Located at the heart of an extremely busy south coast port, the rather sad remains of the Royal Pier at Southampton reflect many years of expansion to the structure. Originally designed by Doswell, and built in timber by William Betts, Southampton Royal Pier was opened by Princess Victoria (just prior to her becoming Queen) in 1833. Formerly consisting of a straight neck, the widened pier head was offset at an angle of 45 degrees, and a pair of tollbooths were erected at the entrance. In 1864 a floating pontoon and bridge were incorporated at the angle of pier neck and head, but were subsequently moved to the end of the pier head in 1870 to allow for the construction of a railway station.
1888 saw the entrance buildings enlarged, and considerable redevelopment work was carried out during the period 1891-1896. This work included an extension of the pier head at a cost of £26,142, and the building of the Prince of Wales steps in 1891. A pier head pavilion was added in 1894, at the same time as further reconstruction of the entrance buildings was undertaken. New refreshment rooms were completed in 1896, and a new pontoon was placed at the site of the old pier head in 1898. For the next 15 years, until the outbreak of the First World War, Southampton Royal Pier enjoyed its heyday. It could berth ten steamers at any given time, and the pavilion provided a whole programme of entertainments, including dancing, concerts, exhibitions, and even roller-skating from 1906.
After the Great War the railway had deteriorated to such an extent that the service was finally closed in 1921. Notwithstanding this loss, the important ferry routes continued to flourish, a trend that has continued to the present day. The pier pavilion was extended in 1922 and the present gatehouse, described at the time as "wedding cake architecture", was opened in 1930. Designed by Edward Cooper Poole this new building was constructed nearer the pier neck to allow for a larger forecourt area at the entrance. Although the building as a whole is very ornate, one of the most noticeable features are the six cast-iron heraldic lions that survived from the earlier gatehouse. These magnificent crouching beasts, holding shields bearing the Hampshire Coat of Arms, were incorporated into the new design.
On 29th September 1931 Flt Lt G R Stamforth set the world speed record, flying the Supermarine S.B.6 over Southampton Water and, until the 1960s, his aircraft was housed adjacent to Southampton Royal Pier as a visitor attraction. During the Second World War the pavilion remained closed as it was a target for German bombers, but it was re-opened in 1947 having been leased by Mecca Entertainment. In 1963 the pavilion was extended at a cost of over £100,000 and converted to a Ballroom. By 1979 the Mecca Ballroom had ceased trading, and the 900ft (273m) pier closed on 31st December of the same year, being described by the British Transport Docks Board as no longer 'viably maintainable'.
Red Funnel Ferries took over the shoreward end, alongside the gatehouse, in 1984 to use as additional car parking. The gatehouse was leased by Leading Leisure PLC in 1986 and converted it into a Pub/Restaurant. This conversion included the construction of a large conservatory at the rear of the building for use as the dining area. Leading Leisure's plans for the dockyard development were ultimately cut short when, in 1987, a serious fire completely destroyed the pavilion and bandstand at the pier head. A subsequent fire in 1992 destroyed much of the pier neck, and caused serious damage to the conservatory at the rear of the gatehouse. This blaze effectively sealed the fate of Southampton Royal Pier.
With its derelict wooden pier neck defiantly curving over the water, and the ornate pier gatehouse now standing alone and out of place amid the commercial containers and bustling traffic of the Red Funnel Dock, Southampton Royal Pier presents yet another sad chapter in the history of our seaside piers. Whether moves will be made in the future to redevelop the pier is unknown, but at least we can still enjoy the 1930s elegance of its once grand gatehouse building as it proudly stands fast on the dockside.