Friends Of The Old Pier Society
Save Birnbeck Pier


The history of Birnbeck Island, and its pier, is a long and turbulent one: initial success, followed by years of decline and plenty of bad luck, big ideas and little money. Originally connected to the mainland by a narrow spit of land, subsequently eroded by the sea, earliest records of Birnbeck show that John Pigott of Brockley became Lord of the Manor of Weston-super-Mare and the owner of the island in 1696, when it was still known as Berne Island (later Bairn Beck Island).

In 1845, and with Weston's popularity growing, a committee was formed to promote the need for a pier and landing place at Birnbeck, with work starting the following year on a suspension bridge out to the island. However, this proved problematic with strikes and bad weather forcing the project's engineer into bankruptcy and the project to be abandoned.

Following a successful campaign to raise £20,000 in 1864, a foundation stone for a new pier was finally laid, with a bridge completed two years' later. The pier was opened on 5th June 1867 - a date declared as a public holiday in the town - to the sound of church bells, cannon salutes and fireworks. Initially, there was very little in the way of amusements on the island, although there was a small pavilion, but despite this, 120,000 people visited during the first three months. Thanks to the income from regular steamer traffic, particularly from Wales, improvements followed over the next 22 years, including refreshment rooms, a large concert hall, reading rooms, an extended pavilion, low-water jetty and lifeboat station. However, on Boxing Day 1897, most of the structures on the island were destroyed by fire - replacements were designed by Hans Price, who was responsible for many of Weston's most notable buildings, and these were completed just eight months' later.
The pier's fortunes started to fluctuate. In 1904 - and despite a vigorous campaign against the parliamentary bill allowing the construction of a new pier - the, more central, Grand Pier opened for business. Five years' later, the southern end of the island was increased by over half an acre, by the construction of a concrete platform. This new area housed a roller-skating rink, a bioscope theatre (an early form of cinema), a flying machine, switchback railway and the famous water chute ride. This effort to attract customers from its newer rival was successful and throughout the 1920s and early-30s, the Old Pier was the Number One destination for both visitors and residents alike. However, the Grand Pier fought back by opening a funfair of its own, a decision from which Birnbeck never recovered.

World War II wasn't kind to Birnbeck, either. In 1941, the pier was taken over by the Admiralty and closed to the public - with the fairground and all amusement rides dismantled and removed - before being commissioned as HMS Birnbeck, a secret facility for weapons testing. Serious damage was caused to the island when a Wellington Bomber, operating out of nearby RAF Locking, inadvertently released a dummy mine whilst flying overhead. When hostilities were over, the pier was handed back to its rightful owners and, whilst the steamer service was resumed, Birnbeck became a much more sedate place, with just a refreshment room and no amusements (apart from a weekly visit from the British Legion Band!).

The pier then passed through several owners' hands, including (1962) P&A Campbell (the steamer-operating company), (1972) John Critchley (under whom the pier enjoyed a short-lived renaissance), (1989) Philip Stubbs (whose plans for a multi-million pound marina complex were halted by the Nature Conservation Council), (1998) White Horse Ferries (who restored Pier View, formerly the offices of P&A Campbell and Muffins Café, and now the home of the Friends of the Old Pier Society) and (2006) Urban Splash (who held an international architectural competition, the winner of which included a mixed-use redevelopment, featuring a hotel, leisure and residential accommodation).

During that 44-year period, other landmarks included: (1974) the Department of the Environment granting the pier Grade II-listed status, (1979) the MV Balmoral making the last scheduled sailing from the pier (bringing an end to 92 years of service in the Bristol Channel by P&A Campbell), (1990) the pier suffered extensive storm damage and (1994) was closed to the public by the local authority. Today, the Old Pier is deteriorating rapidly, and the only persons allowed onto the property, other than the owners, are the RNLI crew who utilise an area of replaced decking, purchased with their own funds at an initial cost in excess of £20,000. The only other structural work of note carried out in recent times took place in March 2010, when - thanks to an English Heritage Lottery grant - the cast iron trestles that were in most need of remedial work (the four nearest to the island) were refurbished to a high standard.
As a result of this, North Somerset Council have brought together several interested organisations (which include North Somerset Council, English Heritage, the RNLI, the Friends of the Old Pier Society and the Birnbeck Regeneration Trust) to form a working party. It is hoped that this group will be able to put together a viable business plan in order to secure lottery funding. This seems the most pragmatic way forward, and the best chance of achieving the good news that all fans of the Old Pier and Birnbeck Island have craved to hear since its closure. It is hoped that, with your help, it will not be too long before some form of restoration work can start. For a more detailed history, please purchase the late Stan Terrell's excellent book 'Birnbeck Pier - A Short History', fully updated for 2011.