A BRIEF BIRNBECK TIMELINE
Birnbeck Pier, known locally as the Old Pier, stands on the North Somerset coastline at Weston-super-Mare, close to the divide between the Bristol Channel and the Severn Estuary. Built in the years between 1864 and 1867, it is a unique structure, being the only British seaside pier that forms a link, this technically being an actual bridge, between the mainland and an island. Over its lifetime it has enjoyed mixed fortunes.
In its heyday, it became the Victorian and then Edwardian equivalent of a modern theme-park, with visitor attractions such as a water slide, a switchback railway, a 'flying machine' with six two-person carriages, a zig-zag (rather than circular) helter skelter known as the 'Hurry Skurry', a rollerskating rink, a bioscope, a camera obscura and much more. It was a major transportation link, with regularly scheduled steam ship services arriving from and departing to destinations including Bristol, Cardiff, Penarth, Minehead, and Ilfracombe. The last of these sailings, by the MV Balmoral, took place in 1979.
Since then, the pier has suffered a slow and steady decline in both popular attraction as well as in its general condition. Its ownership has since changed a number of times, with various multi-million pound development plans being proposed on each occasion. None of these large-scale and perhaps overambitious modernisation schemes have ever come to fruition.
The foundation stone of this Eugenius Birch-designed pier (one of his 14 - five still remain) was laid in 1864. It opened on June 5th, 1867 and consisted of a 1040 foot cantilever construction of wrought and cast iron extending from the mainland to Birnbeck Island with a short timber-built jetty further reaching westward out from the island into the Bristol Channel. Improvements taking place between 1870 and 1872 included the first 250-foot wooden North Jetty, the westward jetty being removed at this same time with its component parts being reused to create the more-sheltered northern docking point and an expanded range of amenities on the island.
A lifeboat station was added in 1882, the boat being lowered from the north side of the pier near the island to the tidal level of the water or foreshore by means of davits. Thereafter the first stone-built pavilion, designed by renowned local architect Hans Price and essentially a refreshment room, was built in 1884, and a similarly-constructed lifeboat house was added in 1888. Hand trolleys on tracks transported baggage along the pier to and from the steamers.
A serious fire damaged the main buildings on Boxing Day 1897 (which was actually on Monday 27th December that year), but the switchback railway attraction survived. The replacement pavilion was opened by July 1898, this was also designed by Hans Price and was built mostly on the same footprint as the old one possibly using some of the still-standing walls albeit with new internal construction and redesigned roof structures. Construction of a south-westerly ‘low-water jetty’ was started in that same year.
In 1902 a new and larger lifeboat station was built, this time to the south of the main pier. In 1903 the pier was closed for a time after a storm which became known as the 'Great Gale' damaged both jetties, the south-westerly one having not yet been fully completed.
The pier was re-opened in 1904 with the North Jetty being rebuilt in steel out to 300 feet in length. The low-water jetty remained closed, and it was not fully repaired until 1909. This was then taken out of regular use at around the time of the start of the First World War, and was thereafter completely removed in 1923.
In 1929 the concrete extension to the island was added. The Admiralty took over the pier from 1941 to 1946, when the island became known as 'HMS Birnbeck', as part of their Department for Miscellaneous Weapons Development. After this time the pier reverted to the previous ownership of the Weston-super-Mare Pier Company.
P&A Campbell Ltd bought and ran the pier from 1962 to 1972, then selling it to Mr. John Critchley, whose plans included a zoo and a 140 bedroom hotel on the island. The last steamer departed the pier in 1979, and in 1989 it was sold on to Mr. Phillip Stubbs, who proposed a 600 berth marina at the site. It was finally closed to the public in 1994 for safety reasons.
In 1998 it was sold again, this time to White Horse Ferries Ltd, its ownership changing yet again in 2006, this time to Urban Splash, a Manchester-based building development company. They held an international architectural competition in 2007 to attract new designs and concepts to develop the Birnbeck complex, but none of these were practical in any realistic or financial sense.
In September 2011 it was announced that the pier had been sold once more for an undisclosed sum to businessmen Messrs. Wahid Samady and Michael Ross of CNM Estates Ltd. Mr. Samady said that they were looking to retain and enhance the facility for the RNLI, restore the pier and enable public access to the land, so everyone could enjoy this scenic and unique landmark. This purchase was completed in October 2014.
Their group of companies already owned the nearby Royal Pier Hotel site, initially they had intended to revamp half of the hotel and to convert the other half into luxury apartments, but two catastrophic fires in 2009 and 2010 meant that these plans had to be rethought. Planning permission for 63 new two and three bedroom apartments was sought in 2011 but construction of these was not commenced. This site was placed under the authority of receivers CBRE in September 2017.
The Birnbeck Regeneration Trust, a registered charity established in 2004, is now working with North Somerset Council, Historic England, Prince’s Regeneration Trust and the Friends of the Old Pier Society to try to establish a viable programme of conservation-lead regeneration to save Birnbeck Pier and its curtilage buildings.
AD1461 - The first documentary evidence relating to a Birnbeck fishery is dated from this year.
1696 - John Pigott of Brockley becomes Lord of the Manor of Weston-super-Mare and the owner of the island and Weston Woods, to include the Toll Road, then no more than a cart track, to Kewstoke. The island was then known as 'Berne Island' (later Bairn Beck Island). This name relates to a water spring, several of which still exist in the area.
