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.
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.
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.”