Notes on Southend-on-Sea

Sandy shoreline and peerless pier

Southend-on-Sea is famous for many things – the sun, sea and sand, the pier, fish and chips, hen nights, dodgy tattoos and amusement arcades, and it does have all of those things in abundance. But along with all of that comes a reputation for tawdriness, which is perhaps unjustified.

Southend Arcade
Southend Arcade

All beach resorts have to cope with the liminal nature of seaside, to find a balance between land and sea, culture and nature, safety and the unknown, civilised constraint and liberated hedonism. The bright lights and shiny pleasure palaces of Southend's Marine Parade are eye-catching, but the main attractions of the resort are the beach itself and the pier, and both have endless potential for innocent fun, the appreciation of nature, and an awareness of the power and tranquillity of the sea itself.

Southend started life as a poor fisherman's village at the southernmost tip of the prosperous Priory town of Prittlewell, but began to develop as a resort in the 1790's. At this time wealthy people began to discover the delights of getting out of town for health and for pleasure, especially during the odoriferous summer months. It became fashionable to drink and bathe in seawater as a cure for all manner of illnesses, and as the road network improved it was possible to leave the dust and dirt of the city behind for a few weeks, and take the sea air.

The Royal Terrace and Royal Hotel were completed in 1794, and at that time the gardens in front of the hotel were private, for the guests only; the Royal Mews behind were the stables. The Terrace was named 'Royal' after a visit by Princess Caroline, wife of the Prince Regent, in 1803. Although many of the guests arrived by stagecoach from London, road travel was still slow and difficult at that time. Southend didn't become a popular resort until the arrival of the railways in 1856.

Trains were kept away from the seafront by the residents of Royal Terrace, who forced a clause through a parliamentary bill prior to 1866 insisting that 'no locomotive blows off steam within half a mile of Royal Terrace'. This explains the construction of the Fenchurch Street line which swerves away from the seafront just before it reaches Westcliffe on its way to Southend.

Southend Pier

The first pier in Southend opened in1830. It was 600 feet long and built of wood. The sea bed at Southend slopes gently, and it was soon evident that a longer pier was needed so in 1833 it was extended to 1500 feet. This still did not allow large boats to dock, so plans to extend it out into deep water were drawn up: requiring the Admiralty to mark it on their charts. By 1850 it was 7000 feet in length – that's over 1.3 miles. A short-lived project to use a horse-drawn tramway was stopped after the horses kept putting their hooves through holes in the planking, and the wooden pier was damaged by a barge crashing in to it, so in 1888 construction began on a new, iron pier with an electric railway.

By the 1890s it was clear that the estuary was silting up so a small extension was built; the pier was now 7080 feet long and the longest pleasure pier in the world. An upper deck was added in 1908. The pier was used formally on several occasions for mustering the fleet. During WWII it was actually taken over by the Admiralty for the duration and re-named HMS Leigh – but remained open to the public.

It has been visited by Royalty, broken in two by maritime accidents several times, and bombed more than once: battleships, submarines, tall ships, and paddle steamers have docked at the pier, it has hosted a lifeboat service, had a plane crash land on it, assisted the embarkation of 1.5 million servicemen (aboard 84,297 ships in 3,367 separate convoys), been damaged by numerous boats large and small, and caught fire many times, yet it's still here, and still enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people every year. And it's still the longest pleasure pier in the world.