At war, at peace: “the Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier”

‘CATCH A BEER ON THE PIER!’. After walking for 1.33 miles (2,158 metres) to the end of Grade II listed Southend Pier – the world’s longest – you may feel like tempted to take up the Royal Pavilion’s offer.

While the stroll was a bracing, but highly enjoyable experience, for some people the distance over the wooden boards will be a little too much. Fortunately there is a little train which runs every 30 minutes from the shore to the pier head, allowing everyone to enjoy the food and drink stalls (set in quirky, colourfully painted beach huts), play some crazy golf and visit the Lifeboat station – or just have a beer in the bar. And given that the carriages are enclosed, it can be visited whatever the weather decides to throw at you.

But a century ago it wasn’t tourists that the little train was carrying. During the First World War, the service operated day and night carrying back to shore returning injured British troops, who had disembarked from vessels at the end of the pier. Some of the carriages were even adapted so they accommodate stretchers.

Many of the wounded were taken to a makeshift hospital – the Queen Mary’s Royal Naval Hospital – which had been set up in what is now the Park Inn Palace Hotel on the hill above the pier (it had started life as the Hotel Metropole in 1901 and was designed by architect James Thompson).

Park Inn Palace Hotel – where injured troops were taken during the First World War

Southend was the location for one of the first major bombing raids in Britain during the First World War and the Zeppelin attacks very nearly hit a sizeable group of captured Germans. During the conflict Prisoners of War were marched off trains from London and taken, via the pier, to one of three former cruise liners that had been moored off the coast as floating accommodation. By 1915 the vessels held a total of five thousand prisoners and in that year one hundred bombs were dropped in a raid, only narrowly missing one of the three ships – the Royal Edward.

After the First World War the pier and hotel were reverted to their original uses, allowing the holidaymakers and day-trippers to enjoy their leisure time there again. But then came the Second World War and the Navy took over the pier, renaming it HMS Leigh and using it as the centre for controlling all shipping in the Thames Estuary for the duration of the conflict.

Projectile rockets and anti-aircraft guns were mounted on the pier, while naval conferences were held in its dance hall. In 1944 – the year when American troops arrived in the Estuary – more than 27,000 ships were reported in the water. A. P. Herbert summed up impact of the conflict on the pier in a 1945 publication, ‘The Battle of the Thames: The War Story of Southend Pier’:

“Imagine if you can, the silver specks and black, darting amongst the clouds – the ships hobbling home with holes in their side – the Little Boats for Dunkirk streaming out and back – the blazing tankers – the forts and odd monasteries slowly towing out – the destroyers and the gunboats – the procession of searchlights – the falling places – the first Liberty Ship – the doodlebugs – the German U-boat.”

After playing its part in two conflicts, thankfully Southend Pier has also experienced many happier times. And so central is the structure to the town’s history that Sir John Betjeman once remarked that “the Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier.” It is indeed an iconic structure.

Beach huts at the end of Southend pier

Tourist destination

Southend in the early 19th century – before the first pier was constructed – was a quiet and well heeled place to stay, where the gentry wanting to escape the London smog enjoyed fresh air and walks. Paintings depicting the area at that time look in stark contrast to the brash and noisy seafront that I encountered on my visit.

An early hotel in Southend was the Royal Hotel on Royal Terrace, which was finished in 1793 (although it wasn’t called the Royal until 1804, when Princess Caroline, wife of the Prince Regent stayed there). It continues to operate and today there is a popular cocktail bar on the ground floor, as well as a restaurant in the ballroom upstairs.

Before the railway arrived in the mid-19th century most holidaymakers would have arrived in Southend by steamer. Examples of the fascinating posters used to attract holidaymakers to the area are in a highly recommended exhibition – “A Present from Southend – Memories of a Seaside Holiday” at the town’s Beecroft Art Gallery. It seemed that there were numerous companies offering services to Southend (one of which was founded in 1816).

One of the colourful advertisement was for Belle Steamers and is dated to 1896-7 posters. It said the boat left Greenwich Pier at 9:15am and North Woolwich Pier at 9:40am four days a week, before returning to London at 5pm (“Giving about 5 hours ashore,” according to the marketing literature). Other steamer services bringing visitors to Southend – which were still said to have been popular in the 1960s – left from the Kent coast and London Bridge.

It was the building of the pier, which was originally erected in 1829, that played a major role in bringing visitors to the town – the lower deck was used for boarding and disembarking from the steamers that would have run into trouble on the mud if they went any closer to the shore. And it became a popular tourist attraction in its own right – especially once the railway arrived – and was enjoyed by many during their holidays.

The Southend Local Board purchased the old wooden pier, which could only be used at high tide, for £10,000 in 1875 and soon decided a replacement, cast iron pier should be constructed. Completed in 1890, the new structure incorporated an electric railway – the first of its kind. Following further work, by 1908 the pier head had capacity for 8,000 people. It’s heyday was after the Second World War when, in 1949, it attracted seven million visitors.

