Weston-Super-Mare Birnbeck Pier, Somerset

Birnbeck Pier holds a unique place among British Piers, being the only one that links to an offshore island. This natural pier-head could probably be considered as the most obvious use of the small island during the heyday of pier building, and it is somewhat surprising that it took so long to come to fruition. Work had originally begun in 1847 on a suspension bridge to link to the island, but proved so problematic that it was later abandoned, and it took a further 20 years before the townsfolk were again rallied into providing the funds for Weston-super Mare's first pier.

Costing £20,000, and designed by the famous engineer Eugenius Birch, the foundation stone of Birnbeck Pier was laid on 28th October 1864. As this was considered locally to be such an important event, the day was declared a public holiday. The son of the local Lord, four-year-old Cecil Hugh Symth Pigott, was invited to perform the opening ceremony to the peeling of church bells and a cannon salute. Three years later the pier was complete, opening on 6th June 1867. Consisting of a 1,040ft (315m), iron and timber promenade to Birnbeck Island, with a concrete landing jetty extending a further 99ft (30m), Birnbeck Pier also had a small pavilion. By 1872 the concrete jetty was dismantled and replaced by a wooden one on the more sheltered northern side of the island.

1882 saw the first lifeboat stationed on the island, slung from a set of davits, and further improved facilities for the island were made possible as a result of Birnbeck Pier's prosperity from regular steamer traffic. New refreshment rooms were built along with a large concert hall, reading rooms and a much-needed extension to the pavilion. Four years later a new low water jetty opened on the southwest side of Birnbeck Pier, and in 1889 a purpose built lifeboat house was finally constructed. As the pier-head was an island, as opposed to being an integral part of the iron structure, all buildings had the advantage of being constructed of stone. This didn't prevent them suffering badly from fire damage and most structures, with the exception of the switchback railway, were destroyed on Boxing Day 1897.

The turn of the new century saw the Birnbeck Pier Company's fortune's change. Although a new lifeboat station had been built to the south side of the pier in 1901, the low water and north jetties were both destroyed in a gale in 1903. A year later, despite vigorously campaigning against the parliamentary bill to allow the construction of a new pier, the Company were forced to witness the opening of a rival - the Grand Pier - further along the resort. The north jetty of Birnbeck Pier was rebuilt in steel and reopened in 1905, but the low water jetty remained closed until 1910.

In 1909 plans for a concrete platform on the south side came to fruition, increasing the pier area by nearly half an acre, and allowing for many new rides to be installed. This effort to attract customers from its nearby rival was successful, and throughout the 1920s and early 1930s Birnbeck Pier again prospered. However, when the new funfair opened on Grand Pier this signalled the gradual decline of Birnbeck Pier.

Taken over by the Admiralty in 1941, as HMS Birnbeck, the complex was used as a secret weapon testing facility. On one occasion serious damage was incurred by a Lancaster Bomber dropping a very large piece of reinforced concrete. After hostilities had ceased the pier was handed back to the owners, and steamer services resumed. In 1962 the Birnbeck Pier was purchased by the steamer operating company, P & A Campbell's, but as passenger numbers fell their ownership was short lived. John Critchley bought Birnbeck Pier in 1972 and it enjoyed a temporary revival as a Victorian pleasure centre. It was grade II listed by the Department of the Environment in 1974 but, by 1975, it was again on the market. On 19th October 1979 the last scheduled sailing from Birnbeck Pier was made by the MV Balmoral, marking the end of 92 years of service in the Bristol Channel by P & A Campbell's.

In 1989 hopes were raised for the near derelict pier's long term future when a prospective buyer, Phillip Stubbs, announced a scheme to construct a new multi-million pound marina complex. These plans collapsed when the Nature Conservancy Council intervened. Birnbeck Pier suffered extensive storm damage in 1990, and it was finally closed to the public by the local authority in 1994.

So, what of the pier's future today? Like many piers its survival hangs in the balance. But Birnbeck Pier, like Brighton West, holds much affection within the local community and all the while that this remains the case, a major part of Weston-super-Mare's heritage may yet be saved for future generations to enjoy.


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