Prior to 1822 - It is said that an artificial shingle causeway between Birnbeck Island and the mainland was constructed - although evidence for this is scarce. The causeway is used for the positioning of fishing nets.
1845 - A committee was formed to promote the need for a pier and landing place at Birnbeck.
1846 - Work starting on a suspension bridge out to the island. However, this proved problematic with strikes and bad weather forcing the project's engineer into bankruptcy and the project to be abandoned.
1864 - A foundation stone for a new pier was laid, following a successful campaign to raise £20,000 via a share scheme.
1866 - The main bridge to the island was completed.
5th June 1867 - The pier was officially opened - the day was declared to be a public holiday in Weston-super-Mare.
1872 -The original North Jetty was used for the first time.
1882 - The first lifeboat was stationed on the island. This was hung from davits, on the Nouth side of the pier at the island end.
1884 - The first stone-built pavilion is constructed on the island.
1885 to 1890 - Amusements and fairground attractions were added to the island.
1888 - The first permanent lifeboat house was built on the North side of the pier.
1892 to 1898 - The South-West Jetty was proposed, designed and constructed. This structure was also known as the 'Low-Water Pier Extension'.
Boxing Day 1897 - (Actually Monday 27th December) Most of the structures on the island were destroyed by fire. It was said that children, having a pillow fight, knocked over a paraffin lamp, and this set fire to the furnishings.
Circa August 1898 - Replacement pavilion buildings were completed, these were designed by Hans Price, who was also the notable architect for many of Weston's other most important buildings.
1902 - The second lifeboat station on the South of the island was opened. This was constructed with a much longer slipway to allow access to the water over a much wider tidal range.
10th September 1903 - The original wooden 1870/72 North Jetty was practically destroyed by the 'Great Gale'. The Low-Water Jetty was also severely damaged, rendering it unusable.
1904 - The present North Jetty was opened, having been now built of steel and extended to 300 feet in length, this being said to have been 45 feet longer than its predecessor, although some photographic evidence seems not to bear this out.
1904 - Weston-super-Mare's more central Grand Pier opened for business.
1909 - The pier was extended by constructing a large platform on the South side, extending the pier area by over an acre. The Low-Water Jetty was finally repaired. The extension was poorly built, and was condemned soon afterwards.
1916 - The Low-Water Jetty was taken out of service.
1923 - The Low-Water Jetty was finally dismantled.
1929 - The concrete extension (the second attempt at this) to the South of the island was added.
1941 - The pier was taken over by the Admiralty, being commissioned as HMS Birnbeck. It was used as a secret facility for weapons testing by the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (DMWD).
1943 - A navalised version of Barnes Wallis' bouncing bomb concept was constructed and tested by DMWD, having already been used by the RAF against the German Ruhr Valley dams on 16–17 May 1943. A track is laid at Birnbeck but not used. A second track is built and used for testing at the end of Brean Down.
1946 - The pier and island were returned to the control of the Weston-super-Mare Pier Company.
1962 - Steamer company P&A Campbell purchase the pier.
1972 - Businessman John Critchley purchases the pier. It then has a short-lived period of normal activity, although the construction of the Severn Bridge and the growing popularity of the motor car begin to reduce the demand for steamer services. He later opens a classic car museum in the East Pavilion.
1974 - Several of the structures are either Grade II or Grade II* listed by the Department of the Environment.
1979 - The last scheduled sailing from the pier, by the MV Balmoral. This brings to an end 92 years of service by P&A Campbell.
1984 - Three huge (150 feet long) dredging pipes on pontoons, being used to move sand to Sand Bay, break loose from their moorings and collide with the pier, damaging a number of trestle legs. Temporary supports are put in place to keep the pier open, and an out-of-court settlement is eventually made.
1989 - Businessman Philip Stubbs purchases the pier and announces a multi-million pound 600 berth marina project. These plans were halted by the Nature Conservation Council.
1990 - The pier suffers extensive storm damage.
1994 - The pier is closed by the local authority on public safety grounds.
1996 - The Friends of the Old Pier Society is formed and engages with other parties to try to find a way to save the pier.
1998 - White Horse Ferries (run by the Lay brothers) purchase the pier. They intend to fund restoration with profits fron River Thames services near the Millenium Dome, but these are inadequate.
2000 - Pier View, a small land-side building, is restored. This building was formerly the offices of P&A Campbell and thereafter Muffins Café, prior to WHF ownership.
2006 - Urban Splash purchase the pier. They hold an international architectural competition in 2007 to design a new modern mixed-use complex on the Island. No formal plans result from this.
2010 - The upper parts of a set of trestles (consisting of four pier 'legs'), the third set from the island, are restored, funded by an English Heritage grant.
2011 - CNM Estates enter into negotiations to purchace the pier with Urban Splash following their earlier acquisition of the derelict nearby Royal Pier Hotel. This building was completely destroyed by a major fire in September 2010, following a slightly less serious one in June 2009.
2014 - The present owners, CNM Estates, headed by Wahid Samady and Michael Ross, finally purchase the pier in October of this year. They proposed a nine-storey 63 apartment building on the former site of the Royal Pier Hotel, but no construction takes place. This site is placed into the hands of receivers CBRE in September 2017.
The Archaelogy Data Service
The Friends of the Old Pier Society Website
'Birnbeck Pier - A Short History', by Stan Terrell (2014 edition)
'Birnbeck Island - A Timeline of History', by Charles McCann
'Somerset at War', by Mac Hawkins, published by The Dovecote Press (ISBN 0 946159 54 8)
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