Realm of the piers
From jetty to pleasure palace, John Walker looks at the successes and failures of Bournemouth’s piers
Published in March ’11
The first seaside piers were built in the 1810s, as people discovered the joy of visiting the seaside. Piers soon became major landmarks of these developing resorts, allowing visitors arriving by sea to disembark, and those visiting by land to enjoy a sea-going experience. Prominent among today’s seaside piers is Bournemouth’s, confirmed as a local icon in its own right in 2007 when it achieved the elite top location on the Bournemouth and Poole version of the board game Monopoly.
Bournemouth sprang into life in 1810, but it was not until 1855 that its first landing stage – a six-foot wide retractable jetty – was built with the aim of attracting the Weymouth paddle-steamer Princess. This was replaced in 1861 by a larger wooden structure designed by the noted Scottish engineer, George Rennie, son of the celebrated bridge builder John Rennie. It was built by David Thornbury of Newcastle, an engineer of some distinction, who is said to have been on holiday in Bournemouth at the time. The new pier was opened by local landowner, Sir George Gervis, with great ceremony, including a visit by the paddle-steamer Ursa Major. Later extended to a length of 1000 feet and given a T-shaped head, it was immortalised by Thomas Hardy in his mid-1870s novel The Hand of Ethelburta. The book’s hero, Kit Julian, liked to stand on the end of Bournemouth Pier on winter evenings with his back to the sea: ‘when the sportive and variegated throng that haunted the pier was no longer there, and he seemed alone with the weather and the invincible sea’. Perhaps not a description that would be used today After various losses of structure, with some of the wood ending up on Swanage beach, and with the piles attacked by shipworm, the pier was pronounced unfit for paddle-steamers in 1876.
A temporary landing stage was erected in 1877, then an engineer named Eugenius Birch came forward with a plan for an iron pier, which was built between 1878 and 1880 by Benghain and Company of London at a cost of £21,600. Initially 838 feet long, it was again opened with great ceremony, this time by Sir Francis Truscott, the Lord Mayor of London. It was later extended to 1000 feet and, in 1909, a landing stage extension was opened by the then Lord Mayor of London, Sir George Truscott, whose father had performed the main ceremony 29 years earlier. This was really the forerunner of today’s pier.
By this time, with people pouring into the resort via Bournemouth’s two busy railway stations, the pier was at its Victorian zenith. Piers were the places to see and to be seen in your best clothes. For people on holiday, it was the only time of the year when they could listen to music – in the days before the wireless and the gramophone record – which was played daily on the pier by the band section of Bournemouth’s Municipal Orchestra, the country’s first. Roller-skating, on a special deck on the pier, was also available on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
To many visitors, some of whom would not have seen the sea before in their lives, the trip on a paddle-steamer, navigated by sextant and its captain’s local experience, was like an ocean-going adventure. Amazingly, regular paddle-steamer sailings from Bournemouth Pier continued for over 100 years, with the exception of the war years, from the visit of the PS Ursa Major in 1861 to its last regular steamer, the PS Embassy, leaving at the end of the 1966 season, and Bournemouth still receives annual visits from the preserved PS Waverley, the world’s last ocean-going paddle-steamer.
Other significant dates include 1889, when Bournemouth Handball Players took part in what is believed to be the first ever game of water polo in the sea near Bournemouth Pier. In 1910, the world’s first coin-in-the-slot ice-cream dispensing machine was tried out on the pier. In 1940, for security reasons, a gap was blown in Bournemouth Pier that remained for the duration of World War 2 – a feat that the IRA was prevented from emulating in 1993 by some quick-thinking action. The repaired pier re-opened in 1946, a new pier head was built in 1950 and the 850-seat Pier Theatre opened in 1960. The mid-1970s saw a complete re-decking on top of the current concrete substructure as well as a new entrance, incorporating a leisure arcade and show-bar (now the Aruba restaurant) opened in 1981.
