Home | Courses | Partners | Links | Contact Us
The West Pier: Past
Interview with Dr. Fred Gray, Official Historian for the West Pier Trust, 20th January 1998

Click here for LINKS

What is your history and how did you come to find yourself as the Official Archivist for The West Pier Trust?  

My recent(ish) history is that I've worked at Sussex University in the Centre for Continuing Education for a long time - almost 20 years. Working for Continuing Education is very interesting because much of what CCE does involves working with groups of local people and over time this has meant that I've became more interested in local history, the current politics of different areas of Sussex, could be Hastings, could be Brighton or Worthing. Of course Sussex tends to be a place with a lot of seaside towns in it and I've therefore become more interested in seaside towns, both what happens in them and their architecture, ranging from beach huts and shelters to grander things like Concert Halls , Pavilions and, of course, Piers. 

Three or four years ago I put on an exhibition with some other people about seaside architecture, not simply in Sussex but English seaside architecture as a whole. Geoff Lockwood, who is the chief executive of The West Pier Trust, was invited to that exhibition (although this was before he had become Chief Executive). When he later became involved with the Trust, realising my interest in seaside architecture, he invited me to become the Official Historian and Archivist for The West Pier Trust which I accepted. 

Fred Grey
Do you work at all with Michael Haydon at The University of Brighton who is keeping a photographic record of the restoration?   

Yes, Geoff Lockwood has been really quite clever in terms of putting together people who he thinks can help the aims of the Trust. 

The West Pier was built in 1863 after the Chain Pier. Why was the West Pier built when there was already an existing pier in Brighton?  
The Chain Pier was opened in 1823so it was actually 40 years before there was any discussion about the West Pier. The Chain Pier had actually been built as a landing stage. It was erected before the railways came to Sussex and at that stage Brighton was on the quickest and most direct route from London to Paris so there was a fair amount of cross-channel traffic. However, the problem with was that at this stage Brighton didn't have a harbour and didn't have a pier so the passengers were unloaded from boats on the backs of boatmen or carted out in dinghies. This meant that they got wet and ripped off (as the boatmen often charged a lot of money to take them out to the bigger ships). The Chain Pier functioned as a landing stage but it was also a bit more than that. It quickly became clear that people liked walking on the pier, over water, and it could therefore be argued that it was also a pleasure pier for promenading upon. 

The Chain Pier - constructed 1823 The Chain Pier was actually designed in a very unusual way. It had large piles (pillars) with chains hanging from it on which the deck was suspended. This type of pier building technology, which was actually bridge-building technology, meant that the width of the decks on the pier were very narrow. By the middle of the 19th Century pier-building technology was starting to change and rather than hanging a deck from chains a new screw-piling technique was used. By simply screwing down piles, linking them together with a lattice of ties and braces and putting the deck on top you could build a pier to almost any shape or angle or size. The West Pier, for example, was 55ft wide at it's narrowest point compared with the 13ft wide Chain Pier. 
What the owners of the West Pier had actually intended was to take over the Chain Pier, knock it down and build a new pier on the same site but this was refused. Undeterred. The West Pier Company decided to continue with their plans elsewhere. 

Although pleasure-steamers did use the West Pier it wasn't actually built as a landing stage because by then (1863) the railways had come to Sussex and when travelling to France you could go through Newhaven or Dover on the train rather than in a horse and carriage. So, from the outset it was built as a promenade pier, a place for people to walk on, breathe in the sea-air, take in the ozone and listen to band music. 

In terms of the construction - who would have been employed to work on the pier and would they have been local men or bought in especially? 

Apparently somewhere on Brighton sea-front there is a sculpture of some children with a caption underneath it, that says something like: "This is in memory of the children who worked on the building of the Chain Pier who were killed in the construction process." In fact, someone phoned me up about six months ago who might have been the sculptor or who knew the sculptor and asked me if it was right and I told Him "Not as far as I know". However, I think he was still anxious to maintain the image of the poor 19th Century kids who had died on the pier (a bit like those working down the pits). However, as far as I know, as Official Historian, it's all total lies, just a myth that's emerged about the pier. Indeed, the contractors were very pleased to announce at the opening that there were no serious accidents on the pier and no-one was killed. 

