History of Hastings Pier
The first seaside pier was built at Brighton in 1822. It was designed in the style of a suspension bridge and was know as the Chain Pier. It was intended purely as a landing stage for the coasting vessels bringing goods into the town before the railways came, then it was found that large numbers of people found pleasure in promenading along the pier deck, and gradually the pier changed from being a utilitarian jetty to a place of entertainment.
A pier for Hastings was first muted in 1861 with the Hastings General Pier and Harbour Act, which gave authority for a pleasure pier and harbour to be built near the Fishmarket.
The project failed to mature because the Act required the harbour to be completed first and money could not be raised for a harbour. Five years later a group of London business men launched a scheme to build a pleasure pier roughly a mile westward of the intended harbour site and the necessary sanction was obtained in the Hastings Pier Act, 1867.
The authorised share capital was £25,000. At first the town’s folk were hesitant to invest in this proposal being suspicious of the motives of the promoters, but following a meeting at the Castle Hotel in June 1869 a local board of directors was formed.
The board was headed by the Mayor of Hastings and included Thomas Brassey, the famous railway engineer, as advisor. Even so the entire share capital was not taken up for three years.
The first pile was driven at the unearthly hour of 3am. on Saturday 18th December 1869. Designed and supervised throughout by the engineer Eugenius Birch, the pier was constructed by Messrs Robert Laidlaw & Sons of Glasgow. The contract price being £23,250.
Most of the iron work was brought by sea, and landed on the foreshore near Warrior Square, St Leonard's. This inevitably created delays, when periods of rough weather prevented vessels approaching the shore and grounding to await unloading at low tide.
A further unexpected difficulty arose when it was found that the site chosen for the pier was over a submerged forest. Time and time again piling operations were hindered through striking huge oak tree trunks; one such trunk was recovered from the seabed and was on show in the Alexandra Park Hastings for many years afterwards.
With these problems arising its not surprising that the contract date for completion, March 1871 could not be met, and the pier was not finished for more than a year later.
The pier as originally designed was 910 feet long with the central promenade deck 45 feet wide opening out to 190 feet at the shore end. At the seaward end there was an expansion a 130 feet wide by 300 feet in depth and on this area a magnificent pavilion in ornate oriental style was built. This building was then the only erection on the pier except for two small tollhouses at the shore end. The promenade deck was lined with continuos seating totalling 2,600 linear feet. At the seaward end, an independent landing stage 200 feet long and 8 feet wide was erected off the south and east faces. Although a depth of some 3 to 5 feet of water remained around the landing stage at the lowest point of the spring tides, sandbars off the pier head restricted the approach of vessels when the tide had receded below half tide. But, with the rise and fall of 25 feet of water on the spring tide, incidentally the greatest rise and fall for any Sussex pier, and 16 feet on the neap tides there was an adequate depth of water for quite large vessels throughout the upper half of the tides.
Open for visitors
The pier was formally opened by the Earl of Granville on August Bank Holiday 1872; the occasion was marred by one of those unfortunate English summer days when a sou’westerly wind blew at gale force, and rain fell torrentially all day.
The Brassey family arrived for the ceremony in their steam ship “Eothen” but only succeeded in landing on the jetty after a series of most unseemly like ricochets against the landing stage. Wisely the Captain of the pleasure steamer “Rapid” scheduled to take off the very first sea going passengers from the pier decided to stay in the shelter of Newhaven harbour.
In spite of the appalling conditions outside, the elaborate banquet in the pavilion was a huge success. And in his inaugural speech the Earl of Granville described Hastings Pier as the pier less pier! A phrase which there after stuck.
Three months later a severe storm swept away the tollhouses from the shore end but with contractors still in attendance they were soon replaced. In the early years, the pier offered a continuous round of entertainment for visitors and town’s folk alike, with a small resident orchestra for concerts, interspersed with stage plays and pantomimes.
Mr Tommy Laid was the first pier master, responsible for the more maritime activities.
Regular steamer services however, were not achieved until 1884, when the vessels calling at Hastings pier were “Caret Castle”, “Nelson”, “Lady Brassey”, and “Conqueror”.
Ten years later the much larger “Alexandra” 600 passengers and then “Britannia” a brand new pleasure steamer operated on day trips to France for the ‘London, Brighton and South Coast Railway.’ Ultimately, the ‘Campbell’ Steam ship line had the monopoly of the pier trade, and all their famous paddle steamers “Glenroser”, “Brighton Belle”, “Brighton Queen”, “Bristol Queen”, “Devonia”, “Westward Hoe” and others paid regular calls to the pier throughout the period, and right up to the end of the summer of 1939.
World War II brought about a demise of the steamer trips, and although afterwards attempts were made to revive the trade with “Empress Queen” and “Crested Eagle” economic difficulties coupled with successive summer seasons with continuous rough weather proved too much.
During the 1960’s, a last attempt was tried with “Queen of the Isle” but the venture was a financial flop and the last pleasure steamer to call at Hastings Pier on a regular service basis sailed away.
Then, to every one’s surprise and delight the only surviving paddle steamer in the country the “Waverly” made just a brief appearance.