The 1960 Pier Theatre structure was designed to resemble a paddle-steamer going out to sea, and is tempered with Festival of Britain-type elements including the glazed captain’s nest – at the back of the fly-tower – and the coffered ceiling in the attached circular café. It was designed by local architect, Elizabeth Whitworth Scott, a great-niece of the famous architect, Sir Gilbert Scott. The theatre initially operated in the summer months only and, for many years, was very popular with a fare of farces and sitcoms, often offering ‘Stars from Television’ in the cast list and Sunday concerts featuring performers of the calibre of Jessie Matthews and John Hanson, to name but two. The last decade produced a sharp drop in customer numbers, however, and it was feared that the theatre’s days were numbered. However, with pier-top venues now operated by private company, Openwide, the theatre has an all-year-round lease of life.
In 1920, to ease congestion on Bournemouth Pier, Bournemouth Council allowed local pleasure boat companies to operate their own movable landing stages on cartwheels that went in and out with the tide. Jake ‘Ginger’ Bolson, who operated more craft in Bournemouth than any other operator, was quick to take advantage of this option, obtaining the best sites either side of the pier. In 1913 he had acquired a twelve-seater open motor launch named Skylark, the first of what became a large and successful fleet operating under that name. Bolson’s cry of ‘Any More For The Skylark?’ has passed into legend.
From 1948 a permanent East Beach Jetty on the site of one of their earlier landing stages was leased to J Bolson and Son Ltd and became known as Bolson’s Jetty. This allowed the company to obtain and operate larger purpose-built pleasure craft, directly leading to the Dorset Belle boats of today.
The ill-fated Southbourne Pier, designed by Archibald Smith of Boscombe for the Southbourne Pier Company Ltd, was opened in 1888 by a visit from the paddle-steamer Lord Elgin. The structure was 200 feet long and constructed in iron at a cost of £4000. Sadly it was severely damaged by successive storms at the end of 1900 and the beginning of 1901 and its remains were finally dismantled as a dangerous structure in 1907. It has been said that the main reason for this being a poor location for beach structures is that the area misses the protection of the Purbeck Hills.
Boscombe Pier was opened in 1889, by the eighth Duke of Argyll, its first pile having been driven the year before by Lady Jane Shelley of Boscombe Manor. Designed by Archibald Smith of Boscombe and built by the Waterloo Foundry of Poole, it was an attempt to emulate the success of the neighbouring Bournemouth Pier. This faith remained unjustified, as it never made money and was purchased by Bournemouth Council in 1904 before being enlarged in 1926-27. It had already achieved its main claim to fame in 1897, when a forty-ton, seventy-foot North Atlantic whale, which became known as the Boscombe whale, was washed up nearby. It could not be refloated and was auctioned by the crown and purchased by a local doctor as a commercial venture. The doctor was later prosecuted for the whale’s smell and the carcass carved up, with its bones being reconstructed and re-erected on the pier, where it served as a major tourist attraction for many years. Like its neighbour, Boscombe Pier was breached in 1940 for security reasons. It did not then re-open to boats for a further 22 years, and only then after a complete reconstruction in reinforced concrete. Its new small summer theatre was destroyed by fire early on and its eventual replacement, the Mermaid Theatre, spent most of its working life as an amusement arcade. Recently shortened as part of Boscombe’s artificial surf reef project, the original pier-top superstructure has been removed and the whole redesigned and updated in a modern style with a central display promenade. The result has been described by top urban designer Wayne Hemingway as ‘one of the coolest piers in the country’.
Bournemouth’s piers may have started as a means for the land-bound to get to sea, and the seafarer to reach land, but for most people they are a place where it is possible to experience the sea’s wonder, have an entertaining time and walk back afterwards. The fact that Bournemouth and the concept of the pier date from the same decade seems, somehow, all the more appropriate, 200 years on.
1. Russell-Cotes museum
2. Darren Marks
3. Author’s collection
4. Author’s collection
4A. Image courtesy of www.barriepictures.co.uk
5. Darren Marks