Kent's harbour piers

PUBLISHED: 10:35 21 April 2009 | UPDATED: 15:57 20 February 2013

Deal pier

Deal pier

Kent's sturdy harbour piers have provided havens for shipping while its pleasure piers have offered entertainment for leisured visitors over the years

Pier enthusiasts say that there are two distinctions of pier: pleasure piers, which are built for entertainment and leisure, and harbour piers, which are built as sea defences to protect shipping and provide places to load and unload cargo. Both tend to have landing stages for boats.

For a county with such a long and diverse coastline (a complete end-to-end walk takes you across a whopping 286 km or 178 miles), Kent isn't over-blessed with piers. According to the National Piers Society, the only complete pleasure pier remaining in Kent is at Deal. Pier of the Year in 2008, Deal Pier is relatively modern, having been opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1957.

Forget cast iron, the third pier on the site is a relatively simple structure made mostly of reinforced concrete. Joyrides and candyfloss are absent, but anglers and mariners are both welcome, co-existing easily by the simple means of two-tone handrails. Where the handrails are green, anglers may fish; where they are yellow, boats may pass beneath the pier without being in danger of fouling from lines.

Two modest but touching memorials are the benches at the entrance to the pier. Both carry plaques, one commemorating Leslie Alec Hood, a carpenter involved with Deal pier's construction, and the other to Chris Carden who took part in the pier's 2003-4 restoration.

Kent does have another remaining pleasure pier, but it is not complete. At 3,787 feet, Herne Bay once had the second longest pleasure pier in the country - only the world-record holder at Southend-on-Sea exceeded it in length. Herne Bay pier was closed in 1968 as it was considered unsafe. Ten years later it was badly damaged in a storm which severed the pier, sweeping most of the neck away.

The site of the old pavilion, now a leisure complex, remains at the landward end, while the pier head is isolated and rather forlorn in deep water. Fundraising to restore it continues, but with a target of £12 million, there's a long way to go.

The 1978 storm was also responsible for destroying Margate's pleasure pier, called, rather confusingly, the Jetty, after an earlier pier on the site built in 1824 by Mr Jarvis and called Jarvis's Jetty. The harbour pier, now usually called the Harbour Arm, predates both and was completed in 1815; its entrance was modified in 1853 to accommodate the entrance to the new Jetty.

Exactly 100 years later, in 1953, the pier - unusually for a harbour pier - was badly damaged by storms. Wave action undermined the pier head to such an extent that the lighthouse was seen to be leaning and very soon collapsed. The end of the pier and its lighthouse was rebuilt in 1954 and sea defences added between 1954 and 1959.

1954 was significant for piers in Folkestone, too, as that was the year the town lost its pleasure pier when the Victoria Pier was demolished. The Harbour Pier, rebuilt in 1904, and East Pier still remain, however.

Folkestone harbour is famous for having a railway viaduct built across it to take boat trains onto the Harbour Pier. At one in 30, the harbour branch line is one of the most steeply graded railway lines in the country and a weight restriction on the Foord viaduct meant that only certain locomotives can be used.

As a result, the heavy express trains were pushed and pulled the first mile up the cliff by three or four small engines working together, rather like small tugs bustling round an enormous liner. The branch line is rarely used nowadays and Network Rail is considering closing it. The last official train ran on 12 April 2008, but the line is a favourite with railway enthusiasts and is still occasionally used by charter services. A steam-hauled train ran into Harbour Pier station as recently as 14 March this year.

Dover's Admiralty Pier and the Prince of Wales Pier also carried boat trains which connected with continental ferries. The town's massive outer harbour, circled by breakwaters and bordered at its western end by the Admiralty Pier, originated in a recommendation of 1845 to construct a harbour of refuge capable of handling up to twenty large naval vessels.

Dover's first pier was built in 1494 to provide protection against the prevalent south-westerly gales and prevent drifting shingle from blocking the harbour. The pier was successful, but not permanently so, as shingle continued to pile up against it and creep round the end. It was 250 years before the Admiralty Pier largely defeated the creeping shingle by reaching out into deep water.

