On this day in history : 29th July 1976 – Fire destroys the famous pier head of Southend Pier…. Extending 1.34 miles into the Thames Estuary it is the longest pleasure pier in the world….
The iron pier, designed by James Brunkes, had been completed in 1889 and was a replacement for the old wooden pier…. A further extension was added in 1897 and an upper deck added to the pier head itself in 1907….with yet another further extension to the pier in 1927….
During WW2 the pier was closed to the public and taken over by the Royal Navy – it was renamed HMS Leigh…. It became the Naval control for the Thames Estuary and an assembly point for convoys….
The period following the War was to become the pier’s heyday…. During 1949/50 some 5 million passengers were carried by the train that ran the length of the pier….
The 1976 fire was not the first fire in the pier’s history (nor was it to be the last)…. In 1959 fire broke out in the pavilion and 300 people had to be rescued by boat….
In 1970 the council leased out entertainment franchises on the pier….restaurants, nightclub, cocktail bar and an amusement arcade…. Thursday the 29th of July 1976 had been a busy day at the Southend resort – the pier had been packed all day…. By 7.30pm things were beginning to quite down – but there were still plenty of people around enjoying an evening out….
Suddenly the cry of “Fire!” rang out…. Staff working in the Sovereign Bar on the eastern side of the pier head were the first to spot the flames and had attempted to douse them with buckets of water…. But the fire was soon spreading out of control, fanned by the strong south-westerly wind….
Some 500 people were still on the pier and an evacuation began using the train and boats…. 11 fire engines arrived along with 2 fire tugs from Tilbury Docks – and these were later joined by 5 more fire boats from Chatham Dockyard…. But this was still not enough to bring the fire under control…. With flames leaping 150ft into the air a crop spraying plane tackled the fire from above, dropping 400 gallons of water at a time….
It took 4 hours and over 100 fireman to bring the blaze under control; 2 fireman were injured…. The next day the pier head was a smouldering ruin…. However, just 3 days later, on the 1st of August, the pier was back in business – with people paying 15p to view the charred wreck that had been the pier head…. It was eventually established that the cause was a cigarette that had been dropped between the planks close to one of the restaurants….
A year later another fire was to break out in the bowling alley and in 1978 the railway was forced to close for safety reasons….
After years of local campaigning the pier was rebuilt in 1984 and a new railway opened in 1986…. In 1989 a ship crashed into the pier and in 1995 there was yet another fire in the bowling alley, closing the railway again…. Then on the 9th of October 2005 another severe fire damaged much of the old pier head including the railway station, pub, food outlets and gift shops…. No official cause was recorded…. Is this not only the world’s longest pier but also the most jinxed? But never fear…. On the 21st of July 2012 the pier reopened…. Rising like a Phoenix once more – it was back…. I have a feeling this time the ‘jinx’ is broken….