Promenading above the waves for 180 years

06/08/2020   |   Andy Sherman


This week Southport pier is 180 years old and still stands today as one of the longest piers in the country.  The pier is built out of four rows of cast-rion colums capped by a wooden walkway.

Southport seafront showing the pier in 1952
Southport seafront showing the pier in 1952
Southport pier reaching out over the beach
Southport pier reaching out over the beach

When Southport pier was opened on the 2nd August 1860 it was the longest pier in the UK at 1108m (3633ft) in length, only to be beaten into second place by the monster pier built at Southend-on-Sea in 1890.  The pier needed to be so long to reach over the large expanse of salt marsh and intertidal mud that sprawls from Southport's promenade towards the sea at low tide.  When the pier was first built there were regular boat trips to and from Liverpool, Llandudno, Lytham, Blackpook, Fleet and the Isle of Man from the pier's head.  The deep water channel needed by the steamers started to silt up and the pier had to be extended by over two hundred meter to reach a navigable depth again.  But the silting was relentless and the last ship steamed from the pier in 1929 and the owners decided to shorten the pier again to 1107m.    

Southport pier head c1925
Southport pier head c1925

When the pier first opened passengers planning on staying in Southport or travelling further afield had to carry their own luggage down the length of the pier. While passengers waiting for the steamer to reach the pier and promenaders a like were at the mercy of the elements with little or no shelter provided by the owners.  Relenting to the complaints of their customers shelters were built along the lenght of the pier and a refreshment pavilion constructed at it's head. And a year later a cable-operated tram was added to carry passengers back and forth.

The tramway caused consternation with visitors who had paid to promenade along the pier, with them louldy objecting to the obstruction to their progress across the waves.  So the pier was widen and the tramway put behind a fence and moved to the south side of the structure.  In 1864 the tramway was converted to steam power.  But tragedy would strike the tram a year later when two passengers were thrown from their carriage and killed.

This wouldn't be the last time the site would be struck by drama and tragedy with the walkway suffering large amounts of storm damage in 1889; then fire struck in 1897 destroying the pavilion and leading to the shortening of the pier, the pavilion was again burnt to the ground in 1933 and finally in 1959 the pier again caught fire with 5000 square feet of wooden decking going up in flames. 

The refurbished pier
The refurbished pier

Before fire struck the pier, Thom's Tea House opened in 1863 to refresh thirsty customers strolling along the pier.  The teahouse also served as a launch point for divers throwing themselves from the roof to entertain the crowds on the pier.  The two longest serving divers were known as Professor Osbourne and Professor Powsey, with Powsey being famous for riding his bicycle of the pier into the sea below.

Sadly Thom's Tea House would burn down six years after it opened.

Professor Osbourne dives of the roof of Thom's Tea House
Professor Osbourne dives of the roof of Thom's Tea House

Today you can walk along the pier and celebrate over a century and half of entertainment.