The pier's foundation stone was laid on 2 April 1848 and by 1854, was 800 feet long. Extended several times, its total length is 4,140 feet today, although it appears shorter as the Western Docks are built on land reclaimed from the sea.

Broadstairs' first pier, although not quite so old as that at Dover, also dates back to Tudor times. It was built in 1538 by George Culmer to aid and protect his shipyard in Harbour Street and stood roughly where the Pavilion on the Sands now stands. Broadstairs' current pier was built by voluntary subscription in 1772 and the white clapperboard Pier Boat House leaning rather drunkenly at the landward end of the pier is probably around the same age.

The brightly coloured carvings which decorate the building come from wrecked ships: the highlander figurehead is from the Highland Chief wrecked on the Goodwin sands on 12 February 1869, and the bearded head, plus lion skin - Sampson?, Hercules? - from a Spanish vessel which came ashore on 16 January 1844.

Ramsgate is known to have had a pier at the time of Henry VIII, but gained its impressive harbour by an Act of Parliament in 1749. Ramsgate is an important ferry port and so, like Dover has a number of piers and breakwaters.

Thomas Fisher in The Kentish Traveller's Companion of 1779, says: 'The new harbour, which cannot fail to attract the notice of all strangers, being the finest and most capacious in England, or perhaps in Europe, was begun in the year 1750; but on account of many interruptions, it is not yet quite finished. It consists of two piers; the eastern one is built entirely of white Purbec stone...The western pier is constructed of wood, as far as low-water mark, but the remainder of stone.'

Fisher's comment that the harbour is not quite finished may refer to the extensive harbour works designed by John Smeaton who was harbour engineer from 1778 until his death in 1792. Famed as the designer of the Eddystone Lighthouse, Smeaton was one of the first people to call himself a civil engineer - 'civil' as in 'civilian'. Up until then, most large engineering projects were overseen by the military.

Smeaton's most important innovation at Ramsgate was probably the Advanced Pier, a southwesterly extension to the original East Pier designed to reduce wave action inside the harbour. It was so successful that, during the great storm of March 1818, none of the large number of ships sheltering in Ramsgate harbour suffered notable damage.

With its shallow beaches, shifting gravel and offshore sandbanks, the Kentish coast has often been hazardous for mariners. Sturdy harbour piers have provided havens for shipping while pleasure piers have offered entertainment for leisured visitors. Both have created trade and prosperity for Kent's coastal towns.


  • Deal has the only pier in Britain built since the Second World War
  • Deal pier boasts a three-deck landing stage at its pier head. Unfortunately, the lowest deck is permanently underwater (a miscalculation? Global warming? Or for submarines?). The middle deck is closed at the moment due to storm damage
  • Folkestone harbour pier was built in 1863 and extended in 1885 by the South Eastern Railway who wanted their own ferry port to rival Dover
  • Dover's first pier was built by a priest, Sir John Clark, and was such a boon to ships that the sheltered haven it created was called, appropriately, Paradise
  • The bend in Dover's Admiralty Pier marks where it terminated in 1875. From 1886 the pier turret housed two steam-driven naval guns weighing 81 tons each. The turret is now sealed but the guns are still there
  • The wooden repairs to Broadstairs' pier are allegedly salvaged from a French marina which is supposed to have floated across the channel in February 1969 to land in Joss Bay just north of the North Foreland Lighthouse
  • Margate's lifeboat station was situated on the Jetty until the storm which destroyed the Jetty marooned the lifeboat station in deep water, inaccessible to its crew
  • The shell lady sculpture on Margate's Harbour Arm was sculpted by Ann Carrington and represents Mrs Booth, Turner's mistress
  • Until about 1966 Ramsgate West Pier had a Camera Obscura
  • So pleased with his welcome at Ramsgate Port was George IV that he granted the harbour the right to use the title 'Royal'. It is the only Royal Harbour in the country

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