In praise of Eugenius Birch, engineer behind Eastbourne and Brighton’s West Pier

Posted On 31 Jul 2014 at 6:11 am
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Elegant, exalted, masterfully engineered – but sadly not eternal. Eugenius Birch’s piers once graced the length of south England’s coastline from Margate to Plymouth, but yesterday one more fell victim to the flames.

Eastbourne Pier’s graceful domed hall, which by the 21st century was an arcade room, was destroyed in a matter of hours by a fierce blaze.

In an echo of its sister, the West Pier, just an iron skeleton is all that is left of the hall.

Eugenius Birch

Eugenius Birch

Both were designed by Birch, as was Hastings Pier which also succumbed to fire in 2010.

In the aftermath of that blaze, Howard Jacobson wrote a fond tribute to him, saying: “We are massively in his debt. The seaside looks the way it looks, actually and ideally, thanks in no small measure to Eugenius Birch.”

Birch was an engineer, and with his brother built railways, bridges and viaducts across England. He also travelled to India to build railways for the East Indian Railway Company – a trip which doubtless influenced the oriental design of his masterpiece, Brighton’s West Pier.

He returned to the UK just as the boom in British pier building was beginning, and his first commission, Margate Pier, was a resounding success.

As well as stylish, his piers were also stable thanks to his patented technique of screw-piling the iron supports into the sea bed rather than hammering them in.

Writer Jonathan Glancy called them “robust but whimsical structures … he knew how to build delightfully and well. His works adorn rather than destroy views from our promenades. They heighten rather than diminish the strength of the sea.”

But this does not mean they were invincible – of his 14 piers built between 1856 and 1884, just Blackpool’s North Pier now operates – and that was left in tatters by last December’s storms.

Eastbourne Pier in 2009 by Snapshooter46

Eastbourne Pier in 2009 by Snapshooter46

The pier in Eastbourne was constructed slightly differently, being built on stilts that rest in cups on the sea-bed allowing the whole structure to move during rough weather.

It is home to a rare example of a camera obscura, which is housed at the seaward end and appears to have escaped yesterday’s blaze.

Meanwhile, Birch’s reputation survives in Brighton thanks to the aquarium (now the Sea Life Centre) and its elaborate stonework and brick vaults.

Sadly, as of August last year his name no longer graces the front of a Brighton and Hove bus after number 842 was sold on.

Perhaps the last word should go to Mr Jacobson, who finished his paean to piers thus: “All hail Eugenius Birch! But his works will vanish, and we will all be the poorer of soul, if we don’t put up a fight to save them.”

The West Pier in 2000 by Jim Linwood from Flickr

The West Pier in 2000 by Jim Linwood from Flickr

  1. Frances Hunt Reply

    Indeed Eugenius Birch should have a place among all those wierd and whimsical Victorians, like Lewis Carroll, William Morris, Ruskin, The Pre-Raphaelites – all those thinkers outside the box. He in particular was more than his art – his work stood up to tides and gales for 150 years. So sad to be losing it as it all had a sense of freedom and joy to it.

    I’m glad though that you mentioned the Brighton Sea Life Centre which is a sort of mirror image of his piers but just as worth a nostalgic look. It is hidden underground now, holding creches of sea and its creatures instead of standing among them. The part of it which survived a rebuild in 1926 and the awful mammal pools of the 1960’s has recently been extensively restored, funded entirely by the current owners.

    You have to swallow its zoo function and an overlay of modern presentation- most of its visitors pay for that and not for a look at its architecture, or even Sea Life’s green activities in research and conservation. However as you pass the wierd and wonderful of the sea, and beings you mostly find on your plate not at eye level, you can look upwards too. The vaults and their columns are all embossed with individual carvings and the ironwork is as good as anything on the piers. The Victorian brickwork still manages to support Marine Parade and those vaults were built well enough to survive when the new technology of concrete and steel from the 20’s crumbled from salt water and age.

    Go and support what is left of Eugenious Birch’s spirit by paying a visit and telling Sea Life they’ve done a good job.

  2. Frances Hunt Reply

    Indeed Eugenius Birch should have a place among all those wierd and whimsical Victorians, like Lewis Carroll, William Morris, Ruskin, The Pre-Raphaelites – all those thinkers outside the box. He in particular was more than his art – his work stood up to tides and gales for 150 years. So sad to be losing it as it all had a sense of freedom and joy to it.

    I’m glad though that you mentioned the Brighton Sea Life Centre which is a sort of mirror image of his piers but just as worth a nostalgic look. It is hidden underground now, holding creches of sea and its creatures instead of standing among them. The part of it which survived a rebuild in 1926 and the awful mammal pools of the 1960’s has recently been extensively restored, funded entirely by the current owners.

    You have to swallow its zoo function and an overlay of modern presentation- most of its visitors pay for that and not for a look at its architecture, or even Sea Life’s green activities in research and conservation. However as you pass the wierd and wonderful of the sea, and beings you mostly find on your plate not at eye level, you can look upwards too. The vaults and their columns are all embossed with individual carvings and the ironwork is as good as anything on the piers. The Victorian brickwork still manages to support Marine Parade and those vaults were built well enough to survive when the new technology of concrete and steel from the 20’s crumbled from salt water and age.

    Go and support what is left of Eugenious Birch’s spirit by paying a visit and telling Sea Life they’ve done a good job.

  3. Pingback: Eastbourne Pier

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  5. John Martel Reply

    I attended a lecture in Weston-s-Mare this week where the work of Eugenius Birch was a major subject. However the person giving the talk was very unhappy about the fact, that try as he might, he had been unable to find an image of the great engineer. Please can anyone supply said image.

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