The pier at Ryde on the Isle of Wight holds a unique position amongst Britain's piers, being the first of the great pleasure piers to be built. What is also fitting about Ryde Pier is that not only does it still survive, albeit in a somewhat different form from the original structure, but that it continues to handle cross-Solent ferry passengers to this day.
Being an island, the community has always relied on the sea to bring in people and supplies. At the turn of the 19th century the upper class traveller started to take advantage of the fast and efficient steamer services that were now visiting the growing 'coastal resorts' around the country. For all its advantages this mode of transport had one major disadvantage, which were the primitive methods that had to be employed to disembark passengers and their luggage. At Ryde, passengers had the uncomfortable experience of coming ashore on the back of a porter and then, dependant on the state of the tide, having to walk anything up to half a mile across wet sand before reaching the town. Eminent local dignitaries agreed that the wealthy passenger should be able to disembark in safety, comfort and preferably at any state of the tide. If the resort was going to develop then this situation had to be resolved and in doing so, the concept of the pleasure pier was born.
Designed by John Kent of Southampton, the foundation stone of Ryde Pier was laid on 29th June 1813, the completed pier opening a year later on 26th July 1814. Overnight the perilous embarkation and disembarkation of the seafaring public had become a thing of the past. Originally built of timber, to a length of 1,740ft (527m), Ryde Pier was little more than a 12ft (3.6m) wide wooden jetty able to handle only relatively small sailing boats, but as the size of passenger vessels increased so did the pier. Ryde Pier was extended to a length of 2,040ft (618m) in 1824 and the pier-head was enlarged in 1827. A further extension in 1833 took the overall length to 2,250ft (681m), while the pier-head was again extended in 1842 and the late 1850s.
To facilitate the easier movement of both people and goods a second 'tramway' pier was built immediately alongside the existing structure, opening on 29th August 1864. Horses were the method used to pull the trams, although various experiments were tried with steam traction, but these met with little success. The tramway was also linked to the island railway infrastructure in 1871 but onward passage of passengers at Ryde station was fraught with problems and the facility was eventually dropped.
In view of this failure, work began in 1877 on a third pier adjacent to the tramway pier, opening on 12th July 1880, and providing a direct steam railway link to the pier-head. It was also around this time that the horse-drawn trams were finally replaced, not by steam, but by electric traction. Ryde Pier, by now a substantial structure, comprised effectively of three separate piers, a promenade pier with intermittent shelters projecting seawards along its length, an electric tramway pier, and a steam railway pier. But expansion and redevelopment of what had now become 'the gateway to the island' had not finished yet. In 1895 a concert pavilion was constructed at the pier-head and over the next sixteen years the original wooden piles were replaced in cast iron.
In June 1924 Ryde Pier was purchased by the Southern Railway Company who were responsible for rebuilding the pier-head in concrete during the early 1930s. After the Second World War business continued as usual, the only real change being the conversion of the pavilion in to a ballroom. Like most piers, Ryde Pier was to suffer a decline in fortune by the late 1960s. The tramway pier closed in 1969 and was partially dismantled leaving gaps between the railway and promenade piers, and the poor condition of the substructure at the pier-head resulted in the demolition of the pavilion in 1971. Ryde Pier was however made a Grade II listed building in 1976, and a five-year re-planking project was completed that December. In the early 1980s a modern waiting area replaced the original Victorian waiting rooms at the pier-head and additional parking spaces were also provided.
Although having lost its Victorian buildings, the promenade section of Ryde Pier still contains much fine wrought-iron work along its length. As mentioned previously Ryde Pier continues very much as a working pier - trains still leave from the pier-head, and Wight Link ferries operate a regular Catamaran service between Ryde and Portsmouth.