A murmuration of starlings swirls like a black scarf around the wreckage, abruptly coming to rest on the seaward side. This forbidding sight, standing starkly in the water a few dozen yards beyond the pebbled beach, is what’s left of Brighton’s West Pier. It was here that the fire started.
Flames roared out of the pavilion’s broken windows and doorways before bursting through its ceiling. Green and yellow smoke billowed out, a toxic mix of old paint and starling guano.
It was Friday 28 March 2003 and Rachel Clark, who ran the West Pier Trust, did not work on Fridays. She was at home in Lewes, a half-hour drive away, when she got the call from one of the trust’s tenants.
“She just told me that the pier’s on fire,” Clark recalls. “‘You better come.’”
By the time Clark got to the pier, at around 11am, the fire had ripped through the structure and Brighton beach was full of people. “They just stood there, watching,” she says. “It was just billowing clouds of smoke and flames; a really, really horrible moment.”
Fire officers had made it to the site an hour earlier, just four minutes after the first eyewitness had called 999. The caller had reported seeing smoke “coming out of the left-hand side of the old pier”. In all, about 40 firefighters attended the blaze.
The Trust had been preparing for the pier’s restoration and had dismantled the walkway access after storm damage made the structure unsafe. The only remaining access, for construction workers, had been blocked with chained gates and barbed wire.
Unable to reach the pier from the landward side and judging that there was no life in danger, the firemen just stood on the beach and watched the pier burn. Horrified onlookers shouted at them to intervene.
“We couldn’t do anything,” Mike Meik, the fire brigade’s incident commander, recalls. “It was frustrating.”
By the time the coastguard and two lifeboats got to the West Pier, the tide was too low and the underwater obstructions too many for them to use their water jets.
The West Pier was still standing, but smouldering, when the brigade sent a stop message at 2.04pm. The fire officers were back at their station two hours later. They estimated that the fire had destroyed 75 per cent of the timber superstructure of the old ballroom. In their report they listed the fire’s cause as “doubtful”.
“But there was no chance of a fire investigation,” Phil Thompson, commander of the fire station that responded to the fire, says. “Access was extremely difficult.”
The pier wasn’t just difficult to get to. “It was wet and there was no electrical power on it,” Clark says. “It was astonishing, knowing full well that the fire must have been deliberate.”
News, gossip and speculation about the fire spread quickly. Brighton, famous for its faded Regency elegance, was a smuggling village in the Middle Ages and, some would say, has never quite shaken off that shady past. “Brighton,” Keith Waterhouse wrote, “has the air of a town that is perpetually helping the police with their inquiries.”
Now the West Pier was a black burnt-out hulk that smouldered and smoked long after the initial conflagration. But once, according to English Heritage, it “was the most important pier in the world.”
After fireworks and a 21-gun salute, 140 dignitaries sat down for dinner at the West Pier’s inauguration on 6 October 1866. Victoria was Queen and the 14th Earl of Derby was prime minister, though they were not among the guests that night. The pier’s chairman, Henry Moor, announced: “This noble structure stands unrivalled throughout the whole of Europe”.
Moor’s competition was mainly in England. The second half of the 19th Century was the country’s great era of pier construction. Dozens were built along the coast. The Royal Suspension Chain Pier, an early example from 1823, could be found just a ten-minute walk east along Brighton beach from the West Pier – but the West Pier was special.
Its construction cost £21,890 and began in 1864. Designed by Eugenius Birch, the great pier architect and engineer, its iron columns, screwed into the seabed, were attached to iron piles that rose above the sea, linked by metal ties, braces and girders. Above them, wooden decking was lined with intricate cast-iron railings and serpent lamp posts. Beautifully rendered human faces, dolphins, shields, urns and garlands decorated timber shelters, which were topped with oriental minarets. It declared to the world that the Victorians were engineers, mechanics, architects and artists. Here was the leisure dividend of the Industrial Revolution.
As English seaside holidays became more popular, so did piers. In almost every resort town they were built as speculative projects. Upkeep was expensive and, as they were run by private companies, they needed to generate profits.
The West Pier, for a time, did well. Initially, it was little more than a promenade, charging an entrance fee. As holidaymaking changed, its musicians, actors, professional divers, stallholders and amusement arcades began drawing new, bigger crowds. It was extended in 1893, and gained a concert hall in 1916. By then it was attracting two million visitors a year.
But the fashion for piers began to decline and by the time the government ordered the removal of the West Pier’s central decking to prevent potential enemy landings at the beginning of the Second World War, the structure had begun to deteriorate. There was to be some restoration after the war – a new restaurant, a tea room, arcades – but by the 1960s the decline seemed irreversible.
The structure was deemed unsafe and the company that ran it closed it to the public in 1975. Plans for demolition were averted by a local We Want the West Pier Campaign. Despite being in disrepair the pier, whose ownership had passed to the Crown Estate, was awarded the highest possible conservation status in 1982 – the only grade I listed pier in Britain and a grade above its rival pier farther east along the coast.