In answer to who worked on the pier - I guess there must have been some local men but I think, most probably, the majority were navvies who had been building the pier in Deal in Kent. When that pier was completed they then came over to Brighton and started work on the West Pier. I did read somewhere that whilst the pier was being built the navvies actually lived on the seafront in temporary shacks on the undercliff. It's worth bearing in mind that at that stage, the area where the West Pier was built was called the West Cliff and it wasn't surfaced in the way that it is now. There was a beach with a low natural cliff which the West Pier was built out of. Presumably, once the pier was built, the navvies went on to work on other piers. 

The reconstruction of the pier seems quite a lengthy process although I'm sure a lot of that is political and to do with the funding. How long did it take to build the original West Pier?  

The contractors hoped to build it in 6 months and the West Pier had given them 12 months but it actually took 2.5 years. It didn't really start until 1864 (although you usually see 1863 in all the books about the West Pier). The first piles were actually put down in March 1864 and it was finished in October 1866. 

Why did it take so long to construct?  

Well, one story is that Laidlaw, the contractors, owned an ironworks in Glasgow and they made many of the parts for the West Pier in their own plant, shipped them to Shoreham Harbour and then carted them overland to the West Pier. Laidlaw's kept claiming that there were delays in the shipping. However, what actually happened was that as  soon as the contract was signed (for £21,000) the price of iron shot up massively which meant that the contractors were going to lose money on the deal. So Laidlaw's were just trying to hold things off in the hope that the price of iron would go down (which it didn't) and eventually they were forced to continue building and lost lots of money in the process. 

My understanding is that the West Pier cost £27,000 to construct which would have been a huge sum for a single individual to outlay. So who would have funded the building?  

When something like a pier was built an Act of Parliament had to be passed to set up a company. Such an Act was passed to establish the West Pier Company, giving it the right to raise £25,000. In fact, this amount proved to be insufficient and just before the pier was opened, the provision was raised to £35,000. Basically, it really was a private speculative venture and the West Pier Company, once established, advertised for people to buy shares. The shareholders, as far as we can tell, were a range of people...They included wealthy gentlemen, like shipbuilders but they also included really quite poor people - poor widows, small shopkeepers, even laundresses who had a little bit of extra money left over from running their own laundries. So it really was a broad spectrum of people who owned shares in the West Pier - some of them just a few shares (2 or 3) and others many more shares. Most of the shareholders, about 70%, lived in Brighton and Hove, with yet more in Sussex. It's the sort of thing that you wouldn't find nowadays but it really was a local enterprise with local people investing money in it. 

Would there still be any existing shareholders or their descendants? 

Yes, I guess so. In fact one of the people who owned shares in the 1890's was someone called Vokins who still runs Vokins Department store. They've closed down their Brighton branch but they still own an out-of-town warehouse or bed shop. 

What would the attraction have been for someone like a laundress to own shares? Was it just about being part of a local project? 

I guess it was partly about that but also about people backing, in some senses, the fact that Brighton was going to be a successful town. I think in the late 20th Century it's difficult for us to appreciate how people felt in the middle of the 19th Century. The West Pier Company did promise lavish results as well. It was said that shareholders would get 15% per year return on their investment and 15% certainly sounds a lot to me (that's better than Sainsburys Bank currently offers it's savers). So the shareholders also expected to get some money back and if it had been 15% (it wasn't but if it had been) then within 6 or 7 years they would have got their initial money back and still owned their shares. 

