A very brief history of pier fires in England
These monuments to Victorian decrepitude dot the shores of England. They go up in smoke with alarming regularity, writes Rob Beschizza.
The 140 year-old pleasure-pier in Eastbourne, England, is a smoldering ruin after a fire broke out in its video arcade. The BBC reports that it took 80 firefighters to get the blaze under control:
Sian Ellis, a hotel manager in the town, said it was an "absolute red, molten, mess of flame and smoke".
"We've just had another explosion there and it's very, very frightening and hugely saddening for the whole of the town," she said.
Fire minister Penny Mordaunt said she would be visiting Eastbourne "as a priority" to speak to local people and thank firefighters for their efforts.
Such fires are unnervingly common events in British seaside piers. I grew up in Worthing, a similar town nearby--all along the coast, pier fires are part and parcel of the local history. Perhaps a part of the legend comes from the fact you can't just cart the debris away: it's as expensive to remove the charred pilings, sticking out half a mile to sea, as it is to just put a new pavilion on them. So there are always constant reminders of the destruction, exposed either at low tide or in the city's tourism budget.
Worthing Pier, currently in good shape, was destroyed by fire in 1933. British Pathé produced a news report about the blaze at the time, which includes
helicopter aerial footage of the remains.
Here's Hastings pier going up in 2010, just 20 miles up the road from Eastbourne. Photo: Reuters.
The Grand Pier in Weston-Super-Mare has endured two fires, in 1930 and 2008. Here is the vast pavilion getting flattened in 2008. Photo: BBC
One of the unluckiest piers in England is the West Pier in Brighton. Closed for years, the decaying structure went up in the 1970s and wasn't cleared away or repaired. They've been talking about rebuilding it since I was a kid, but the remains went up again in 2003. For now, it remains a weird geometric, burned sculpture a ways out to sea.
Pier fires seem to afflict England's hotter-summered south worst, but here's the torched remains of Blackpool's North Pier, at the other end of the country. Newsreel footage shows "a mass of wreckage, despite the efforts of the fire brigade." In 1958, the town's South Pier went up too, in another amusement arcade fire:
South Parade Pier in Southsea was destroyed by fire in 1904, but it was rebuilt four years later. It burned down a second time in 1974, and was one again rebuilt. From the pier's official website:
"On the 11th June during filming, the pier caught fire for a third time. It began (according to Russell) while filming Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed dancing together during the “Bernie’s Holiday Camp” sequence, where it is believed that a spot light set fire to some drapes. Smoke from the fire can be seen drifting in front of the camera in several shots of that scene in the film. Russell also used a brief exterior shot of the building fully ablaze during the scenes of the destruction of Tommy’s Holiday Camp."
Southend, near London, has the world's longest pier. Part of the 1.5-mile structure was destroyed in 2005. It's the latest of many fires there since it opened almost two centuries(!) ago -- hundreds were trapped in 1959, then had to walk the length of the pier after the blaze was quenched.
The causes vary. The fire at the Grand Pier at Weston-Super-Mare, like Eastbourne, was triggered by an electrical fault. The Hastings fire was believed to be arson. Poorly-operated kitchens were a regular suspect. But in all cases, the results are hard to contain. For these often-distressed seaside towns, the difficulty of fighting fires on water is an expensive irony.
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