The Pier was designed and engineered by Eugenius Birch to attract visitors and survive in the hostile environment of the seashore. Opened in 1866, it was a simple and functional structure built using dozens of cast iron threaded columns screwed into the seabed and strengthened by a lattice of ties and girders that provide the necessary strength to support the promenade deck whilst allowing seas to pass harmlessly through.
Originally the West Pier had an open deck with only six small ornamental houses of oriental design, two toll houses and glass screens at the pier head to protect visitors from the wind and sun. In 1875 a central bandstand was added. In the 1880’s weather screens the full length of the pier, steamer landing stages and a large pier head pavilion were constructed.
The final building, completed in 1916, was a graceful concert hall. The result is seaside architecture at its finest, designed to attract and entertain holiday-makers with all the pomp and frippery that is the essence of the English seaside resort. The pier was unique in being largely unaltered since that time, its proportions and style were unrivalled and its concert hall and theatre were two of the best Victorian and Edwardian seaside entertainment buildings.
The West Pier story closely follows the changing fortunes of the English seaside holiday. It began simply as a promenade pier where the Victorian middle classes could enjoy the thrill of walking on water without the hazards of becoming wet or sea sick. Somewhere they could ‘see and be seen’, take in the sea air and admire the panoramic views of the land.
By the First World War it had evolved into a pleasure pier with a great variety of indoor and outdoor seaside entertainments. At the height of its popularity in the twenties, attractions ranged from paddle steamer excursions, daring high-divers and sea-bathing from the pier head to military bands, recitals in the Concert Hall by the pier’s resident orchestra and an all-year-round programme of plays, pantomimes and ballets in the Pavilion.
In its final stage after the Second World War it became a funfair pier. The Pavilion was converted to a restaurant on the top floor with the ‘Laughter Land’ games arcade in the theatre below. The Concert Hall became a tea room, and the delights of the Dodgems, Helter-skelter, and miniature racing car track could be enjoyed by all.
On 28th March the Pavilion was destroyed in an arson attack, and then on 11th May the Concert Hall, already seriously damaged in a huge storm the previous December, was also deliberately set on fire.
English Heritage was commissioned to report on whether after such damage, the restoration was still viable. It concluded that despite the significant damage, given the wealth of salvaged material from the pier and the considerable photographic and video archive, repair and reconstruction of the pier was still viable. It was therefore bitterly disappointing that at its meeting on 28th January, the Heritage Lottery Fund decided to withdraw its funding of the project.
With the loss of lottery funding the restoration of the West Pier became impossible. Deemed a public hazard, the burnt-out Concert Hall was removed in 2010. The skeletal remains of The Pavilion, however, were left to become a feature of Brighton’s seafront. Its desolate beauty makes it much discussed, wondered about and photographed. The Trust has no intention of removing the remains unless overwhelming safety issues arise. But now beyond repair, they will inevitably degenerate and be reclaimed by nature. However the Trust remains hopeful that, with the success of British Airways i360, in due course a new contemporary West Pier, reflecting the brilliance of the original, will be built.
For almost a century and a half the West Pier has been Britain’s most iconic pier. Renowned for its wonderful architectural style, it has been visited and enjoyed by millions. Even today with its sculptural remains casting an eerie beauty over the seafront, the West Pier is still the most photographed building in Brighton.