Plymouth Promenade Pier: Facts and Figures

by Old Plymouth Society
Published September 2019

FACTS AND FIGURES The Promenade Pier

Plymouth had the idea of a pier as long ago as 1865, but it was not until the late 1870s that a Mr Edward S Lancaster took on the cause and despite many trials and tribulations, carried it through to completion. He lived in Lockyer Street, and owned an outfitting and tailoring business in Phoenix Street, which employed many hands in its speciality of local serge. The pier was authorised by the Plymouth Pier Order as part of the Pier & Harbours Confirmation(Number 1)Act 1878.
The cost of the project was estimated at £45000. All of this was raised outside of Plymouth by Baron Albert Grant, the chairman of the pier directors It was emphasised that the people of Plymouth had not had to raise a penny towards the cost. £17000 of this was spent on materials and labour, which of course benefitted the Three Towns.
The pier was built to designs of Mr E Birch of London. It was to be constructed on 140 iron columns embedded in the solid rock. The pier was to be 420 feet long, the sloping entrance of 130 feet wide gradually narrowed to 60 feet at the start of the “banjo” shape and would widen again at the seaward end to 190 feet. The whole structure would be some 20 feet above high water mark. The decking was to be of 2.5 inch pitch pine. Initially it was designed to have a covered pavilion, but this was abandoned when the people of Plymouth complained this would shut out the views of Drake’s Island. Also, the original plan had been to build an extra stretch of promenade from the pier entrance over the road back into the Bull Ring.This too was overruled.

The original contractor was a company from Glasgow – Messrs Laidlaw Sons and Caine. It was hoped to have the pier open for the summer of 1881.

Work began during the first week of January 1880, when several poles topped by little red flags appeared in the ground beneath the Camera Obscura to mark the boundaries of the rock and shore to be covered by the construction. Sheds for the workmen were erected in the Bull Ring. Formal approval of the plan had not been given by the Council at this stage, but it was decided not to treat the Company or its workforce as trespassers as they felt sure that approval would soon be forthcoming!
By the end of 1880, it was obvious that the pier was not going to be finished in 1881, as only ten iron columns had been positioned, as well as a solid wall of masonry which had been built just inside the road. Between the road and the wall seven tiny houses had been built to hold the lumber. Only twenty men were employed on the site at the beginning of 1881.
In November 1882, due to financial difficulties, the original contractors were replaced by Mr C E Daniel of London, who at the time was a member of the Royal Western Yacht Club. A much larger workforce of local carpenters was engaged to lay the decking. They were supervised by a local man, Mr Robert Dawson, who was the resident engineer.
The pier was finally opened amid much celebration by the Mayor, Mr John Greenway, on Thursday May 29 1884, with a crowd of 30000 people enjoying both the sunshine and a concert by the Band of the Royal Marines. It is said that 10000 of the crowd stood on the Promenade Pier itself and not a wobble was felt! 

The pier opened daily between 7am and 10pm. A toll of one old penny was charged per person to promenade on the pier. This was paid at one of the two toll houses, very elaborate affairs with domed tops, the ornamental gateways were topped with a clock tower in the centre. Once on the pier, now at a width of 130 feet, there were many attractions. At the seaward end of the pier there was a suite of refreshment rooms together with a look out house which gave wonderful views across the Sound. Further back along the pier there was a reading room, a bookstall and stationers, as well as a post office. At its narrowest point – 60 feet, there was a flight of iron steps on both sides of the pier, which led to a lower level – these were used for the embarkation of the pleasure steamers and could be used at any state of the tide. At the top of the steps was a gentlemens toilet as well as ladies facilities. From the staircases, the pier widened out and assumed an almost round form. Part of this was enclosed by a horse shoe shaped screen made from pitch pine with glazed panels. This acted as a wind break so that people could listen to the band concerts in relative comfort, albeit in the open air. The promenade between this and the edge of the pier was 20 feet wide.

Dotted around the pier were penny arcade machines, palm reading and fortune telling machines and a photograph machine which also included your weight at the bottom of the picture! For the sum of one penny it was possible to dispense perfume from a machine, although whether it landed where it was required was debatable! Your name embossed on an aluminium strip was another novelty on offer.

In 1886 the pier was in the occupation of Thomas Stephen Martin, under a three year agreement. He paid rent of between £800 and £1000 annually. By an agreement dated 20 July 1882, an annual acknowledgement of one guinea was paid to Plymouth Corporation for the easement of erecting and maintaining the pier. When all seemed to be going well, the pier was sold at auction, in London on 22 September 1887, for the sum of £12000 to a Walter Henry Kay. He was a fish merchant and lived at Citadel Terrace. It seemed an odd move, but the pier needed money spent on it if it was to keep going, and Mr Kay was an astute businessman having made his money from the Newfoundland trade.
First, the pier received a much needed coat of paint and a company named Messrs Randle and Prowse painted or varnished anything they could find! The refreshment rooms were let to Messrs Matthews & Sons and the two kiosks at the entrance to Messrs James Denham and Cuthbert Collingwood, tobacconists, and Miss Geogina Emily Tierney, fancy goods. The United Telephone Company also provided a call office at the entrance. The pier was one of the first public places in Plymouth to be lit by electricity and every other lamppost had a lifebuoy fitted to it for use in an emergency. The river excursions were reinstated by Messrs Rowe. Admission still cost one penny, but it was possible to buy books of tickets at reduced rates. Also cheap bathing tickets were available until 8.30am. The company then decided to put a roof over the bandstand and in 1891, the new Pavilion, capable of seating 2000 people, was completed. It had seats both inside and outside. To sit on the outside balcony cost an extra tuppence! There were now many different forms of entertainment ranging from dancing to boxing and wrestling matches, roller skating in the winter months, as well as concert bands, pierrot shows and many singing artistes. Indeed, concerts were held daily with matinees three times a week.
The entrepreneurial owners then encouraged local clubs and societies to use the facilities the Pier had to offer. It became headquarters of the Plymouth Ladies’ Swimming Club and the Seven O’Clock Regulars. The Minima Yacht Club had its headquarters in the buildings at the entrance. 

In 1910 the company acquired a local steamer company that operated the North Corner to Saltash Ferry and took the title “The Plymouth Piers, Pavilion, and Saltash, Three Towns Steamship Company Limited”!
In 1922 the popularity of piers began to wane and the company disposed of some of its steamers.
In April 1932, the Pavilion was used to house a motor show at which the new 8 horse power Ford car was displayed.
In 1934 the directors recorded a loss of £1276.
In 1935 the pier valued at £69000, with £500 in the bank.
In 1938, after a failed effort to sell the pier to the City Council, the Receivers were brought in.
In 1941 the pier was destroyed by German bomb.
In 1952, the City Council took the decision to demolish the twisted remains of the pier. A contract was placed with Messrs Eglinton Brothers of Plymouth for the demolition and removal of the ironwork under the supervision of the engineers, Messrs G H Ivory & Partners. Divers had to unbolt the cross members before cutting off the ironwork which projected above the water line. The iron columns were then removed by blasting. The work took six months and was completed in September 1953. The War Damage Commission paid the bill of £4754.

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