Southend on Sea in Essex is renowned as the home of the longest pleasure pier in the world. The pier is a Grade II listed building, and extends for 1.34 miles out into the Thames Estuary. A trip along the pier must be a highlight of any visit to Southend. What is not so well known is that the pleasure pier so beloved of visitors today has it’s origins as far back as the early 19th century, and has a remarkable history of survival against the odds.
The Pier Origins
In the early 19th century Southend was a growing tourist destination but the town was severely hampered by its location surrounded by shallow water. The majority of visitors to the town were day-trippers from London and they generally arrived by boat, however the surrounding mudflats meant that no boats could stop near the popular beaches, and nothing at all could access the town from the water at low tide. Seeing their vital trade in danger of being stolen by Margate and other nearby towns with better docking facilities, local dignitaries came up with the proposal for the first pier.
This first wooden pier was duly opened in 1830 and over the years it has been rebuilt and extended on numerous occasions. Sometimes the changes were to accommodate a change of use, but more often they came about as a result of fire, or accidental damage by shipping. Fires have ravaged the pier on many occasions resulting in serious damage each time, and sometimes in prolonged closure of the pier. The most recent fire in 2005 saw the entire pier head destroyed and several buildings fall into the Thames estuary.
The Pier Today
Despite these challenges the pier remains popular with visitors and In recent years the pier has experienced significant investment by Southend Council. In 2012 a new Pier Pavilion was opened to replace structures damaged in the latest fire in 2005. The Pavilion holds up to 185 people and is today used as a theatre and as a space for art exhibitions.
Close by the new Pavilion can be found the Southend Pier lifeboat station. This is home to one of two lifeboats stations based at Southend-on-Sea. There has been a lifeboat here since 1879, and today the pier houses an both an Atlantic 75 class lifeboat and a smaller D class lifeboat, both of these lifeboats are launched by davit into the deep water at the end of the pier to enable them to swiftly respond to any emergency.
One of the most unusual features of this lifeboat station is that the lifeboat crew must access the lifeboat station from the shore by using an electric buggy, with flashing blue lights and sirens to warn pedestrians of their approach.
Visitors to this part of the pier can enjoy the viewing gallery, or on more sunny days they can relax on the sun deck which tops the structure.
This RNLI station was constructed in a striking modern glass style and in addition to the lifeboat station it is also home to a gift shop and the Southend Pier Museum
The Pier Railway
The Pier Museum boasts a range of exhibits related to the pier’s history, and in particular the pier railway. There is a restored working pier signal box, train carriages, and a tram, as well as period costumes, and an intriguing collection of classic penny slot machines.
At over a mile in length a walk on the pier can make a pleasant stroll on a sunny day, but if it’s a little chilly or if you prefer to enjoy the pier from a comfortable seat then nothing could be better than a trip on the Southend Pier Railway. The pier railway runs almost the whole length of Southend Pier, providing fast, reliable passenger transport from the shore to the pier head for many of those come to the pier. The railway operates every day that the pier is open, with trains departing either every 15 minutes or every 30 minutes depending on the time of year, and passenger demand.
The Southend pier railway is a fascinating system and has been a feature of the pier almost from the beginning. Originally the rail system was horse drawn, but in 1890 when an iron pier was built to replace the original wooden structure the opportunity was taken to modernise the system and to install an electric tramway along the full length of the pier.
So popular did the new railway prove that by 1930, four train sets, each of seven carriages, were running on a double track line along the pier. Despite the obvious popularity of the railway there were continuing problems with lack of investment and there not being the funds available to maintain the line to a satisfactory standard. By 1978 the electric railway was forced to close, due to the prohibitive cost of long delayed repairs. The Southend Pier railway did not reopen until 1986, when the double track system was replaced by a more modest single track system with a passing loop. The Southend Pier Railway has survived many challenges, especially when fires have broken out on the pier. The newest part of the railway system is the Pier-head station which was rebuilt and finally reopened in 2009 following it’s destruction in the fire of 2005. Visitors to the pier today can once again enjoy the pleasure of riding by train along the longest pleasure pier in the world just as tourists have done for almost 200 years.