Bathing machines on Southend-on-Sea beach front early 19th Century

 Early 19th Century 

In the early 19th century, Southend was growing as a seaside holiday resort as it was thought that spending time by the sea was good for your health.

However, the coast at Southend consists of large mudflats, so the sea is never very deep even at full tide which meant large boats were unable to stop at Southend near to the beach and no boats at all were able to stop at low tide.


This meant that many potential visitors would go past Southend and on to Margate, and other resorts where docking facilities were better.​

Historic picture of wooden building along Southend Seafront


To counter the waning tides, local dignitaries pushed for a pier to be built. This would allow boats to reach Southend at all tides. The campaign was led by former Lord Mayor of the City of London Sir William Heygate, 1st Baronet, a resident of Southend.

On 14 May 1829 the first Pier Act received the Royal Assent. On 25 July the Lord Mayor of London Sir William Thompson laid the foundation stone of the first section of the pier. By June 1830 a 600-foot (180 m) wooden pier was opened, based on oak piles.

Historic 19th Century photo of a horse tramway on Southend Pier


In 1830 the Pier employed a horse tramway to convey goods and visitors to and from the pier head.

However the pier was still too short to be usable at low tide, so by 1833 it had been extended to three times its length and by 1848 was the longest pier in Europe at 7,000 feet (2,100 m).


It was sold by the original owners for £17,000 in 1846 after getting into financial difficulties.

Historic image of Southend Pier from 19th Century


By the 1850s the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway had reached Southend, and with it came a great influx of visitors from east London.


The many visitors took their toll on the wooden pier and in 1873 it was sold to the Southend Local Board (the local government in place at the time).

Historic image of 19th Century new iron Southend Pier


In 1887 work began building the new iron pier, which was later opened to the public that summer, though it wasn't completed until 1889 at a cost of almost £70,000.


It was an immediate success, so much so that demand outstripped the capabilities of the pier and a further extension was proposed. This extension was completed in November 1897 and formally opened the following January.

Historic 19th century image of Southend Pier train


By 1891 the pier railway ran the then full length of the pier and carriages were in use. The system expanded, until eventually, by 1930, four trains, each made up of seven carriages, were running on a double track.

Historic image of Southend Pier head from early 20th Century


In 1907 an upper deck was added to the pier head, and the pier was further extended in 1927. The construction work was undertaken by Peter Lind & Company that still trades today. The work was carried out to accommodate larger steamboats.


It was formally opened on 8 July 1929 by Prince George, Duke of Kent. This new part of the pier was on the east side and was named the Prince George Extension; it was 326 feet (99 m) long and cost £58,000. The work of doubling the electric railway, completed in 1931, cost £35,000.

Historic image of Southend Pier 1939


The pier closed to the public on 9th September 1939, and for the next six years it was taken over by the Royal Navy and renamed HMS Leigh.


Its purpose in the war was twofold. Firstly it served as a mustering point for convoys. Secondly, it was Naval Control for the Thames Estuary. 

Historic colour image of Southend Pier 1939


In 1945  the pier reopened and visitor numbers exceeded pre-war levels, peaking at 5.75 million in 1949–50.


The Dolphin Café was built out of the scrap and timber left by the navy. This joined the other attractions added to the pier that year  such as the Sun Deck Theatre, the Solarium Café, as well as amusements and a Hall of Mirrors.

Image of green pier train 1949


In 1949 the rolling stock was replaced with four new trains.

Colour image of Southend Pier 1959


In 1959, a fire destroyed the pavilion located at the shore end of the pier. Over 500 people were trapped on the other side of the fire and had to be rescued by boat.


The pavilion was replaced by a ten-pin bowling alley in 1962, however, by then British holidaymakers were turning to package holidays abroad. The use of the pier slowly began to decline and with it the structure began to deteriorate.

Image of Southend Pier on fire 1976


In 1976 a fire destroyed much of the pier head. The massive blaze was battled by fire fighters working on the pier and from boats, and even using a crop-spraying light aircraft.


The following year the bowling alley was damaged in another fire, and a year after that, the railway was deemed unsafe and had to be closed.

Image of train on Southend Pier 1983


In 1983 a grant from the Historic Buildings Committee meant the much needed repair work to the pier could commence and new railway and rolling stock could be bought.


The total cost of the 1984/86 reconstructions was £1.3 million. HRH Princess Anne inaugurated the new railway service on 2nd May 1986.

Southend Pier on fire 1995


On 7th June 1995 the bowling alley was destroyed by fire. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries and there was no damage to the shore railway station or the Pier Museum, although storerooms and workshops were destroyed.


All services to the pier head were cut, access to the walkway was severed and some 30 metres of the railway track were damaged. 

RNLI Lifeboat station and Gift Shop


In June 2002 the RNLI Lifeboat Station and Gift shop was officially opened, and was funded by the RNLI.

New pier entrance 2003


In 2003 the new pier entrance was completed in the Summer costing £1.9 million.

Damaged Southend Pier from fire in 2005


On 9th October 2005 a fire severely damaged much of the old pier head including the railway station, pub, restaurant, gift shop, and toilets.


The Southend lifeboat was deployed to transport the first fire fighters to the scene. The pier head station was destroyed in the blaze, so a replacement with two platforms was constructed to take the pier trains as close as possible to the area where the blaze took place. 

New station platform 2009


On 16th September 2009 the new station platform and office was officially opened in the summer by the Worshipful Mayor of Southend.

New Cultural Centre being lifted by crane onto Southend Pier


On 17th May 2012 the new Cultural Centre was lifted onto the pier. The unique £3m Cultural Centre was designed by White Arkitekter working in partnership with London-based architects Sprunt, and was constructed off-site at Tilbury Docks.


From there it was lowered onto a barge and transported along the Thames. The 170-tonne structure was then hoisted onto the pier head at high tide using a 400-tonne marine sheer leg crane. 

His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent opening the Royal Pavilion 2013


On 17th July 2013 His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent ceremonially re-named the iconic Southend Pier Cultural Centre ‘The Royal Pavilion‘. The Duke unveiled the plaque bearing the building’s new name after officially opening the new RNLI lifeboat house on Southend seafront.


Southend Pier has held a number of Royal visitors including the Duke‘s father, HRH Prince George, who officially opened the Prince George extension in 1929.

Train delivery.jpg


On Tuesday 28th September 2021 a very special morning delivery arrived at Southend Pier - The first of the brand new electric pier trains. 


The pier train replacement project saw the diesel trains, which had been in operation on the pier since 1986, replaced with new, eco-friendly trains, designed in heritage green and cream following a public vote.

This was not the end of the line for the former diesel trains will remain part of Southend Pier, with carriages installed on the Pier providing visitors with seating and shelter.



On Tuesday 1st March 2022 Their Royal Highnesses (TRH) The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall officially unveiled the first new eco-friendly train named, Sir David Amess, in honour of the late MP who tragically died in October 2021.


TRH also met Pier staff and colleagues from HM Coastguard Southend and Southend RNLI.

Historic photo of Southend Pier

Discover More

If you'd like to find out more about the history of Southend Pier, why not pay a visit to the Pier Museum, or pick up a Pier History booklet from the Visitor Information Centre


Pier History