On 15th July 1917, a fire devastated Hastings Pier. 100 years on, we’re commemorating the centenary with a selection of new Kieron Pelling ‘Then and Now’ images of Hastings Pier.
First opened in 1872, Hastings Pier was an important focal point for the seaside town. It was designed by Eugenius Birch who, as a noted seaside architect, had also designed Eastbourne Pier and Brighton’s West Pier.
The pier was originally 910 feet long and at the ‘sea end’ of the pier was an ornate oriental style pavilion which could house 2,000 people. When the attraction opened on 5th August 1872, 600 attending guests were seated and given lunch.
The pier was developed further in the years after it opened. In 1909, an American style bowling alley was constructed in the middle of the decking. A further extension to the shore end of the pier was also completed in 1916, to allow a bandstand to be constructed.
With the First World War ongoing, the new bandstand was a perfect location for crowds to gather for performances by military and marching bands.
However, a disaster struck the pier in 1917.
On the afternoon of Sunday 15th July 1917, a fire broke out at the ornate pavilion at the end of Hastings Pier. The blaze began on the western side of the pavilion but, fanned by a breeze blowing from the south-west, soon enveloped the entire building.
The Hastings and St Leonards Pictorial Advertiser reported on the 19th July, that only the ‘strenuous exertions of the fire brigade assisted by soldiers and general constables’ had prevented the fire from consuming the rest of the pier. Similarly, the Hastings and St Leonards Observer on the 21st July, also praised the actions of Captain Glenister and his fellow firemen.
As it was, the pavilion was completely destroyed by the fire and the bowling alley was also damaged by the flames. Miraculously, no lives were lost in the disaster.
As the pier burned, many residents of Hastings came to the beach to watch. Furthermore, a hospital was located near the pier on the seafront and a mix of patients and wounded soldiers were able to observe the fire from there.
Whilst the true cause of the fire was never properly ascertained, it was widely believed to have been caused by a badly discarded cigarette.
In carefully phrased language which acknowledged that the fire was a ‘catastrophe’ and dealt ‘a severe blow to the Company and to the town’, the Hastings and St Leonards Observer also noted that ‘there may be something in the assertion that the burning of … Hastings Pier gives the Directors a good opportunity to bring their structure up-to-date’. The suggestion was that the fire may have proved quite useful to the owners of the pier.
In the immediate short term, changes had to be made for planned performances in the dance hall by a troupe called The Aristocrats. With the ownership company now facing the need to rebuild the pier and pay the wages of The Aristocrats, the forthcoming performances were subsidised by a public appeal which ensured that the performers could be paid without the ownership company taking a cut of the profits.
Some of the losses from the fire on the pier were offset by a diver locating the official safe of Hasting’s Pier which had fallen into the sea during the fire.
The repairs to Hastings Pier would not be completed until 1922 when a new structure opened in the place of the old pavilion. However, this new building lacked all of the ornate design of the previous pavilion. It continued to house orchestral performances until the opening of the ‘White Rock Pavilion‘ in 1928.
During the Second World War, Hastings Pier like other piers along the south coast, had sections removed to prevent it being used as a landing point for a German invasion.
Looking forward to the present day, the pier was closed in 2006 over fears the structure was unsafe but, after substantial work, was re-opened in 2009.
However, another fire in October 2010 again devastated the pier. Following more restoration and rebuilding work the pier was once again opened on 27th April 2016.
In May 2017, one year on from the new opening, the pier picked up three prestigious Royal Institute of British Archiects (RIBA) awards: the RIBA award for the South East, Regional Client of the Year and Regional Project Architect of the Year. The pier was also voted Pier of the Year 2017 by the National Piers Society.