Eastbourne Pier: A Summer of Tragedy


The local community shows strength after double pier tragedy

Words: Tim Cobb, non-executive director of the Eastbourne Chamber of Commerce

For most Eastbourne residents, the fire on Eastbourne Pier has had an impact of one kind or another.

Initial shock, followed by fear that the entire pier would go up in flames, then delight that our fantastic fire service, RNLI and coastguard worked together to save two thirds of the structure.

And now, over a month later, the town has shown what it does best. It came together as a caring community to find jobs for the pier staff, alternative shop sites for the kiosk owners, set up a hardship fund to help those hit hardest by the fire and is giving its full support to the pier owners to help rebuild our wonderful Victorian attraction.

The best news of all is that it is due to open for events and entertainment towards the end of the year. Tourists, sightseers and party animals will be able to walk down the pier, past the burned out amusement arcade and onto the end section for pubs, bars and the night club.

Eastbourne Pier Fire

When word spread about a ‘small fire’ on the pier during a sunny afternoon on Wednesday August 30, I wandered down to the seafront to take a look. The view took my breath away. Fire was tearing through the amusement arcade and starting to spread into neighbouring kiosks. I was certain that it would continue its destructive journey all the way to the end of the pier.

I had visions of West Pier and a memory of Hastings Pier. It also brought back a flood of childhood memories for me. As a youngster, the beach had been my playground and the pier had been my crèche. My mother – a single mum – worked full time on the local newspaper, so my grandmother used to baby-sit me during school holidays.

She managed three shops at the front of the pier, so most days I would head to the beach, report in to my Nan, then go off to swim and explore. Every hour, I would return to the pier to let her know I was safe.  In wet weather, the pier would be my shelter. I had the run of the shops and amusement arcade and all the staff knew me. They would even give me pennies for the slot machines. It is fair to say that my summers were idyllic.

So I, along with the whole nation, judging by social media messages, breathed a massive sigh of relief as the fire service started to bring the fire under control.

The day after the fire, Eastbourne MP Stephen Lloyd set up the Pier Action Committee to establish the full extent of the challenges ahead and explore ways to overcome them. The group comprised council officers and members, the Eastbourne Pier general manager, Eastbourne & District Chamber of Commerce, Eastbourne Hoteliers Association, 3VA, Citizens Advice Bureau, and the Town Team. The committee was chaired by the council leader David Tutt and the opposition leader David Elkin. This ensured no political wrangling, just swift action.

fire service eastbourne pier

The committee has been meeting every week, with members giving up their time and resources voluntarily to help get the pier up and running as soon as possible.

One of its first tasks was to safeguard nearly 40 members of staff, who had to be laid off, and protect the livelihoods of the 10 kiosk owners on the pier.

An appeal for financial support went out around the town and a benevolent fund was established to collect monies. At the time of going to press, kind-hearted residents and businesses had helped raise £6,000. The council put in a further £50,000 to ensure everybody who had encountered genuine hardship as a result of the fire could get swift assistance.

The tourism industry swung into action and within days had found jobs for most of the pier staff. Within the fortnight, everybody who wanted a job was catered for.

Next on the list were the kiosk owners, known as concessionaires. Some had insurance for their merchandise, many did not. An early task was to get them onto the pier, in safety, so they could retrieve their stock and see what was still useable.

With Eastbourne’s biggest event of the year – Airbourne – just days away, the committee wanted to find space for them to get them back on their feet. The retailers were given free pitches in some of the best trading areas on the seafront.

burnt eastbourne pier

Sammy Morgan, who runs a charity for the armed services and traded on the pier, was given a prime site at Airbourne. She told the Eastbourne Herald: “The council has been amazing. I’ve never seen a council jump in like they have anywhere in the country. They provided us with what they had and they couldn’t have done any more.”

A brand new marquee has now been erected close to the pier where concessionaires can trade, free of charge, until they can get back into their kiosks again.

One of the major early fears for the town was the impact the pier fire would have on tourism. But in a strange twist, a kind of “morbid tourism” evolved. Hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs reported a surge in bookings as holidaymakers came down to see and take photos of the fire-damaged pier.

One tourist said: “I’ve always thought about bringing the family down, because it looks so good on TV and in magazines. But when I saw the fire, it persuaded me that now was the time to come down and take a close look at the place.”

But just as things were progressing nicely, another tragedy struck the pier. One of its maintenance team, Stephen Penrice, fell to his death from the pier onto the beach below. His family were devastated and the Eastbourne community was once again reeling from another tragedy.

The cause of death is still being investigated, and police and the Health & Safety Executive has carried out a detailed examination of the circumstances.

Until the fatal fall, the media had been reflecting the views of the people. Coverage focussed on the pier “rising out of the ashes” and everybody pulling together to make the best of a difficult situation.

Stephen Penrice’s fall was not only a tragic loss of life, but also a blow to morale. Stephen Lloyd MP sent condolences from the whole community to Stephen’s family and friends, and the Pier Action Committee held a two minute silence to pay a private tribute to his commitment to the pier over the last seven years.

Repair work on the pier resumed during the last week of August, and pier owner Cuerden Leisure hopes it will be partially open in the last quarter of this year.

The plan is to create a safe walkway along either side of the pier, skirting around the damaged arcade section. This will allow the bars, nightclub and other traders – unaffected by the fire – to get back up and running again.

The three shops at the front of the pier should also be opening soon. They were left unscathed by the fire and will be a defiant symbol that the town will not be beaten by this tragedy.

Stephen Lloyd concluded: “The terrible pier fire and the tragic death of Stephen Penrice were felt deeply by the people of this wonderful town. But the tremendous resilience shown by our community has been awe-inspiring. We are bringing the pier back to life as well as showing that Eastbourne’s tremendous fighting spirit, its sense of togetherness and a determination to pull together in adversity will overcome the most challenging of circumstances.”

Eastbourne Pier Factfile

– The Eastbourne Pier Company was born in April 1865 with £15,000 to blow on a new pier, and it opened seven years later.

– Disaster struck on New Year’s Day 1877, when the landward half was swept away in a storm. It was rebuilt at a higher level, creating a drop towards the end of the pier.

– The pier is effectively built on stilts that rest in cups on the sea-bed, allowing the whole structure to move during rough weather.

– It is roughly 300 metres (1,000ft) long. A domed 400-seater pavilion was constructed at a cost of £250 at the seaward end in 1888.

– A 1,000-seater theatre, bar, camera obscura, and office suite replaced this in 1899/1901.

– Paddle steamers ran trips from the pier along the south coast and across the Channel to Boulogne from 1906 to 1939. These were resumed after the war, but the paddle steamers were gradually withdrawn from service.

– During the Second World War, part of the decking was removed and machine guns were installed in the theatre to repel any attempted enemy landings.

– In December 1942, an exploding mine caused considerable damage to the pier and nearby hotels.

– In 1943, a detachment of Royal Canadian Engineers fixed camouflage netting over the stanchions to conceal flotillas of small vessels, such as wooden assault landing craft.

– Six Piers Limited put Eastbourne Pier up for sale in 2009, with an asking price of £5.5 million. The sale price included a tea room, two bars, an amusement arcade and a nightclub. The pier is now owned by Cuerden Leisure.