Brighton’s West Pier: from 1975 to today

by Alison Hulme, Volunteer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

I moved to Brighton in September 2019 to study at the University of Brighton for my Masters. In January 2020, I began volunteering at The Keep on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. I was originally interested in volunteering as a way to gain practical experience in an archive environment, something which would boost my CV when I began to apply for jobs. Undoubtedly, it has enhanced my applications. I have gained valuable insight into archival institutions and their operations. Yet, when I reflect on my time volunteering, the most significant lessons I learnt have been about Brighton and the surrounding area.

As well as an academic endeavour, I view attending university as somewhat of a cultural exchange. You meet people from across the country, and often across the world, with the chance to learn about their lives and experiences. It is often a chance to move to to a new city and explore. Brighton is a very unique place, and listening to the BBC Radio Brighton [UTK006] collection of recordings, held at The Keep, has enriched my experience of the area.

1975 was declared European Architecture Heritage Year. This was a chance to celebrate the diverse buildings and structures across Europe, working together to develop common policy around conservation and preservation. Chris Warbis, a BBC Radio Brighton journalist, interviewed John Wells-Thorpe, architect and chairman of the European Architecture Year British Panel, to discuss the scheme and what comprised good architecture [UTK006/902].

In the interview, part of the regular BBC Radio Brighton Viewpoint series, the pair discuss the West Pier. Today, the metal framework of the West Pier is one of the main attractions in Brighton. I even bought a postcard of an orange sunset setting behind the structure. The expansive ocean, ever-changing sky and constant flocks of birds flying overhead provide a calm, picturesque view. When touring friends around the area, the West Pier is always high up on the to-do list.

Yet when Chris and John discuss the West Pier, they are less enthusiastic about the beauty of the site.

Photographs were taken documenting the West Pier on 6th October 1975, shortly after its closure to the public, depicting the conditions Chris and John are discussing. These images can be viewed on the Royal Pavilion and Museum Trust’s Digital Media Bank and shed some light on why Chris and John are pessimistic about the future of the Victorian structure.

I knew the West Pier had burnt down at some point in the 2000s. My parents, even though they live in Manchester, remember seeing the fires covered on the news. This provides some idea of the scope of the event, which was covered nationally.

Hearing Chris and John discuss the West Pier made me enquire further about the series of events which led to the pier becoming what it is today. The pier was opened in 1866, and became increasingly derelict until it was closed to the public in 1975 when it was deemed unsafe for use. This is when Chris and John discuss the pier. They seem to hold the view that it is too late to revive it, and suggest it needs to be pulled down as it is in such a state of disrepair. It would be hard to imagine in 1975 what would happen to the structure in future years, or the status that would be allocated to this structure despite the disrepair.

During a hurricane in October 1987, the pier was badly damaged. In 1991, the causeway which provided access to the pier from the shore was removed. At that point, the buildings on the pier still remained, such as an oval concert hall and octagonal kiosks. Various proposals were made, with pledges of money to restore the pier, yet none came into fruition.

In 2002, the pier partially collapsed during a storm. A temporary walkway connecting the concert hall and the pavilion collapsed into the sea. In a BBC report on 29th December, 2002, Geoff Lockwood, the Chief Executive of the West Pier Trust said “What we don’t know is what will happen now – it is a grand old structure and it has survived for a long time so it might be okay.” [BBC news]

The same BBC news report states ‘The main restoration had been scheduled to start in summer 2003 and was due for completion in 2005.’ [ BBC news] This is a stark contrast to the pessimism of Chris and John in 1975 who have little hope the pier can be restored, even though the pier was much more structurally sound in 1975 than it was in 2002. The infamous fires which left the exposed metal structures struck in March and May in 2003. After this, the pier was deemed beyond repair. [The Argus] .

A pebble beach, with blue skie and the rusting metal remains of the pier in the background.
The rusting remains of the West Pier, April 2020

This series of catastrophic events, each damaging the pier more than the last, have created what I think is one of the most beautiful attractions in Brighton. It is interesting to hear the pier being discussed on the radio in 1975, and I would love to hear what Chris and John would say about the exposed metal structure which remains in the sea.

As a volunteer on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, I have gained insight into the history of Brighton. The sound footage inspires me to learn more, and has provided me with a fair amount of niche knowledge! It is fair to say my volunteering work with The Keep has enriched my university experience, and I highly recommend getting involved!

The Radio Brighton collection [UTK006] is a Royal Pavilion and Museum Trust collection, comprising recordings across many areas of broadcast output from BBC Radio Brighton, during the years 1968-1983. It has been digitised for preservation by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

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