Eastbourne Pier
Eastbourne. SPANS English Channel; DESIGN Eugenius Birch; CONSTRUCTION Raked and vertical cast iron screw piles supporting lattice girders, iron and wood frame; YEAR OPENED 1870 (completed 1872); ORIGINAL LENGTH 305m PRESENT LENGTH 305m; FIRE None STORM DAMAGE 1877; RESTORATION 1878, 1888, 1899-1901, 1912, 1925, 1951, 1971, 1985, 1990/91. A 400-seat theatre, built at the seaward end of the pier in 1888, was replaced by a 1,000-seat theatre, bar, camera obscura and office complex in 1899-1901. The pier has undergone numerous redesigns and restorations since © Simon Roberts

There are 58 surviving pleasure piers in Britain and Simon Roberts has photographed them all. He has also photographed some of the vanished ones, as you can see from his picture of Shanklin Pier on the Isle of Wight, destroyed in the great storm which did so much damage in southern England on October 16 1987.

Roberts is a human geographer by training, and his study of piers is a natural development of his last major work, We English, which looked at the changing patterns of leisure in a country in which a rising population and decreasing mass employment mean that more of us have more time upon our hands than ever before.

We tend to forget that holidays are a relatively new phenomenon, but it was only after the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 that paid leave gradually became the norm, and cheap, easily reachable leisure resorts were a necessity. Resorts were commercial propositions, and the pier was often a major investment to draw crowds. Consortiums of local businessmen would get together to provide the finance and appoint agents to get the thing done: a complex chicane of lobbying for private legislation, engineering, and marketing. Around the same time, a number of Acts made it possible to limit liability for shareholders in speculative companies. So the development of the piers is closely parallel to the development of other UK infrastructure, such as the canals and the railways.

Structurally, the piers were remarkable. Wooden piling was soon found to be susceptible to rot and the teredo worm and was replaced by that favourite Victorian material, cast iron. Eugenius Birch, the most prolific of the great pier engineers (and certainly the best-named), was the first to use screw piling, in which an ingenious profile of the lower ends of the piles allowed them to be twisted down into the sand as they were installed.

Gradually, piers acquired a common vocabulary of style quite recognisably their own. Gothic filigree lightness of ironwork is everywhere. A strong penchant for the Moorish is recognisable in a thousand details; its exoticism survives in the very word “kiosk”, which derives through Turkish from Persian. St Annes-on-Sea even has pavilions recognisably descended from Chinese models. Like many other Victorian buildings, piers were largely made from prefabricated sections, brought to the site by the same railways which would later bring the customers. At Morecambe, the components used to construct the pier had originally been intended for the city of Valparaíso in Chile.

Like so much in Britain, the history of piers is woven in with a history of class. The large cluster around the northwest speaks of the industrial crowds of Lancashire and the West Riding and the western Midlands, all within easy reach by train. With the commercialisation of leisure, the sea became a commodity. It seems that one reason piers spread so quickly is that their lengthwise shape allowed for the easy installation of turnstiles and pay kiosks at the landward end: the pier could be – and usually was – reserved for those who could pay for the privilege. In the US, the normal arrangement was the boardwalk, arranged parallel to the shore, and accessible to all. The British model certainly allowed for gradations, too: a halfpenny to get on to the pier, a penny to sit down, sixpence to get into the dance hall at the end and so on. In Blackpool, the Central Pier (as it has been known since the Victoria Pier opened in 1893) was nicknamed the People’s Pier, and was notably less genteel than its neighbours.

Margate can lay a claim to being the first: an existing pier was rebuilt in 1808 with a gallery where a band played, and a promenade, access to which was by a charge. The boom that piers enjoyed in the mid-19th century lasted well into the 20th. More than five million people visited Southend Pier in its 1949/50 season. Since then, their history has largely been one of gradual decay or sudden catastrophe, and the long (and very British) struggles of restoration societies and planning applications.

You could say that the old class divisions of the piers survive even in their decline. For there is an undeniable contrast between the genteel, even twee enthusiasm of the preservationists and the hard-nosed pier operators, with their cheap lager, gaudy signage and strident plastic weatherproofing. It is easy to use words like vulgar when thinking of what piers are now. But vulgar means of the people, and piers were built and operated to attract people in large numbers. The truth is that twee and brash are going to have to learn to get along with each other if the piers are to survive.

There are plenty of romanticised views of the whole genus of piers, but Simon Roberts is emphatically not adding to that catalogue. It is obvious from these pictures that Roberts has an affection for the piers and for the complex tidal pulls of history and economics upon which they perch. One critic wrote about We English that Roberts was a descendant of the great Victorian photographer Sir Benjamin Stone, and that’s partly right. Stone liked to show old things being adapted into the context of contemporary society. He liked to photograph change and the reactions to change, and he liked to tell the truth in his own particular way. Simon Roberts has all of that.

These pictures may encompass some of the seaside things we know best through such photographers as Tom Wood or Martin Parr, but they put those scenes in a broad context where people live in a landscape and a country, not just a car park. They also derive something from that quite different tradition, of the wild skies and unquenchable nature that we find in Turner. These are cool careful pictures, alluding to a large number of variables and seeing what balances can be struck between them. At the same time, they’re the warm record of a large number of trips to that many-sided and unfathomable place, the British seaside.

‘Pierdom’ by Simon Roberts is published in September (Dewi Lewis, £35). An exhibition of the photographs runs at Flowers, 82 Kingsland Road, London E2 from September 10 to October 12

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