Short, long or somewhere in between – there has been a pier in Herne Bay since 1831...

...and while it was first used to dock passenger ships, now the only boats are those sold from one of the beach hut shops for local crafters and entrepreneurs. The pier is managed by Herne Bay Pier Trust have given it a new lease of life and have plenty of plans still in the pipeline. There are still dreams of rebuilding the pier to connect it with the old pier head that stands abandoned in the sea but for now the focus is on creating a vibrant short pier. Whether you want to enjoy an ice cream or cream tea, fish for crabs or brave the helter skelter, the idea is for a pier the whole family can enjoy.

But you can explore the story of the pier without leaving home on these pages, courtesy of Alan Beales, or visit the Pier Trust’s own website here.

Herne Bay Pier Circa 1840


Herne Bay pier trolley
The first pier's wind-powered trolley

Before the first pier

Prior to 1831, cargo from places such as Newcastle and London landed in bays on the beach, including one outside the Ship Inn which still provides a warm welcome for those in search of refreshment. People also came from London and then travelled onto Canterbury, Dover and then France. The ships, called “hoys”, had to beach on the incoming tide and then sailed away on the next.  Before the first pier, passengers on passing paddle steamers could be brought to the shore by fisherman but neither way of disembarking was ideal for passengers.

The town was becoming popular as a bathing resort and in 1830 two London businessmen visiting the area came up with the idea of building a landing stage beyond the low tide line, so that passenger ships could dock at all times, linked to the shore by a kind of bridge. One of the visitors, George Burge, was an engineering contractor and knew of the Southend proposals. He had worked for Thomas Telford at St Katharine’s Dock in London. Thomas Rhodes, who was Thomas Telford’s chief assistant, was asked to design and build it the town’s first pier, and chose wood as his material, probably because he was trained as a carpenter. George Burge moved the project forward by raising the £50,000 required by subscription and also by obtaining Parliamentary Approval; the Private Members Bill being given the Royal Assent on 31st March 1831.

The first pier

Work started on the 4th July 1831 and was finally completed in September 1832. The first passenger ship, Venus, had already arrived on May 12th and was owned by the newly formed Herne Bay Steam Boat Company. The Venus also had sails as steam was thought to be unreliable.

The Pier was an impressive 3613 feet long, making it probably the longest in the country at that time as Southend Pier had not reached its final length. There was curved stone balustrade at the entrance taken from the old London Bridge, demolished in 1831. The London-Dover route had become more accessible and on 20th September 1837 Queen Victoria’s uncle, the Duke of Cambridge, arrived at the Pier in another of the Herne Bay Steam Boat Company’s boats, City of Canterbury. A pair of signal cannons kept at the Pier head for use in fog were fired in salute. These cannons in the winter of 1862/63 were washed off the Pier into the sea and recovered in 1899 during the building of the third Pier. They now flank the South African War memorial on the Clock Tower.
Rails had been included in the Pier’s construction and a wind-propelled “train” known as Neptune’s Car operated along the whole length. It had a closed car, an open carriage and a flat-bed luggage trolley where pier porters rode. As well as handling the luggage, they were on hand to push the “train” if the wind was in the wrong direction or absent. It was fairly dangerous and in 1840 a woman was run over and later died in hospital.
In 1842 a record 52,000 people had landed at the Pier Head.

However, repairs were becoming necessary after the wooden structure was discovered to have been attacked by 'teredo navalis', also known commonly as the 'ship-worm'. The original structure was supposed to be protected against such an attack by using copper bolts and nails but either this was not done or was inadequate. By 1850 many of the piles had been replaced by iron ones or with wooden ones with copper nails driven into them. By 1862 only a few boats were visiting the Pier after the opening of the Herne Bay railway station in 1861 and at the end of the 1862 season the Pier closed for good. There were discussions about shortening the Pier but eventually it was taken down in 1870/71 by a demolition contractor and the materials auctioned off.

The second pier

The idea of a shorter Pier survived and a group of gentlemen formed the Herne Bay Promenade Pier Company and built a modest 320 foot Pier, designed by Messrs Wilkinson and Smith, using cast iron piles filled with concrete. The London Bridge balustrading was preserved and there was a “Swiss-style” ticket office at the entrance. A small bandstand was erected at the far end.

This second Pier was built in four months at a cost of £2,000 and was formally opened on 27th August 1873 by the Lord Mayor of London. Special trains had been laid on from London and it was estimated that 10.000 people were present for the occasion. Although a welcome attraction to Herne Bay seafront it was not profitable as people could sit on the beach and listen to the music rather than pay to go on the Pier so in 1884 a wooden theatre known the “Pavilion” was built across the entrance flanked by shops, a restaurant and public lavatories. It had electric light powered by a gas engine and generators. The rental provided a much-needed income.

In 1887 formal gardens were laid out to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Between 1881 and 1901 the town’s population doubled and Herne Bay began to thrive again as a seaside resort. In 1890 the pier company changed its name back to Herne Bay Pier Company and then applied to the Board of Trade for a provisional order authorising the extension of the Pier. In August 1891 a temporary wooden landing stage was built at the end of the Pier and, at times of high water, two small paddle steamers which normally operated pleasure cruises on the Thames were hired to tie up at the landing stage. As the Company had intended, this raised the expectations of another long Pier and larger paddle steamers visiting Herne Bay once more.

