Lancashire’s seaside piers are a popular reminder of the heyday of the county’s coastal resorts. Historian Martin Easdown looks back at the birth of a British icon
The foundation of the great British seaside has been laid claim to by, among others, Scarborough (with its existing seaside spa), Weymouth (thanks to the patronage of George III), Margate (due to its boat connection with London) and Brighton (favoured by the Prince Regent and London Society).
However, it could be argued that it was on the north west coast that the zenith of resort development had been reached by the dawn of the 20th century. Blackpool and New Brighton boasted the only two seaside towers in Britain. All the major resorts had at least one pier, although Morecambe had two and Blackpool three.
Theatres, winter gardens, amusements and pleasure palaces abounded around the north-west coast in New Brighton, Southport, Lytham, St Annes-on-Sea, Blackpool, Morecambe and Douglas, in the Isle of Man.
Southport was one of the earliest of the Lancashire resorts, dating back to 1792 with the opening of a small hotel on the shore. By 1820 it was an established resort for sea bathing and its famous shopping street, Lord Street, was developed from the 1840s. A small jetty was erected in 1850, but was replaced by Lancashire’s first fully-fledged seaside pier 10 years later.
By the 1860s piers were being erected for use as promenades over the sea as well as landing stages. Durable cast iron and decorative wrought iron had largely superseded wood as the preferred method of building material for piers, and screw piling ensured a solid foundation for the pier supports.
The Piers and Harbours Act of 1861 eased the process of promoting pier schemes, and the introduction of limited liability did the same for shareholders wishing to invest in pier companies.
Southport was the second seaside pier to be built of iron and one of the earliest pleasure piers. The pier also came to be the second longest, in order to reach the deep-water channel of the sea, which was already beginning to desert the resort.
A tramway was opened in 1864 to convey customers along the pier and in 1867-8 the structure was further extended to 4,380ft. The pier was promoted as a select promenade, yet Southport in general led rather a schizophrenic life as a seaside resort. On the one hand was the genteel aspect of Lord Street, the large hotels and the well-maintained gardens, yet the excellent rail links also brought the trippers to the fairground on the beach.
In Blackpool, as at Southport, a pier was an early attraction, opening in 1863. A second pier followed in 1868, opened by a breakaway faction from the first pier. The two piers soon began to cater for different markets: the first pier (the North Pier) for select market, the South Jetty (later the Central Pier) for the trippers.
A serious rival to the Blackpool piers appeared in 1877 with the opening of the Winter Gardens with its all-day all-weather attractions. This led to the North Pier being enlarged and a splendid Indian Pavilion being added on the pier head. A third pier, the Victoria (later South) Pier was opened in 1893, which initially tried to outdo the North Pier for selectiveness.
To the north of Blackpool, to which it was connected by an electric tramway, Fleetwood built a small pier in 1910 right at the end of the golden age of pier building age. Morecambe, particularly popular with people from the West Riding of Yorkshire, made a determined effort to rival Blackpool around the turn of the 20th century with the addition of the Kings Theatre to the Winter Gardens, a new West End Pier, a total rebuilding of the existing Central Pier, a failed tower and the Alhambra Theatre.
Reliance on their Yorkshire catchment area, however, and the longer travelling distance from the Lancashire cotton town,s meant Morecambe could still only attract 10th of Blackpool’s numbers. The two piers sported impressive pavilions, with that on the Central Pier earning the sobriquet, the ‘Taj Mahal of the North’.
During the 1880 and 1890s many piers added pavilions, theatres and other amusements to compete with shore-based attractions. Lytham and St Annes-on-Sea were quieter alternatives to their boisterous Blackpool neighbour. The old settlement of Lytham blossomed during the first part of the 19th century into a quiet seaside resort known for its green on the seafront and many trees, earning it the designation ‘Leafy Lytham’.
A pier, albeit rather a plain one, was erected in 1865 and mirrored its resort in its gentility. St Annes-on-Sea was a purpose-built resort instigated by the St Annes Land and Building Company to secure a more select, better class of visitor. Villas and hotels were erected in uniform east Lancashire stone.
A pier was completed in 1885 but was to remain a rather plain structure until transformed between 1899 and 1910 with the addition of the beautiful Moorish Pavilion, a gabled entrance building and a floral hall. Not surprisingly there was a rivalry between resorts to create the biggest and best piers to lure in the crowds during the Victorian mania years from the 1860s.
Blackpool as the premier resort naturally had the most, three. The rivalry also extended to the different piers in each resort if they had more than one. Blackpool Central pier, known as the People’s Pier, was built in direct rivalry with the more upmarket North Pier.
Southport could have had a second pier in the 1860s if the proposed Alexandra Pier had been built. It was one of a number of pier schemes in Lancashire which never got off the ground as the finance was not forthcoming. As the vogue for piers flourished so a select group of contractors undertook the tricky work of building structures which would have to face the worst of the elements as well as the fine sunny days and crowds of visitors.
Blackpool North’s engineer, Eugenius Birch, built 15 piers in total including some of the most notable, such as Brighton West and Eastbourne. In Lancashire, he also designed Lytham Pier, and New Brighton’s just across the Mersey. Southport’s designer, James Brunlees, was also responsible for Rhyl, Llandudno and Southend piers.
Birch’s favourite contractor was Robert Laidlaw of Glasgow, who erected both his Lancashire piers and also Blackpool Central. Morecambe West End Pier’s contractors, Mayoh and Haley/Widnes Iron Foundry constructed an additional five piers. There was very little direct town council or local authority input into the building of piers. They were instigated by prominent local businessman (who often served on local authorities) who formed companies which issued shares.
Although the piers in the popular resorts paid their way, many of the others bankrupted their owning company and share dividends were rarely paid. Piers were expensive things to construct and maintain and during the 20th century local authorities began to acquire some of the nation’s piers.
Sadly, many of seaside piers of the north-west are no longer with us. Morecambe’s two piers also been consigned to history, although its fine stone jetty remains as a kind of consolation.
Lytham Pier was demolished in 1960 and the demise by fire of Fleetwood in 2008 highlighted the continuing vulnerability of piers. .
Nevertheless, five fine piers continue to grace the Lancashire coast. Of Blackpool’s three piers, the North Pier is the outstanding structure with its traditional wide, open promenade deck, attractive kiosks and pier theatre.
Central and South Piers are now largely given over to amusements and remain successful structures. St Annes Pier is a truncated shadow of its former self, yet the pier’s under deck ironwork is outstanding and its entrance building attractive.
Southport’s long pier now barely reaches the sea, but it remains a popular promenade with a café and function building at the sea end. Long may these doughty survivors of Lancashire’s seaside heritage continue to give pleasure to one and all.
* Lancashire’s Seaside Piers by Martin Easdown is available from Wharncliffe Books imprint published by Pen and Sword priced £12.99.