journal for the History of Engineering & Technology, Vol.81, No.1, pp.108-128, London, 2011
reference sources   CEH SouthSurvSPSPd

Brighton West Pier