But, I must return to the first decade of this century and to the development of the pier.
In 1909 a new building was erected in the middle of the deck, to house the newly introduced American ‘Boxball’ bowling, this was followed by the erection of a ‘Joywheel’ at the shore end. This ‘Joywheel’ which was really more of a round-a-bout was removed in 1914 when Hastings Corporation bought the shore end of the pier, widened it still further and built thereon a bandstand for Military band concerts. Termed the parade extension, it was opened with due ceremony by Alderman Hutchins on April 19th 1916. It was then stated that shelters would be provided later. World War I was then in progress, and 3,500 people would be able to sit and listen to the band in comfort.
The cost of the parade extension was £26,000. However, part of the deal with the Pier Company whose tollhouses had retreated to seaward, in fact where they still are today, was that the municipal orchestra would be housed in the sea end pier pavilion. There can be no doubt that the Hastings pier pavilion was a very fine building, and if it were in existence today it would certainly be listed as a building of architectural importance. The ornate ironwork was superb. Regrettably a spectacular fire destroyed the pavilion and the sea end of the pier on July 15th 1917. A cigarette end carelessly thrown away was thought to be the cause of the fire.
After the 1914 - 1918 War, the Hastings Corporation added the shelters they had promised, and put up fancy lights to make their part of the pier look like ‘Battle Abbey’ gateway.
In turn, the Pier Company rebuilt a pavilion in place of the one destroyed by fire. The bare structure looking more like an aircraft hanger, was opened in July 1922 and housed the municipal orchestra during concessive winter seasons until the ‘White Rock Pavilion’ was built in 1928.
20s & 30s Extensions
In the late 1920’s and early thirties, the Pier Company undertook an ambitious programme to improve the pier by widening the deck from the original 45 feet to 80 feet. The engineer in charge at that time was Mr Charles Botley. And he cleverly succeeded in carrying out the work with out having to close the pier.
At the same time the landing stage was doubled in width at considerable expense.
The directors surely, could not have realised that within a few years, there would not be any more regular steam ships calling and that the soul users would be just the sea anglers.
The improvements to the pier also included the additions of a separate theatre for summer concert parties and winter repertoire. The Court Players Company proving one of the most successful ventures the pier had ever known. There was also a new large restaurant and new entrance façade luminated with neon strip lighting at night. All these buildings were an elegant example of the Art Deco style of architecture of the period, alas they have since tended to lose their beauty under successive coats of paint, thou some of the original character can still be found in places.
A similar treatment was intended to complete and adorn the sea end pavilion, until it was discovered that the additional weight of the new balcony with its glazed tiled facings was causing the pier to sag alarmingly.
Investigation by divers revealed also that a severe scouring of the seabed had occurred, and that many of the piles under the pavilion were hanging from the pier instead of supporting it. The problem was overcome by driving short piles along side the defective ones and then fusing them together in blocks of concrete, but it also meant that a much modified and lighter scheme had to be adopted to finish off the outward appearance of the sea end pavilion.
Happily, the Pier Company was able to cover most of the cost of the under pinning work through insurance, thanks to the vigilance of their secretary Mr W. F. Brown and their Chairman Mr Percy Idol.
With the fall of France in World War II and with invasion imminent, a plan of Hitler’s to land a force at Hastings was later found, the pier was cut amidships. Nevertheless, movable gangways were maintained by the armed forces; and oil pipeline gravity fed from two huge storage tanks located in the White Rock gardens was laid under the pier decking out to the landing stage. This was to enable small naval vessels to refuel alongside, but also in dire emergency the oil could be discharged over the surface of the water and ignited as an anti invasion measure. Mercifully the latter never had to be put into practice. This story was not revealed until after the war.
Post War Decline
In the post war years, not only was the Pier Company faced with problems of restoring the structure, but vast changes had taken place in the pattern of popular pier entertainment. No longer could dance bands like ‘Allan Green’ attract a thousand dancers nightly, ‘Harry Hanson’s Court Players’ repertory Company ceased drawing capacity audiences.
Concert parties were finished, while the revenue from American Boxball and Skiball bowling allies no longer warranted the large space they occupied, people no longer flocked to the pier in their thousands. Sixty thousand had been known to pay tolls over an August bank holiday weekend.
And yet Hastings Pier still carries on, where there were once wide open spaces for countless pier goers to do little more than promenade and take the sea air, the pier is now filled with buildings each required to earn its keep in a variety of different ways.
Hastings Corporation abandoned military music after the war and returned the parade extension to the Pier Company thus restoring to their ownership the whole of the pier structure. The old band shelters have been converted into little shops, for it is from such varied concessionaires that the Pier Company derives much of its revenue.
What of the future, are we reaching the end of the pier? Out of more than a hundred seaside piers around our coasts at one time, only 38 remain today. I for one would be sorry to see all our piers disappear. For one thing they create the best vantage points for looking back at a seaside town, but more than that, a pier seems to add something special to the accepted scene of a seaside holiday resort.
Transcribed from a spoken tape recording written by Barry Funnell and reproduced by Richard Pollard in 1985.