Herne Bay - Second pier
The second pier - circa 1873
The second pier with its new pavilion c.1884
Herne Bay 1910
The third pier 1900-1910
Herne Bay pier 1928
Herne Bay pier circa 1910-1928
Herne Bay Pier Tram
The pier tram c. 1925
Herne Bay pier fishing 1935
Fishing on the pier - 1935
Frozen sea 1963
Frozen sea and ice flows of 1963
Pier fire 1970
Catastrophic fire - 1970
Herne Bay Pavilion
The pavilion, not universally popular and known as 'the cowshed'. 1976
Storms 1978
After the storms in 1978

The third pier

The Company set about the task of raising the finances and overcoming the legal requirements. In 1895 Parliament granted permission for a deep sea extension of the Pier and by July 1896 the short Pier was rebuilt with a section of it wider than the standard 20 feet to allow for a future concert room - although for some years this was simply a marquee. The theatre at the entrance was retained. The deep sea extension was started immediately with the total length being 3787 feet, including the head which was 76 feet square and featured an octagonal wooden restaurant with an upper deck surmounted by a dome. The remains of this can still be seen on the head today.

The pier was designed by Ewing Matheson of Walbrook in London and built by Head, Wrightson & Co of Thornaby on Tees at a cost of £60,000. The piles were iron. During construction in November 1897 it was nearly destroyed by a great storm which destroyed the promenade and damaged houses.

This Pier openedfor business at Easter 1899 although the official opening was on 14th September 1899. An electric tramway had been included in the build and in April 1899 a tram started operating between the marquee and the restaurant at a penny a journey. The bodywork of the tram was built around two electric motors which had been purchased from the United States but as there was no loop in the line the tram just shuttled from one end to the other. In May 1901 the Company purchased two redundant horse trams from Bristol and after adaptation added these one to each end of the motor vehicle. Controls were also installed at each end so that the driver could always drive from the front. A later addition was a baggage trolley at one end.

An unfortunate an accident in July 1901 left one of the leading cars in the sea and a female passenger dead and the revenue in the following years fell drastically as a result. Although the new Pier was a great success and attracted visitors to Herne Bay, it was badly mismanaged. In 1905 Henry Corbett Jones, the Managing Director of the Pier Company, was arrested for embezzlement. He was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and the Company went into receivership but in September 1909 the Pier was purchased by the Herne Bay Urban District Council for the bargain price of £6,000 – the Pier now belonged to the people.

The Council considered the Theatre at the entrance was too small and launched a professional competition to design a Grand Pavilion to replace the marquee. The winner of the £2,000 prize was Percy J. Waldram and Messrs Moscrop-Young and Glanfield of London. The section was widened and the building - a timber clad steel frame - was completed in seven weeks and opened on 3rd August 1910 by the Lord Mayor of London. The Grand Pavilion was designed to seat 1,000 with a multi-purpose rock maple floor suitable for roller skating, dancing, public events and community activities. It had a stage with dressing rooms behind and there were refreshment rooms either side of the entrance. It cost just £2,000.

Although Rink Hockey, as it was then known, was played in Herne Bay before 1910 the new facility at the Grand Pavilion led to a boon in the sport not just in Herne Bay but throughout Kent. The Herne Bay Club, “The Bay”, was formed in 1910 and along with Montreux is the oldest Roller Hockey Club in existence today. The first World and European Championships were held in the Grand Pavilion which became known as the “Cathedral of Rink Hockey” throughout the world.

During the First World War the steamer services, the entertainment and the tram service were suspended but normal services resumed after the cessation of the conflict. In 1924 the “Medway Queen” a paddle steamer was built and the Pier Head was one of its stopping points. Also in 1924, because of the popularity of Roller Hockey, a second club was formed known as Herne Bay United Roller Hockey and Skating Club, “HBU”, and this club is today the largest skating club in the UK. Players from these two clubs have been a major part of every National team since then right up to the present day.

The old tram was replaced in 1925 with a petrol-electric one built at Strode Engineering Works. On 9th September 1928 the wooden buildings at the front which once housed the old theatre were destroyed by fire. The whole structure was removed and in 1932 the Pier Approach was redeveloped with gardens and seats.

By 1934 the tram was becoming very unreliable. A new battery operated one was purchased and was attached to the old tram to run in tandem. The Pier remained a well-run place of entertainment and sport, typical of seaside resorts around the country, up until the start of the Second World War in 1939. During the war the Pier was closed and taken over by the army, the steamers being used for war work, the “PS Medway Queen” becoming a mine sweeper. In June 1940 the army blew up two sections of the Pier as the threat of an invasion grew. In the latter part of the war the Grand Pavilion became a camouflage netting factory employing many of the local women.