In the rather disorganised Southend Pier Museum, you can see an original c1890 pier tram and c1949 train carriages, as well as a having the opportunity to step into and operate the levers in signal box. While its great to see the memorabilia, the way things are displayed is a little confusing to say the least!

Railway companies used colourful advertising to attract visitors to Southend, following in the footsteps of the steamers. The graphics depicted the sea and prominent features such as the pier and often referred the cost effectiveness of reaching the resort, no doubt targeted at the working classes – particularly those from the East End – who had more time for day trips following the Bank Holiday Act of the late 19th century. “Cheap Day Return Fare – From this Station,” promised one of the London Underground posters at the Beecroft’s exhibition. Between 1910 and 1939 the District Line even operated non-stop services to Southend Central during the summer season.

But the railway posters weren’t just for promoting the cheap and cheerfulness of Southend. The Beecroft exhibition features a 1930s Local & North Eastern Railway (LNER) advertisement shows the elegant Cliff Gardens on the approach into the town, no doubt aimed at those looking for a relaxing holiday.

Southend boomed for many years, but by the 1970s it was struggling to attract holidaymakers who were taking advantage of cheap package holidays and heading abroad for sun, sea and sand. The Beecroft exhibition features a number of watercolours of hotels that are no longer standing – many were demolished and the sites redeveloped. One was the Grand Pier Hotel which stood where the Royals Shopping Centre is today. Visiting the first floor restaurant in the Debenhams department store gives you a feel of view that guests would have enjoyed.

Reaching Southend

Many visitors to Southend arrive by train from central London at Southend Central, which opened in 1856, with an initial journey time of three hours (today is is little more than a third of that). The line from Fenchurch Street station was established by the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway – with the first sections opening in 1854 – and is now run by c2c.

But to reach Southend I chose to get off the train at Leigh-On-Sea, a few stops earlier on the same line from London. The tarred promenade linking the two towns is lined with numerous pleasant plush cafes and I needed to exert strong will power to prevent myself from stopping off for a break. I wanted to reach Southend before the sunny weather turned.

On my right hand side for the three mile or so walk, the patches of sandy and stone beach were being enjoyed by some families, but they were largely empty. In the distance beyond the mudflats I could see large commercial vessels chugging in the water on their way to and from London.

I passed the Crowestowe, which until 1857 marked the seaward limit of the jurisdiction of the City of London over the River Thames (the stone pillar that remains in place dates from 1836). And on the southern bank, the cranes and giant gas holders at Sheerness were clearly visible, demonstrating that industry in Britain hasn’t completely died out.

Crowestowe, on beach between Leigh-On-Sea and Southend

But closer to where I walked, on my left hand side and on the other side, of a busy road and flanked by the already-mentioned attractive Cliffs Gardens, the stretch was lined with apartment blocks rising in to the hillside. Many of these in upmarket suburbs of Southend, in places such as Westcliff, looked 20th century, but there were also some much newer, glitzy developments with top-floor penthouses. Given the splendid views residents must enjoy across the Thames Estuary, they can’t come cheap.

Before long I was in Southend proper. It appeared as somewhat more brash than the well-to-do areas I had passed through on my walk. Shabby cafes and simple food kiosks replaced fined dining champagne oysters bars. Some shops had been boarded up. And then, just before the pier, came Adventure Island – “the UK’s number one free admission park” boasting some 40 rides and other attractions, such as amusement arcades and stalls.

In many seaside resorts, the town centre and beach can sometimes feel cut off from each other. This isn’t a problem in Southend as there’s a very attractive glass lift that takes visitors up from the promenade to the high street. The viewing platform at the top commands some spectacular views – perhaps the best in the town – across the surrounding area.

After many years of neglect, things seem to be looking up for Southend again. There are few empty shop units on the high street, new boutique hotels and popular chains such as Premier Inn have opened in recent years, and arts venues are helping to bring in a new generation of visitors. Nearby Southend Airport is getting busier thanks to easyJet choosing it at its newest London hub. And of course the town’s original, landmark attraction is also helping to play its part in the re-generation.

Southend Pier suffered a devastating fire in 2005, which destroyed much of the wooden planking – just the latest in a line of blazes to affect it over the years. But thankfully the iron structure was largely undamaged and the attraction was again re-built, with the Royal Pavillon cultural centre – featuring everything from plays to exhibitions – opened in 2012.

The pier has boasted a range of attractions at the end over the years, including a public house, theatre, amusements arcade and restaurant. It seems now far from its glory days when paddle steamers landed bringing passengers from as far afield as France, when you could enjoy a four-course lunch in opulent surroundings and quite literally hundreds were camped out on deckchairs outside in the sun.

However the point is that its here, still welcoming visitors who come to remember the landmark structure’s history – from both times of peace and times of war.

Beach en route between Leigh-On-Sea and Southend

Lift from beach and high street

Adventure Island