West Pier Restoration Rejection A Bitter Disappointment

By David Prudames | 30 July 2004
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Shows the West Pier from the air, in better days.

Photo: Eugenius Birch's West Pier as it looked during its glory days of the early 20th century. © The Brighton West Pier Trust.

Staff at the West Pier Trust have reacted angrily to the announcement by English Heritage of its decision not to support a restoration of Eugenius Birch’s Grade I listed pier in Brighton.

The likelihood that this might spell the end for the historic structure was described by the trust's Rachel Clark as "a national disgrace."

Speaking to the 24 Hour Museum, Rachel made assurances that the fight to resurrect the ailing pier is not over, but confirmed that the English Heritage decision is a real blow.

"We are bitterly disappointed and very angry," she said. "We feel this is a terribly sad reflection of the English attitude to its heritage and buildings that it doesn’t think are worth saving."

Shows a photo of the partially collapsed concert hall of the West Pier.

Photo: the first of several disasters to strike the West Pier came over Christmas in 2002 when storms caused a partial collapse. Photo: Jon Pratty. © 24 Hour Museum.

Back in February, English Heritage reacted to the Heritage Lottery Fund’s withdrawal of a £14 million grant by pledging its support to the restoration and describing the structure as "the most important pleasure pier ever built.

However, in an announcement on July 29 English Heritage Chief Executive, Dr Simon Thurley said that following a review, after storms in June caused another collapse, his organisation no longer considers a credible restoration to be viable.

"This is a terribly disappointing outcome, but common sense has to prevail when historic structures are so badly damaged that they cannot be realistically saved," sad Dr Thurley.

"The most important thing now is that the marvellous artefacts that have been salvaged from the pier over the years are made accessible and that Eugenius Birch’s masterpiece can be commemorated properly."

As far as the West Pier Trust is concerned, the fact that the numerous pieces of intricate Victorian metal work, kiosks and serpent-entwined lamps could become museum pieces is little consolation.

Shows a colour photo of the West Pier on fire in March 2003.

Photo: in March 2003 a fire gutted the rear section of the pier. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

"There are masses of artefacts and that’s precisely why it would have been possible to restore the West Pier," said Rachel Clark. "We are not very interested in some little commemoration; we want to restore it."

Yet according to Dr Andrew Brown, Regional Director for English Heritage in the South East, shock storms last month that caused the concert hall to collapse have made a restoration unrealistic.

"Although it remains technically possible to rebuild the pier accurately using the drawings and photographs that have been collected over the years, it would not now be the real West Pier but largely a reproduction," said Dr Brown.

"Sadly, we have to conclude that it would be irresponsible for English Heritage to support any further bid for public money for the pier when the heritage merit of the project is no longer clear."

Shows a photo of a mess of steel, iron and wood, the remains of the West Pier in the stormy seas off Brighton.

Photo: was the final blow struck in June 2004? Freak storms caused the already partially-collapsed and fire damaged concert hall to fall into the sea. Photo: Corinne Field. © 24 Hour Museum.

One of only two Grade I listed piers on England, the West Pier, Brighton was first opened in 1866 and inspired copies all around the UK.

It fell into decline after the Second World War, eventually going out of business in the 1970s. Under the ownership of the West Pier Trust, a partial collapse and two fires failed to put a stop to plans for a complete restoration, which were given council approval in 2003.

But in January this year the HLF withdrew its support and the rescue proposal fell flat. The pier’s last chance seemed to be the English Heritage scheme to restore it to its original 1866 design, but the storms in June brought an end to that.

"My thoughts go out to the people who have fought tirelessly for the restoration of the pier over the years," added Dr Brown.

"We must thank all those who have worked with us so closely in recent months, the council, the West Pier Trust and others who have shared with us their passion for the pier. We are very sorry that we have had to conclude that the time has come to let go of the hopes that united us."

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