After the war the compensation of just over £22,000 was not enough to carry out all the repairs necessary and only temporary wooden bridges were built over the gaps as steel was in short supply. These, however, were never replaced. Steamer services resumed in 1948 but the trams could no longer operate due to the wooden bridges and they were sold as scrap. The only transport on the pier was a narrow gauge steam engine and locomotives, which for a few seasons, operated between the wooden bridges.

In 1949 the Pier entrance suffered sea-storm damage and again in 1953 during the North Sea Flood. These storms put enormous pressure on the almost unsupported central section of the Pier. Several sections of the old London Bridge stone balustrading, which had already suffered many times over the years, were knocked down and the Council replaced the whole balustrade with standard sea front railings, ending its 124 years on the Pier approach. The next trauma for the Pier was in the winter of 1962-63 when the sea froze for several weeks. When the thaw came the ice flowing between the piles no doubt caused extensive damage to the structure. 1963 also saw the last visit of the “PS Medway Queen” but the Pier did appear in the opening scene of Ken Russell’s first feature film “French Dressing”.

In 1968, after a structural survey, the insurance cover for the Pier was withdrawn and the Pier closed to the public. In 1970 the Council decided to refurbish the Grand Pavilion and re-deck the first section leading to it. The decking was completed but on 12th June 1970 a fire started at the North end and the whole building was destroyed in a matter of hours. Much of the steel framing collapsed and the whole structure was quickly dismantled and cleared away. It was agreed to build a new Pavilion and, after a lot of design changes and cost-cutting, work finally commenced. During the construction in 1974, under the Local Government reorganisation, Canterbury City Council inherited the building. The Pier Pavilion was eventually opened on 5th September 1976 by the MP, Edward Heath. The eventual cost was about £1,000,000 - three times the original estimate.

In the new Pavilion were a number of amenities but importantly a new roller hockey rink was constructed to international standards. Unfortunately it almost immediately became too small with the increase in the International rink size. The look of the building was not liked by the local people who called it “The Cowshed”. The rest of the Pier remained closed and after storms in 1978 and 1979 when large parts of the pier collapsed, the whole section from the Pier pavilion to the Pier head was dismantled in the summer of 1980. The Pier head was considered too expensive to remove and remains a poignant reminder to all of the Pier’s past glory. Herne Bay Pier was effectively lost as a seaside Pier.

The story of the Pier may have ended there, but in October 2007 the Council agreed in principle to the locating of the activities that took place in the Pier Pavilion to an enhanced Herons Leisure Centre and a new sports arena at Herne Bay High School. Discussions on the future use of the Pavilion took place but in the end it was decided that the refurbishment would be too expensive and it was decided to demolish the building. In 2009 in conjunction with Canterbury City Council the Herne Bay Pier Trust was formed with membership being open to all. 

The Pier Pavilion was finally closed in September 2011. Roller Hockey, however, survives in a new arena at Herne Bay High School built to international standards and the enlarged Heron Centre now encompasses the gym.
The demolition of the Pavilion started straight away and was completed in June 2012. The area where the building stood, now known as the platform, was tarmacked over and wooden seating installed on the old footfall of the pavilion walls. Gates were added to the front.

On 3rd June 2012 the Pier was reopened by Cllr Jean Law and Claire Lomas followed by a tea party to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The North end of the Pier, unfortunately, had remained closed due to the deterioration of some of the wooden under beams but the Council showed their continuing support of the Pier by in December 2012 by voting to spend £220,000 on repairs.

The present day

During 2013 the Trust opened a shop at the front of the White House which stands at the entrance to the Pier and the Council leased the part of the Pier to the east of the wind break to the Pier Trust who had built 12 beach hut styled retail outlets which has formed the start of the Retail Village which was opened by Sandi Toksvig and Cllr Ann Taylor. The Pier Amusements was also formed with the arrival of the Helter Skelter which has already become a major feature of the Pier.
2014 saw a number of successful events held on the Pier. The Pier Amusements grew with the addition of an arcade and a children’s boating pool. In October the Trust was awarded £6000 from the Area Panel to build a stage and in November won £50,000 from the Meridian People’s Millions to build a canopy over part of the Pier.

At the start of 2015 the Trust is finalising the lease of the area once occupied by the Pavilion and extending the Retail Village with further Beach Hut-styled buildings around the perimeter, leaving an inner area for events. The Pier Amusements arcade will be rebuilt in the Village style. The planning of the stage and canopy is also going ahead.

What of the future?

The future of Herne Bay pier is a hotly debated topic in the local press, pubs and homes across the area.  Without doubt the majority of the population would like to see a restored full-length pier but this may never be financially viable.  In the mean time there are suggestions of tidal lagoons, wave power generation and solar power schemes to offset building costs.  There is also a group of people committed to developing the site as a working marina but, again, there are cost and feasibility issues preventing much headway.  Whatever the long term future, The Herne Bay Pier Trust are actively working to enhance 'the short pier' whilst keeping an eye on longer-term possibilities for the restoration of 'a long pier'.

Helter-skelter Herne Bay
The popular new addition to the pier, 2014

Herne Bay Pier 2014

Pier hut village
The huts on Herne Bay pier are fun to browse
Herne Bay Pier 2014
Windbreaks installed November, 2014