The Chain Pier was 350 yards long and thirteen feet wide. It was basically a bridge between the cliff wall and four towers.
The old Chain Pier, Brighton, HA927614
The towers were made of huge slabs of cast iron. They were held out of the water, 250 feet apart, by clumps of Norway Fir piles driven ten feet into the sea bed.
Eight wrought iron chains were fixed fifty feet into the cliff and then were strung through the top of each tower. The links of the chains were ten feet long. At the other end they were sunk into solid rock on the sea floor.
Wooden platforms were hung from these chains using 362 suspension rods. These made the bridges. The pier head, in the shape of a ‘T’, was built on 150 piles and paved with Purbeck stone. The ornaments and chains were painted in green and black. The towers are thought to have been stone coloured.
Constructing the Pier
The Need for a Pier
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Brighton needed a landing stage. It did not have a natural harbour. Passengers, cargo, horses and carriages had to board the cross-channel packets by boat or raft.
Chain Pier by William Earp, 19th Century
When the Chain Pier was built during 1822-1823, it provided an easy embarkation platform which quickly became a tourist attraction. A boat’s departure was signalled by firing a 6lb cannon and the raising of a blue and white flag. Steam packets, introduced in the 1820s, could cross to Dieppe in seven to nine hours. The writer William Hazlitt said: ‘People wonder at a steamboat, the invention of man, managed by man, that makes its liquid path like an iron railway through the sea.’
Brighton became the busiest cross-channel port with several packets daily. However, the difficulty of landing in bad weather made Newhaven‘s sheltered port more attractive. After 1847, when the railway went to Newhaven, few ships sailed from Brighton.
Building the Pier
In July 1822, the Directors of the Brighton Suspension Pier Company formally approved Capt Samuel Brown’s designs for building the Pier and the road leading to it for £28,000. At least £22,000 had already been raised through the sale of shares for £100 each.
Building began on 18 September 1822 at the start of the most ‘stormy and perilous season.’.
Working conditions were dangerous. ‘Frequently in the darkest and most tempestuous nights these men were required to go off by ropes to the scaffolding erected around the piles.’ One man died falling from a temporary bridge and at least three others were seriously injured. By June 1823 it was reported that, ‘a suspension bridge has been erected to the extremity of the Chain Pier, so that the whole is now accessible’.
The works were a constant source of interest to visitors. In July 1823 the company introduced a viewing charge of 6d. and ‘requested that visitors will not divert the attention of the workmen from their duty’.
The Chain Pier opened on 25 November 1823 with a procession of local worthies, music, a lunch and fireworks. For the less select company in the town, Mr Bush of Church Street gave away three hogs-heads of beer.
Life on the Pier
Although two landing piers had been built before Brighton’s, neither had provoked such popular admiration. Guidebooks described it as ‘a curious specimen of modern ingenuity and scientific art’.
Queen Victoria Landing at Brighton by Richard Henry Nibbs, 1843 (Chain Pier on right)
Footman William Taylor, who visited in 1837, described it as ‘a kind of bridge projecting into the sea a quarter of a mile. It’s a great curiosity as it’s hung on chains’. One young visitor said it had ‘every advantage of a sail in one of the pleasure boats without the danger of being sick’ and ‘next to bathing, … most beneficial to our health’.
Even at the end of its life it retained its romance: ‘the old sun-dial with its familiar inscription, the curious old roofed wooden seats, the ragged floor … the huge suspension chains stretching way into the cliff … all are curious, and unlike anything else we know of in a seaside pier’.
A Present from Brighton
The base of each tower housed a shop. They sold confectionery, refreshments, jewellery, prints, books and souvenirs such as Tunbridge Ware or polished stones from the beach. In the third tower, artist John Gapp cut silhouettes of visitors using only scissors. He advertised ‘the most wonderful likenesses in which the expression and peculiarity of character are brought into action in a very superior style’.
At the start of the century, only wealthy people could afford to go on holiday. After the railway came to Brighton in 1841, working people began to spend a day or week at the seaside. Souvenirs showed that you were rich enough to travel and were a reminder of your trip. They varied from a 1d. needlecase or picture book to expensive china or Bohemia ware. Early souvenirs might have been a print stuck to a knick-knack but they were later mass produced. The Chain Pier and the Royal Pavilion provided the most popular views.
Entertainment on the Pier
The Chain Pier was a novel experience for residents and visitors. Some wondered at its huge chains and towers. Others thrilled at being able to walk over the sea. At one high tide ‘there were thirty or forty persons at the outer head, who were completely covered, the sea breaking over the towers’.
At the height of its popularity in the 1820s and 1830s, as many as 4000 people went on the pier in one day. A high admission charge of 2d limited the number and type of visitor. They were entertained by regimental bands and, later on, all sorts of side shows.
Suspended underneath the pier head were seawater baths for men and women. They were more private than the beach where it was said that a respectable woman would be ‘insulted, and her feelings outraged by the grossest acts of indecency’.
Massive firework displays were staged on special occasions by the pyrotechnist, Mr Jones. There was a camera obscura which caused the footman, William Tayler, great amusement; it was ‘machinery, fixed in a house, by which they can bring the shadow of everything for miles around in at a hole of the house, onto a table. So that if a person was committing a theft half a mile away and thinking no one was looking at him, any person mite see him if they was in this Camera Obscura’.
Battles Against the Elements
Photographic print of the Chain Pier, before and after the storm, 1896, HA902111
The Chain Pier withstood its first major battle against the sea in November 1824. Water surged over the towers but only damaged some of the ornamental ironwork and tore away a ‘dolphin’ (one of the buoys which prevented ships being blown on to the pier).
Disaster struck in 1833 when the third bridge, whipped by the wind, flew apart. Subscriptions were raised for its repair but just three years later, the same bridge was again destroyed. This time donations were harder to raise.
John George Bishop, author of A Peep into the Past, a late nineteenth century history of Brighton, recalls the dramatic visit of a whirlwind in 1848 which happily left the Pier unscathed. It was a ‘very black cloud, of a conical shape, and like a large cistern suspended in the air, with the water pouring from it’.
Pier in Decline
The Chain Pier’s decline began in the 1860s. The Victorian family visitor was more attracted to the novelty of Eugenius Birch’s West Pier (1866), with its band and side-shows, and the Aquarium (1871).
In 1891 the Palace Pier was granted planning permission on the condition that the Chain Pier would be demolished.
Neglect and delay weakened the pier and it was declared unsafe in October 1896.
On 4 December 1896 a ‘terrific storm of wind, with some rain’ blew all day. At about 10.30pm, ‘suddenly, amid the roaring waves and the howling of the wind, the pier shivered convulsively from end to end; and in a few moments the entire structure had collapsed. Nothing remained standing but the vestiges of the first piles of timbers’. An eye witness, Mr F.W. Wilson, said that ‘The light at the pier-head remained until the last’.
The next morning, all that remained was the broken first tower and some jagged piles jutting out of the sea. The chains had sunk right down onto the beach and sea bed.
The huge timbers of the Chain Pier smashed Magnus Volk’s seagoing railway, the ‘Daddy Longlegs‘, and damaged the Palace Pier, which was then being built.
The wreckage that was strewn across the beaches was sold off at auction, mainly for firewood, but many local residents managed to carry away some small reminder of the pier. Railings were made into pokers and wood into picture frames, carved into knick-knacks or kept as they were, perhaps painted with a view of the fondly remembered Chain Pier.
This text was previously published on the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ main website.