At one point the West Pier, the Palace and the Chain Pier all existed at the same time. How would they have differed in terms of the entertainment they offered?  
The history is terribly complicated... in 1891 work started on the Palace Pier which was being built by the same company that owned the Chain Pier, with the intention that once the new pier was completed the old Chain Pier would be knocked down. In practice however, in early December 1896, the Chain Pier blew down in a storm. In fact some of the wreckage from the Chain Pier floated westwards and hit the West Pier, knocking down part of the structure. The West Pier Company then sued what was effectively the Palace Pier company (who owned the Chain Pier). At one stage it even looked as though the Palace Pier Company would go bankrupt because of the damages it would have to pay, which suited the West Pier Company as the new Palace Pier would be a real rival to the West Pier.  Stormy seas around The Palace Pier
In terms of the differences...the Chain Pier, as I said previously, was really a landing stage. It had some little kiosks on it which sold shells and there would have been a band playing at the end of it. When the West Pier was first built it was essentially just an open deck, a promenade for people to walk along. It had several kiosks along the main deck of the pier and the two big toll houses at the entrance, including the Rock Shop which still there, but the Concert Hall and Pier-head Building weren't added until later.  The West Pier as promenade
By 1890 it was pretty clear to the West Pier Company that having just an open deck for visitors to walk on was not going to be viable. So, in 1893, the Pavilion was added at the Pier -head and this served as an entertainment centre with a wide range of performances going on. In 1916 the Concert Hall was built in the middle of the pier. The West Pier Company decided to expand in this way partly because by 1890 it's profits were going down but also because it knew that the Palace Pier would be purpose-built as a modern pleasure pier which would prove strong competition.  On the deck of The Palace Pier
Did the different piers appeal to different classes in society? I always imagine that The West Pier was the locals pier and that the Palace Pier appealed primarily to tourists. 
The Metropole and Grand Hotels Certainly from the 1950's the Palace Pier attracted more people and to some extent it was more down-market and probably had more appeal for day-trippers. It's also worth bearing in mind, that the West Pier was built in the same area and at the same time as two big modern hotels; The Grand Hotel was opened in 1864 and The Metropole which overlooks the West Pier was completed in 1884. So this region became the centre of fashionable Brighton and from early on the West pier was a major, powerful and modern pier which must have attracted many visitors to Brighton. 
One of the major concerns in the rebuilding of The West Pier is that it will be a commercially viable venture. How much of a concern was this at the initial time of building the West Pier and was it ultimately commercially viable?   

Although the West Pier Company, when advertising for shareholders, claimed that investments would increase by 15%, in practice in the best years it was about 12% and by the 1880's it was starting to drift down to 6% per year which was still a profit but not a good one. In terms of the number of visitors, in the first 20 years, there used to be up to 700,000 people a year on it. Compare this with the Palace Pier which in 1996 had 4.5 million visitors, bearing in mind of course that admission to the Palace Pier is free whereas the West Pier charged an entrance fee. In fact the admission charge was the major way in which the West Pier Company made its money. 

So, basically it was viable for the first 20 years or so... 

