150 years of Eastbourne Pier

Katherine Buckland

13th June 2020, marks 150 years since the official opening of Eastbourne Pier. This blog post explores the beginning of Eastbourne Pier’s story and includes some great photos!

Eastbourne seafront c 1865

The first rumblings of an idea for a Pier in Eastbourne started in 1863; it wasn’t popular at first due to a misunderstanding that it would be a place primarily for trade and shopping. The initial plan was to build it opposite Devonshire Place (where the Bandstand is now) for a cost of £12,000. The investment would be returned through ticket sales for entry to the pier at 1 penny a day. There were restrictions to the proposed pier – boats or other vessels were not allowed to unload sheep, cattle or merchandise onto the pier but people embarking to or from steamers were allowed. Limits were also set on the charges allowed: the maximum daily charge to promenaders was 2d, bath or sedan chair 6d, perambulator 2d and passengers landing by boats 6d.

A partially built Eastbourne Pier in 1868

The Eastbourne Pier Company was formed in 1865 and the location for the pier was changed to opposite Cavendish Place (where it is today!)  A year later in 1866, the first column was installed by Lord Edward Cavendish M.P. in front of a large group of spectators including Mr Birch – the engineer for Eastbourne, Margate, Deal, Blackpool, Brighton, Scarborough, Lytham and Aberystwyth piers amongst others and Mr Dowson –  the contractor for Eastbourne, Bognor, Aberystwyth, Herne Bay and Teignmouth Piers. Before the first pillar or column could be screwed in, Lord Cavendish put a case containing a document about the Eastbourne Pier Company and a local newspaper at the bottom of the pillar to act as a memorial of the event. Once this was done and the hole filled up with mortar, ‘a stalwart coastguard mounted the structure, fiddle in hand, struck up a lively tune to the amusement of the spectators.’ Lord Cavendish marvelled at how different Eastbourne had become in the last 13 or 14 years and with the arrival of the railway, the visitors to Eastbourne ‘who used to be few in number, may now be counted by hundreds and almost by thousands’ and that the addition of a pier would attract even more visitors. Vague promises were made that the pier would open by next summer…1867.  By November 1867, progress was still slow, reportedly due to the lack of capital thanks to shares not being as popular as anticipated. The plan at this point was for the pier to be 1000ft long with the deck level at 15ft above sea level. The main body of the pier was to be 20 feet wide and end with the pier head 120ft long by 100ft wide to include landing stages at every state of the tide.  On the deck level, ornamental houses and ornamental wind screens form of glass and iron would be fixed on the head.

Eastbourne Pier after work had been completed on the full length

When the Pier finally opened on Monday 13 June 1870 it was half as long as expected reaching a distance of around 500 feet. Work would carry on in order for it to be completed to its full length. It had undergone full safety tests including one for vibrations which involved placing two 6 pounder cannon each side of the pier and firing them at the same time – ‘there was not the slightest indication of vibration’. The contractors were positive the pier was amply strong enough to resist any gale it may have to encounter. Early that morning, the contractors and a few naval men were busy decorating the pier with flags and buntings leant to them by the Coastguard Station. A procession of the County Constabulary, the Town Band, Employees of the pier, Lord Cavendish in a carriage, the Eastbourne Pier Co Directors in carriages, The members of the Nottingham Order of Odd Fellows, The Fire Brigade, Members of the Ancient Order of Foresters and The Lifeboat and Crew drawn in carriages started off from Cornfield Road, along Terminus Road towards Seaside when they met a huge crowd of people which caused the procession to get stuck there. When they finally reached Grand Parade the procession was officially headed by the Sub Inspector of Nuisances – Mr Glass. After a speech from Lord Cavendish which was remarkably similar to the speech he gave when the first column was installed, the Board of Directors spent some time proposing various toasts to ‘the health of the Engineers and Contractors’, ‘the health of the solicitor and secretary of the pier’, the Town and Trade of Eastbourne’, ‘success to our local sports and pastimes’ and ending with ‘to the health of the ladies’…! The opening of the pier finished with an afternoon of sports at the Cricket Field – primarily for school children in Eastbourne but the 100 yards race and sack race were open to all.

Storm damage in 1877

On New Year’s Day 1877, a huge storm destroyed the front part of the pier. News of a gale and the damage was reported in newspapers as far as Sheffield, Scotland and Ireland. The Pier master and three other men were trying to save some of the timber being used to widen the deck of the pier when 150 yards of the pier was washed away. The waves smashed the wooden panels as they were lifted from the iron supports and the fate of pier master and his men was unknown until they were spotted clinging on to the ironwork until the water receded and they were able to climb up to the pier entrance. This storm had also washed away part of Marine and Grand Parades, washed away several boathouses and fish-houses near Seaside and streets turned into rivers, trapping some residents inside their houses.  At the Redoubt, the soldiers had to clear out at a moment’s notice as the water came over the moat wall and found its way into the living quarters of the men and families who lived there reaching a depth of 5 feet.

Moving through 20th century, Eastbourne and the Pier became even more popular with visitors. One of those visitors was Alice Burden who visited her sister Lucy who was living here. Lucy and her husband Bill Rigarlsford ran the Post Office/Grocery Store in Coppice Avenue after the Second World War.

Thank you to Alice’s daughter and granddaughter for sending us this brilliant photo of Alice on the pier.

Alice is at the front of the photo, looking out to sea.

Although we probably won’t be treated to a stalwart coastguard, fiddle in hand, striking up a lively tune to mark this anniversary, we encourage you to add another slightly bizarre toast to the long list from the Eastbourne Pier Company directors. ‘To the health of….. ‘

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