SPANS: Southampton Water
DESIGN: Edward L Stephens
FIRE: 1987
RESTORATION: 1838, 1864, 1871, 1892, 1937, 1963, 1986
Once Southampton’s playground, the Royal Pier was an elegant city landmark. It was opened by Princess Victoria just prior to becoming Queen in 1833. During the years that followed a wide range of additions and improvements were made, including a floating pontoon and a railway station. In 1979 the historic structure closed its doors forever. Its fate was sealed by two huge fires, one in 1987 and the other five years later, which ripped through the old pavilion and the timber decking leaving nothing more than twisted metal and charred remains. The estimated cost of demolition is £3m.


For his third book, Pierdom, Brighton-based photographer Simon Roberts travelled the coast to document pleasure piers, lost piers and piers in need of some TLC. Included in the book are a large number of piers to be found along the South East coast from Eastbourne to Brighton via The Channel, The Solent and the deep blue sea. Frame and Reference, assisted by Jessica Morris, caught up with the photographer to find out more about his new body of work.


“During my extensive travels for this series I was struck by the fragile relationship Britain has with its coastline,” Roberts comments. “Whilst piers are, to some extent, a cultural icon, they also trace the economic fortunes of our seaside towns; from Victorian industrialism and the post-war boom to the 21st-century downturn and now a tentative re-awakening (witness the saving of Hastings Pier with a major Heritage Lottery Fund and a community shares offer). However, many still remain threatened and much needs to be done to save them from destruction.”

SPANS: English Channel
DESIGN: (i) W Binns; (ii) Theodore Saunders
CONSTRUCTION: Pairs of cast iron piles with cross bracing, iron girder framework supporting timber deck
YEAR OPENED: (i) 1879; (ii) 1895
ORIGINAL LENGTH: (i) 110m; (ii) 297m, 1895
FIRE: 1989
RESTORATION: 1895, 1934, 1954, 1968, 1971-3, 1986
Sandown Culver Pier has enjoyed the attentions of many illustrious visitors in its history: Earl Mountbatten, governor of the Isle of Wight and Admiral of the Fleet, carried out an official re-opening ceremony on 22 July 1973, the Queen has strolled along its boardwalks and a host of popular entertainers, such as Julie Andrews and Tony Hancock are said to have started their careers at the pier’s theatre.


While FT photo critic Francis Hodgson in his essay for Pierdom, published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, writes that: “The strong British affection for ‘tradition’ makes the piers seem older than they are. They have become deeply buried in the British (specifically English, mainly) psyche as an integral part of a myth called the seaside. At its crassest, that myth revolves around Kiss Me Quick hats and donkey rides along the sands. At a more elevated level, it involves letting the National Trust run hundreds of miles of foreshore as a kind of linear park for townspeople. The spices in the recipe are numerous and their combinations very complex. Old scenic post-cards of the seaside have been reproduced a great deal lately: they demand both nostalgia and a touch of irony to be appreciated. Would middle-class English people have quite the affection they do for saucy postcards if George Orwell hadn’t written his famous essay on Donald McGill?


“…There are plenty of romanticized views of a pier or the whole genus of piers, but Simon Roberts is emphatically not adding to that catalogue. It is obvious from these pages that Roberts has an affection for the piers, and an affection for the complex tidal pulls of history and economics upon which they perch. One critic wrote about We English that Roberts was a descendant of the great Victorian photographer Sir Benjamin Stone,and that’s partly right. Stone liked to show old things being adapted into the context of contemporary society. He liked to photograph change and the reactions to change, and he liked to tell the truth in his own particular way. Simon Roberts has all of that.”

SPANS: The Solent
DESIGN: John Kent of Southampton
CONSTRUCTION: Originally wood replaced by iron; pier head supports in concrete
ORIGINAL LENGTH: (i) 531m; (ii) 622m, 1824; (iii) 686m, 1842
RESTORATION: 1896, 1947, 1960s, 1970/1, 1982, 1987/8
Ryde Pier, dating as it does from 1814, is the UK’s oldest surviving pier. It is comprised of three piers: the original pier that was built for pedestrians but now used by cars, the tramway pier (now abandoned) and the train pier. The pier also has London Underground trains running along it.
This line not only serves its ferry terminal and transports passengers up and down the pier, it also takes them along the island’s East coast. Ryde Pier will be the first pier to celebrate its 200th anniversary (in 2014).


Mini Q&A with Simon Roberts (SR)
F&R: Frame and Reference
JM: Jessica Morris


F&R: Why did you decide to make a body of work about piers?
SR: Like many people in Britain, my childhood is infused with memories of trips to the seaside. My grandparents retired to the South Coast of England so we often visited piers along the stretch of coastline between Bognor and Eastbourne. The Pierdom project originally began when I was commissioned to photograph a series of Pleasure Piers by the Saturday Telegraph Magazine in 2010. The picture editor had seen the photograph of Blackpool Pier in my We English series and thought I might like to document a few more. After doing some research, I realised that there was no contemporary photographic study of these eccentric structures and, as fas as I could tell, the last British photographer to produce anything of significance was Francis Frith, in the early twentieth century! It therefore seemed a subject ripe for documenting.