A storm had destroyed the Royal Suspension Chain Pier in 1896, confirming the local superstition that it was Brighton’s doomed pier. In fact, there were plans to demolish the pier anyway and replace it with a new one, the Palace Pier.
The storm did away with demolition expenses, but the Palace Pier still cost £27,000 to build. It wasn’t complete when it opened in 1899 but its structures – designed to look like kursaals, the ornate public spas of southern Germany – were illuminated by 3,000 lights, and its reading and dining rooms were open.
The Palace Pier was an immediate success. Unlike the West Pier, which was popular among Brightonians, the newcomer was used more by day trippers, many from London barely an hour away by train, who came for its theatre and entertainment shows. Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin performed on the pier before hitting the big-time in Hollywood. The pier made a guest appearance of its own in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.
And unlike the West Pier, it managed to regain popularity after the war, during which it had been closed. It ran regular summer shows with the leading comedians and actors of the day. And despite storm damage in the 1970s, it attracted commercial interest.
The Noble Organisation was founded by travelling showman William Noble of South Tyneside, who had started out by buying bingo halls in the 1960s. It bought the Palace Pier in 1984.
Almost immediately the new owner began changing its character from a traditional seaside entertainment pier to an amusement park with fairground rides and rollercoasters, testing not only the limits of Brighton and Hove City Council’s planning rules but the patience of the locals as well.
“We were initially pleased with the Nobles’ arrival,” a former senior councillor recalls. “But they never got involved in the community, and showed their arrogance for planning rules.”
Just as the Palace Pier was reaching its commercial peak, with record profits in 1997, the West Pier Trust was about to embark on a journey through planning regulations and objections. The government had recently launched the Heritage Lottery Fund, which used national lottery money to finance conservation projects. The West Pier Trust, which had bought the pier from the Crown in 1983 but could never raise enough money to restore it, applied for a £14.2 million grant that would be matched by a private sector partner.
The grant came through in 1998 and the Trust found its partner in the developer, St Modwen, in 2001. Despite the public funding, St Modwen said it could make the project commercially viable only if large retail units were built alongside the landward end of the pier – a so-called enabling development.
The Save Our Seafront (SOS) campaign, a coalition of local civic and conservation groups, fought long and hard against the plans. “We were a small group of activists supported by an awful lot of people,” Sue Paskins, a former member of sos and Green Party councillor, says. “We’d have loved to have the West Pier restored. Our big problem was the enabling development. We fought it as hard as we could.”
Although Paskins says they “never spoke to the Palace Pier” and that “they certainly weren’t supporting us”, the campaigners’ interests were, to some extent, aligned with those of the Noble Organisation.
For Noble, a revived West Pier represented a new entrant into a market it had dominated since it bought the Palace Pier. The man Noble put in charge of the Palace Pier was an astute lawyer, David Biesterfield.
On behalf of the Noble Organisation, Biesterfield had fought planning applications for rival developments up and down England. In Thanet, Noble opposed an application for a competing entertainment park and then asked for a judicial review of its approval, which judges eventually dismissed as “a commercial weapon by rival potential developers to frustrate and delay their competitors’ approved developments”. In Blackpool, it fought off plans for a casino. But it was to be in Brighton that Noble fought longest and hardest against competition.
Representatives of the West Pier Trust say Biesterfield was “always polite”, but councillors with whom he raised objections about the trust’s plans remember him as “abrasive”, “awkward” and “antagonistic”. One senior council official recalls a meeting with Noble representatives in which “they made it clear that they’d do everything to stop the West Pier”.
Biesterfield told councillors that there was no room in Brighton for two piers. But his real beef was that public funding of the West Pier made for unfair competition. “We wouldn’t have objected to private funding,” Biesterfield says.
The West Pier Trust offered non-compete agreements, but Noble was not interested. Brighton and Hove City Council, seeing the St Modwen development plans as the last chance to save the West Pier, pressed ahead anyway.
Noble complained to the European Commission that the Heritage Lottery Fund support for the West Pier was a breach of European Union state aid law. It filed another two complaints before the commission decided the grant was not a breach of state aid law on 9 April 2002.
It seemed the path was cleared for the council’s final decision, but the debate between councillors, civic society activists and Noble rumbled on as the sea ate away at the West Pier.
Then fate intervened.
On 29 December 2002, a fierce storm destroyed a walkway connecting the pavilion to the concert hall. Three weeks later another storm destroyed most of the concert hall. The council began to ask whether restoration was even possible.
Yes, was the answer from English Heritage. In a lengthy and erudite report, its expert Richard Morrice argued for a more continental understanding of restoration work. He made reference to Dresden, which was destroyed by Allied bombing in the Second World War and then rebuilt.
Morrice’s report gave the council what it needed to grant planning permission to the West Pier Trust and St Modwen. At last, the day – 26 February 2003 – had arrived.
“We had worked so hard,” Clark says. “We were so tenacious and had cleared all the hurdles. We had all our permissions and we felt so good about it.”
