/ Rob Beschizza / 7 am Thu, Jul 31 2014
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  • A very brief history of pier fires in England

    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:

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    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.

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    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.

    Hastings-pier-in-flames-006

    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

    West_Pier_fire_with_boat_20030328Photo: Mark Harris

    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.

    1200px-Brighton_West_Pier,_England_-_Oct_2007Photo: Diliff

    blackpool2

    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.pier.blackpool.fire

    scan0021Photo: Jenny Bignell / southseapier.com

    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

    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.

    / / 26 COMMENTS

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    1. a smoldering ruin after a fire broke out in its video arcade

      Jack Thompson was right! Video games are a scourge sent from hell!

    2. You'd think that they would have some form of deluge system fitted.

    3. You can't blame these piers, have you tried spending a winter in an English seaside town?

    4. Helicopter footage of Worthing in 1933? No, I don't think so. Pathe don't say that in the report. Technically possible, they had been invented and a very few demo flights made, but the footage shown is probably from a small plane.

    5. Beach resorts in the UK typically have large tidal ranges, so working piers were already a thing, providing access to the deep water needed for ferries, cargo etc.

      With leisure travel and mass transit becoming prevalent in Victorian England, the seaside holiday became a more important source of revenue, with the new resort towns catering to tourists. And if you're going to the seaside, you don't want to see half-a-mile of boring wet sand where the sea should be and pleasure piers soon became popular.

      So they started off for practical reasons, but became fashionable with towns trying to attract more visitors. There's an whole bunch of cool history about them, tied in to leisure, rail travel, social class and urbanisation and the decline of the seaside pleasure pier which mirrored the rise in affordable international travel.

      I heart piers. Social history, architecture, design, leisure, decay and even the rotting piles of long-gone piers still provide brilliant habitat for underwater critters.

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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