NOSTALGIA: Special exhibition for Eastbourne Pier’s 150th anniversary

Early days: Eastbourne Pier in the 19th century
Early days: Eastbourne Pier in the 19th century

150 years of Eastbourne Pier is a new exhibition at Eastbourne Heritage Centre celebrating a century and a half since the first pile for the pier was driven in the seabed in April 1866.

Photographs and artefacts are on display including the original contract drawing design for the first Eastbourne Pier called “a promenade for walking over the water” signed by famous pier architect Eugenius Birch, who also designed Margate, Deal and Brighton piers. This unique pencil drawing, dated 1865, is on special loan to the exhibition from a private collector.

An authority on Eastbourne Pier, architect Richard Crook, will be giving two talks entitled Timeline of Eastbourne Pier. The first will be on April 27 at 7pm and doors open from 6pm for wine, tea, coffee, and light snacks. Tickets cost £5 and booking is advisable. The talk will also be repeated on September 14.

The pier has a fascinating history. In 1865 the Eastbourne Pier Act was passed through Parliament and the land under the sea was purchased from the Crown and the limits laid down then, still in existence today, state the pier must not be expanded or extended.

Five years later, on June 13 1870, the first part of the structure was opened by Lord Edward Cavendish, son of the 7th Duke of Devonshire, who opened the first 500 yards of the pier.

It was not until 1872 that the rest of the pier totalling 1,000ft was completed – the spans were tested for vibration by firing six-pounder canons on the structure and the results proved positive.

After a severe storm on January 1 1877, when the seas had risen above the main deck, the whole of the shoreward end was washed away. This portion was rebuilt considerably higher and wider than the old level and joined to the seaward end with a ramp.

At the beginning the pier had only two entrance kiosks and two shelters at the seaward end. Later, the first bandstand was added and in 1888 the first theatre was built at the seaward end with capacity to hold up to 400 people at a cost of £250.

This theatre was very basic and a new one with a larger capacity was required, so in 1899 the theatre was removed in one piece and sold to a Lewes farmer for use as a cattle shed.

A new replacement theatre with over 1,000 seats was built in 1899/1901 at a cost of £30,000. Also, in this complex was a camera obscura, bar, tearooms, the pier’s admin offices and at the same time a new bandstand was built together with a gaming saloon and rifle range.

The theatre was in use every summer including during World War One when the Knuts Kamp Komedy Kompany of wounded and recovering soldiers from the Summerdown Camp performed there.

It was not in use in World War Two and from the mid-1950s was home for 15 seasons to Sandy Powell’s Starlight Summer Show where John “Are you being Served” Inman began his acting career.

Sadly the theatre was destroyed by arson in 1970 after which it was decided not to rebuild it, but convert it into a show bar and later a succession of discos and nightclubs, namely The Roxy, Odyssey, and Atlantis.

More on the pier’s history next week.

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