Eugenius Birch

When we think of great Victorian engineers, we automatically think of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), but he was not the only great Victorian engineer, although by far the best known. Another great Victorian engineer was Eugenius Birch.

Eugenius Birch (1818-1884) was a prolific Victorian engineer who liked to be beside the seaside. Born in London in 1818, he designed and built no fewer than 14 piers off the coasts of England and Wales, the first at Margate in 1853, the last at Plymouth in 1884, the year he died.

These robust but whimsical structures, stoutly fixed to the sea bed by Birch's patent cast-iron screw-piles, were a busman's holiday of sorts for the engineer of the Calcutta-Delhi railway, Exmouth docks, Ilfracombe harbour and the West Surrey waterworks.

Birch was also a fine draughtsman and a talented artist, painting more than 100 watercolours during a tour of Italy, Egypt and Nubia in the winter of 1874-75.

Sadly many of his piers have been neglected or destroyed. He knew how to build attractive structures, and build well. His works adorn rather than destroy views from our promenades. They heighten rather than diminish the strength of the sea.

derelict West Pier and Brighton sea front His masterpiece was the West Pier (1863-66) at Brighton, a glorious seaside architectural fantasia. A Grade I listed building, one of only two piers in England to be listed as Grade I.

With oriental decoration, the West Pier more than matched the Prince Regent's exotic Brighton Pavilion.

The West Pier was hugely popular, attracting in its heyday two million visitors a year. Over the years, its superstructure has evolved: by the 1920s, when it reached its peak form, this included a full-blown concert hall as well as a theatre, bandstand and landing stage for paddle-steamers. By the 1950s, as it dipped into decline, the concert hall had become a cafe and the theatre was divided into Laughter Land (an amusement arcade) and the Ocean restaurant.

The West Pier now stands derelict. Destroyed by arsonists and storms. We can contrast the elegance of Birch's design, with the ugly monstrosity with which the West Pier Trust, property developer St Modwen and the local council, wished to despoil the seafront, all in the name of making a fast buck. A monument to greed, not Victorian engineering. It was peddled as renovation, which should not be confused with restore to its original Victorian splendour, a tribute to an all but forgotten great Victorian engineer.

Sussex ~ Brighton ~ West Pier
(c) Keith Parkins 2006 -- July 2006 rev 0