SPANS: English Channel
DESIGN: Eugenius Birch
CONSTRUCTION: Raked and vertical cast iron screw piles supporting lattice girders; iron and wood frame
YEAR OPENED: 1870 (completed 1872)
RESTORATION: 1878, 1888, 1889-1901, 1912, 1925, 1951, 1971, 1985, 1990/01
The first 400-seat theatre was constructed for just £250 at the seaward end of Eastbourne Pier in 1888. It was replaced by a 1000-seat theatre, bar, camera obscura and pier office complex in 1899-1901, and the theatre became a home for machine guns in World War II. The pier has undergone numerous redesigns and restorations, and in 1991 the Duke of Devonshire opened a new £500,000 entrance building. In 1996 it was voted ‘Pier of the Year’ by members of the National Piers Society.


F&R: How many piers are there in total in Pierdom and how many are in the South East, as opposed to other areas of the UK?
SR: There are 58 in total, with a high concentration in the South East of England: twenty if you include the Isle of Wight. I also found that there were some ‘lost piers’ and decided it would be interesting to include some of these to add to the narrative; they also acted as a change in pace to the book, whilst also offering a poignant reminder to the fragility of these structures.
SPANS: English Channel
DESIGN: F.C. Dixon & M.N. Ridley
CONSTRUCTION: Wood and cast iron screw piles
FIRE: 1918


F&R: Could you talk us through your process; how did you achieve some of the images and decide on which position to shoot from, sometimes elevated?
SR: Every pier offered its own unique challenge to overcome and they are inherently difficult structures to photograph, given that they’re a metal needle covered in buildings poking out into the sea! I’d often use Google street view or satellite images to try and work out the best vantage point to photograph the pier before arriving in each place and on several occasions spent hours ringing on doorbells of apartments along the promenade trying to persuade tenants to let me onto their balconies. I was never worried about weather conditions given that I wanted to depict the piers in a range of seasons and meteorological conditions.

SPANS: The Solent
DESIGN: Denham & Jenvey
RESTORATION: 1927, 1983-86, 1993/4, 2007
In 1874, Yarmouth Corporation were given permission to construct a pier. The Grade II listed pier is set direct to magnetic North, as required by the Crown on granting the site. Only three weeks after it had opened in 1876, the steamer Prince Leopold caused extensive damage to it, smashing through 50 metres of pier deck. 552 deck planks record the names of those who helped fund the pier’s restoration. A regular ferry service runs between Yarmouth and Lymington on mainland Britain.


JM: A pier is a runway to the sea, the most balancing and hypnotic element we have access to here in England. Observing these piers must have meant spending extensive periods of time with the sea. After having spent so much time on the analysis of these piers, did you feel a connection with them that went deeper than childhood nostalgia? Did these inanimate structures reveal personalities? If so, which of them did you feel most connected to?
SR: Many of the piers have their own unique personality, from modest and minimalistic stature, to more refined and exotic, and are reminiscent of the Victorian era when they were built. As a resident of Brighton, I can’t help but be drawn to the West Pier, despite the fact that after two fires and several storms, little of the cast-iron structure is left in situ. There is something eerily compelling about the way it is anchored just off shore and haunts the horizon. Its skeletal structure provides a magnetic pull for the residents of our city.


In terms of a surviving pier, I’m a big fan of Eastbourne due to its playful Eastern-inspired eccentricity.


JM: Could you give an example of one of the most testing shoots?
SR: Worthing Pier proved the most challenging to photograph. I actually went on three different occasions before I was able to get a photograph I was happy with. The final time was during a snow storm, which offered its own unique obstacles, given that I was using a 4×5″ plate camera mounted on a tripod and the winds were almost gale force!

SPANS: English Channel
DESIGN: Eugenius Birch
CONSTRUCTION: Cast iron and wrought iron columns on screw piles, wrought iron bracing
FIRE: 2003
STORM DAMAGE: 1896, 1987, 1988, 2002, 2003, 2004
RESTORATION: 1893, 1901, 1916, 1932, 1996
Brighton’s second pier was known as the ‘Pier of the Realm’ but has been closed since 1975, awaiting renovation, although after two fires and several storms little is left. It is one of only two Grade I listed piers in the UK, the other being Clevedon Pier. There are currently plans to build the ‘i360’ in front it; a 500ft high tower with a viewing platform effectively creating a ‘pier in the sky’.


To see more of Simon Roberts‘ work:
Twitter: @simoncroberts