I think that one of the really interesting things about the early piers, the West Pier and Eastbourne Pier for example, is that because pier-building technology wasn't yet a complete science and was still considered an art-form then they sometimes had quite serious design faults. The design fault with the West Pier (which I think is really rather funny) was that it used to shake and move when people went on it. Just a year after it was opened, one August Bank Holiday, there were thousands of people on the pier and for some unknown reason it started to oscillate and consequently everyone rushed off it. There were even reports in The Times about it. It was a real scare and the West Pier Company had to spend lots of money on trying to make its structure more stable.  Brighton seafront viewed from the West Pier
Much of the decline of The West Pier is blamed on the damage it sustained during the war. However, my understanding is that the Palace Pier was also damaged during the war. So why did the West Pier fall into decline whilst the Palace Pier survived? 
In fact, I think you can trace the decline of the West Pier back much further than that. Both the piers were shut during the war and large chunks were cut out of them to prevent them being used as landing stages by the Germans. However, if you look even further back the decline had actually started much earlier. After the Concert Hall was built in 1916 the pier was really successful for about 10 - 15 years and it's peak year, in which it had the most vistors, was just after the 1st World War in 1918/19 when over 2 million people went on the pier. By the late 1930's  however the number of visitors had fallen to 900,000. The West Pier Company tried to respond to this by evolving the pier into a funfair and during the 1930's both the West and the Palace Pier started to turn into funfair piers which clearly wasn't going to work  The West Pier between the wars
When I came to Brighton in 1975, the West Pier was still just open (although the south part of it was shut off). However both the piers were, by then, pretty seedy places. The West Pier shut later in 1975 whilst the Palace Pier struggled on. In the late 1970's and early 1980's, the Palace Pier was really down at heel. There were people fishing off the end of it and a coupe of greasy spoon cafes complete with cracked teacups . In fact it was actually quite nice to get up early in the morning and have a bacon sandwich on the Palace Pier which you just cant do now. However, when the Palace Pier was bought by the Noble Organisation, who run tons of arcades across the country,  they started to spend money on it and changed it substantially.  The Palace Pier at Night
However, in the 1970's, most seaside piers had fallen on hard times, including the West Pier and the Palace Pier. I guess in part this was because all English seaside towns were in decline. People started to go abroad on holiday, to get suntans and have the different experiences in exotic places which only package holidays provided. Seaside towns in the postwar period failed and piers failed in consequence becasue people stopped going to seaside towns. 
There are also some terribly obscure reasons why the West Pier failed. By the 1950's it was owned by a firm called AVP which also owned The Bedford Hotel and The Metropole Hotel. There were some really shady goings on, which I still don't fully understand, and many odd things involving company finances, with AVP using the West Pier either to borrow money or as a tax break. It's also interesting that AVP out in a planning application to pull down The Bedford Hotel and rebuild in it's place a big modern hotel. Brighton Council refused because the hotel was an important historical building but 3 weeks later unfortunately The Bedford Hotel burnt down and it had to be rebuilt anyway.  The Bedford Hotel
Did Graham Greene's book 'Brighton Rock' feature the West Pier or the Palace Pier?
 That's a good question and a few months ago I did try to read 'Brighton Rock' again. Graham Greene's really pretty unspecific because he talks about "the pier" and it's often not clear whether it's the West Pier or the Palace Pier. Have you come across the book by Patrick Hamilton called "The West Pier" (part of the "Gorse Trilogy") which in a lot of respects is a better book than "Brighton Rock"? It was written in 1951 but it is set just after the 1st World War. He describes the West Pier as quite a seedy place although I don't think it was actually like that straight after the war. 
I understand that you're writing a book as well.  Could you tell me some more about that -   
When is it going to be available and whether it'll cover the period right up to the reconstruction of the pier.  

It's due to come out in about 12 weeks time but whether it actually will or not I don't know. Hopefully it will include lots of pictures as I think pictures are really crucial to illustrate something like the pier. In terms of the history, it will stop in 1975 when the pier closed although there will be a little bit about what has happened since then. This is partly because I'm most interested in the pier when it was an open, working, functioning pier but also because the closer to the modern day you get the more difficult it is to write without treading on people's toes. People have different views about who did what in terms of when the pier was being closed and who set up The West Pier Trust. 

Will it include any personal accounts? 

It will to some extent. Making a history is an interesting process and you can use many different sources. For my history of the West Pier the sources include: some local and national newspaper records (which provided reports of performances on the pier); the East Sussex Record Office archives; and Company archives, which is where I got the factual information on the number of visitors to the pier. 

The book includes lots of images - old postcards, photos of the pier at different stages. It also includes some oral history with accounts of people we've interviewed who have been on the pier and worked on the pier at different times. 

Landing stages around the pier used for diving by the Brighton Diving Club
They actually used to employ photographers on the pier didn't they? They would take visitors photographs and then charge for them afterwards... 
Professor Cyril cycling off The West Pier That's right. I suppose that I'm most interested in the pier in terms of the actual structure of the buildings but, of course, they really only make sense in terms of the people who visit and use them. One of the interviews we did the other day was with The Great Armani who was the last West Pier Diver. We met up in a pub near the Seven Dials. The West Pier has a wonderful history of diving, with West Pier Divers, both male and female, performing and competing for over 60 years since the early part of the century. 

Like Professor Cyril?  

Yes, in fact he actually died cycling off the end of the pier when he fell sideways and cracked his skull. 

One of the most interesting things about the piers is what went on upon them. 
Link to Present Link to Future Link to Palace Pier Link to personal view
Link back to introduction