This week’s Inside Out South programme included a report on Southsea’s South Parade Pier, specifically problems of ownership and disrepair.
Stretching from Old Portsmouth to Eastney, Southsea beach has been described as ‘one of Britain’s finest urban coastlines’. The Grade II listed South Parade Pier has been a huge cultural landmark on this coastline since its construction began in 1875. With its mix of seaside attractions, history as a performance venue, use as an angling platform and place as an architectural focus point, this Victorian structure is held dear in the hearts and memories of generations of residents and visitors. When my grandfather came to visit me not long after I’d moved to Southsea, we walked along the seafront to the pier to share some fish and chips and memories of time spent there on family trips to the coast.
Seaside piers around the British coast are not simply objects of personal memory, but also stand as a powerful reminder of the achievements of Victorian engineers and entrepreneurs. The National Piers Society reports that at the turn of the last century, almost a hundred piers existed; now only half remain. Worryingly, a number of these remaining structures face an uncertain future. Since I moved to Southsea in 2012, I’ve watched the sad decline of South Parade Pier. After this heritage site was declared unsafe and closed to the public last year, it was battered by the winter storms and is now at the centre of ‘a protracted ownership farce’.
The Pier’s History
The Inside Out South programme revealed a little of this cultural landmark’s fascinating history. The pier first opened in 1879 as a steamboat jetty for passengers heading to the Isle of Wight. Since that time it has survived three major fires and continual changes in fashion to become a classic fixture in the city of Portsmouth.
It was here that Winston Churchill was awarded Freedom of the City and the pier served as a departure point for troops during WWII. As a performance venue, the pier hosted 1970s icons: The Who, David Bowie and Genesis. The programme included some great archive footage of these events, alongside footage of the pier as a fashion hotspot with ladies promenading in their finery, and as a site of leisure with people enjoying the roller disco. There was also footage of the sadder moments in the landmark’s history: the major fire during filming of Ken Russell’s rock opera, Tommy, in 1974.
A haunting state of disrepair
The pier’s current state of disrepair is evident to passers by despite the distance maintained by metal fencing and warning signs. Girders hang loose from the main structure and chunks of rusty metal lie washed up on the beach. Viewers were given a glimpse of how this disrepair continues inside the structure with shots of the sea as seen through large gaps in the concrete flooring and the crumbling ceiling of the main hall; dust and debris abound. As I watched, I was reminded of Tim Edensor’s work on ruins and mundane hauntings; how disused sites and derelict grounds evoke absent-presences as the past lingers in the texture of these spaces.
Central to the fate of many piers is the question of ownership and where responsibility for the upkeep of these heritage sites lies. South Parade Pier is no exception with a peculiar entanglement of private ownership, local authority concerns, secret consortiums, and community pressure groups. Recently, questions have also been raised about the eligibility of these sites for Lottery Heritage Funds. Whilst maintenance work has begun on South Parade Pier, its future is by no means guaranteed. The costs of rebuilding and subsequent upkeep are eye watering, and ownership remains uncertain.
Find out more
Readers can discover more about this particular pier’s history and the state of the piers around the British coastline more generally here:
South Parade Pier
National Piers Society
Wills, A. & Phillips, T. (2014) British Seaside Piers, English Heritage
Edensor, T. (2008) Mundane hauntings: commuting through the phantasmagoric working-class spaces of Manchester, England, cultural geographies, 15(3), 313-333
Brodie, A. (2013) The Brown family adventure–seaside holidays in Kent in the mid-nineteenth century, Journal of Tourism History, 5(1), 1-24
Chapman, A. & Light, D. (2011) The ‘heritagisation’ of the British seaside resort: The rise of the ‘old penny arcade’, Journal of Heritage Tourism, 6(3), 209-226