After Clark had watched the fire burn through her pier and the crowd on the beach had begun to disperse, the coastguard signed off its incident log that day in March 2003 by describing the structure as “just a pile of twisted metal”.
There must have been something more than metal because on 11 May that year, another fire broke out, this time in what had once been the West Pier’s splendid concert hall. It died down and then reignited a day later when wind turned the smouldering heap into a blaze again.
Sussex Police treated the second fire as unrelated to the first. But, again, there was no forensic examination of the scene because the pier was so dangerous to reach. And in any case the authorities had made no progress investigating the first blaze.
All leads seemed to vanish in the smoke-filled air right from the start. At 10.20am on the day of the first fire, the fire brigade had radioed the coastguard about a black speedboat people saw racing away from the pier just before the fire started.
Within 40 minutes, security staff at Brighton Marina were being questioned about the boat and the marina’s boat register was examined. It wasn’t until later that evening that the police traced the boat’s owners from CCTV footage; the people who had been using the boat that morning were sightseers.
Meanwhile, a suspect that the police had reported swimming out to sea at 10.32am was picked up by one of the lifeboats. “It would appear,” the coastguard’s incident log recorded, “that he was trying to get out far enough so that he could take photographs with the camera which was slung around his neck.”
The local newspaper, the Argus, later received a letter from someone calling themselves Piers Burns, who “confessed” to burning down the pier in protest against the Iraq War. “The pier was a good target because,” its author wrote, “like with Iraq, it is being exploited by hypocrites with the collusion of the council and the media, intent on personal gain.”
In England and Wales, the proportion of crimes that result in a charge or summons was 7 per cent in the year to March 2020. For criminal damage and arson, it is less than 5 per cent.
Investigators say that a fraudulent insurance claim often lies behind arson. But the West Pier wasn’t insured at the time of the fires. “The pier structure was, and is, uninsurable,” Clark says.
If the driving force is not an insurance claim, investigators say, it’s often an attempt to endanger life, which is more serious at law and tends to have a higher detection rate (i.e., where a suspect is identified).
Matt Hopkins, a criminology researcher at Leicester University, found that when life is at risk in an arson case, the emergency response is faster. A faster response, in turn, generates more leads and so a greater chance of detection.
Hopkins found that in 42 per cent of the 120 detected arson cases he reviewed, the key suspect was caught at the scene. The second most common feature of detected arson cases, Hopkins found, was an eyewitness who identified the key suspect.
“Witnesses did come forward,” a former Sussex Police detective chief inspector says. “A lot of people saw the fires” – there were 92 calls to 999 about the first fire – “but no one saw who started them.”
By the time summer arrived, Sussex Police had hit a wall. They filed the fires away as “undetected”.
The West Pier Trust, despondent that the arsonists were unlikely to be caught, at least had some hope that the pier would survive.
At a June 2003 meeting, English Heritage discussed its future. Even after the storms and fires and all the damage over the preceding months, it was decided that restoration of the surviving structure to its 1866 form was still possible.
“This solution maximises public benefit and minimises risk,” the conservation authority wrote in an internal memo, “but at a high capital cost.” Further, “it needs to be tested against the views of the Heritage Lottery Fund.”
The fund’s views weren’t positive. By January 2004, it decided it would withdraw the £14.2 million grant because the cumulative damage was too extensive. Only rebuilding – not restoration – would work.
As if to drive the point home, on 23 June 2004, a storm destroyed the West Pier’s middle section, which then collapsed into the sea. English Heritage had no choice but to change its position: restoration of the West Pier was no longer viable.
The West Pier’s long struggle was over.
For the Palace Pier, the struggle to survive had only just begun. According to company filings of the Brighton Marine Palace and Pier Company, which the Noble Organisation used to manage the Palace Pier, losses in 2002 hit £227,661; £505,422 in 2003; and £266,189 in 2004.
Biesterfield, who was still managing the pier on behalf of Noble, managed to turn its profits around in subsequent years. But its maintenance costs were still high and continuous. “Although profitable,” Biesterfield says, “it wasn’t that great.”
Locals began to notice that the Palace Pier was looking tired. It wasn’t opening in winter as much as it used to. They pressed Noble to accept support from Brighton and Hove City Council, on condition that the group stop calling the Palace Pier “Brighton Pier”, something which upset local feeling.
Instead, Noble began looking around for buyers. It first put the Palace Pier on the market in 2011, but no one bit until Luke Johnson, who has owned the Pizza Express and Patisserie Valerie chains, bought it for £18 million in 2016. The pier was making around £3 million a year in profit before the pandemic struck.
Johnson called it a “very special landmark” and, to endear himself locally, agreed to stop calling it Brighton Pier. In any case, it had no use for that exclusionary name. Brighton’s other pier was, by this point, nothing more than a few iron pillars.
Now, the only visitors to the remains of the West Pier’s splendours are the starlings. But soon the ruin will be too bald even for starlings.
“Its remains are a constant reminder,” Clark says, “that Brighton has always been beset by mystery.”
This piece appears in Giants, the new Tortoise short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can buy a physical copy here.