ICE archivist Carol Morgan talks about the former Royal Suspension Chain Pier, Brighton on the 200th anniversary of its opening.
If you’ve wandered along the promenade at Brighton at low tide, you may have noticed a number of masonry blocks on the beach opposite New Stein square.
These are all that remains of Brighton’s first pier, the Royal Suspension Chain Pier, more commonly known as the Chain Pier.
Why was the pier needed?
Like most piers, the chain bridge was originally built to allow people to embark and disembark from ships and unload goods.
Previously the only way that people could take a ship was by hiring a local boatsman to take them from the beach to their vessel by rowing boat.
There could be problems supplying Brighton with goods during bad weather when the ships were unable to run aground on the beach.
Who designed the pier?
The pier was designed by Captain Samuel Brown (1776-1852).
Brown had originally patented wrought iron chain cables for naval use and the Royal Navy replaced their anchor ropes with chains.
This famous photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the launching of the Great Eastern shows a drum of chains made by Brown’s company, Brown Lenox Co.
With the knowledge gained with wrought iron, Brown sought further uses. In this case, eyebar links for suspension bridges, and he built a bridge over the River Tweed: the Union Chain Bridge, which still exists.
In 1821, Brown branched out, designing the 650-foot-long (198m) Trinity Chain Pier, at Trinity, Edinburgh.
He also created the Brightelmston (the original name for Brighton) Suspension Pier Company.
Like Trinity Chain Pier, the Brighton pier consisted of four iron towers, but this pier was longer and the towers had cast iron walls, the hollow middle being used as shops.
The first three towers were founded on 20 piles, which were driven several feet into the chalk.
The piling was no easy task.
Originally Brown employed a contractor to bore holes to drive the piles into. But after the machinery and staging were swept away in a storm, this plan was abandoned in favour of driving the piles directly into the chalk.
Brown took over the work, employing day labourers – mainly sailors used to the rough weather.
The tower furthest from land was founded on 150 piles which were cross braced for extra strength.
Each of the towers was separated from the piles by two 2.5cm thick iron plates.
Using suspension bridge technology, the deck was supported by four suspension chains on each side of the deck.
The chains were made of eyebar links 10 ft (3m) long and were hung in pairs with the upper pair 2ft (0.6m) higher than the lower.
They were carried 54 ft (16.4m) into the cliffs at the land’s end and passed over a saddle on each tower. They were then secured at the pier head by two large mooring stones and a huge iron plate weighing over a ton.
The wrought iron for chain links and other ironwork, including cast iron, came from the Brown Lenox chainworks at Pontypridd in south Wales.
Vertical rods were attached to the links between the eyebars and a flat iron bar was suspended from the rods between each tower.
Two-inch-thick (5cm-thick) planks were then placed from one side of the pier to the other, resting on the iron bar and the deck was placed lengthways across these.
Entertainment on the pier
The pier was primarily a way of boarding and landing first by sailing ships and later steamers.
However, there were a few attractions including a library and meeting room at the land end with a camera obscura: a kind of periscope which projected an image allowing people to `spy’ on the world outside.
As mentioned earlier, there were small shops of kiosks within the towers and there was a telescope and sundial at the pier head.
The end of the pier
The pier was 1134ft (345.6m) long and just 15ft (4.5m) wide and the unstiffened deck was vulnerable to wind damage.
This along with poor maintenance led to the demise of both Brown’s chain piers.
Brighton pier was first damaged in 1824 shortly after it opened.
A hurricane tore up a number of planks from the deck, but little damage was done to the actual structure. However, a storm on 15 October 1833 caused a great deal of damage.
The pier was repaired then, but eventually fell into disrepair and was finally destroyed by a storm on 4 December 1896.
Two years later Trinity Chain pier was also severely damaged by a storm on 18 October 1898 and was left to rot into the sea.
The toll booths and signal cannon, used to signal the arrival of a ship at the pier, were moved to the Palace Pier where they can still be seen.
In more recent years the house where Brown lived at 48 Marine Parade has been named Chain Pier House and a plaque added commemorating him.
Another plaque on the sea wall records where the pier met the shoreline.
Only one other suspension pier has ever been built in Britain and that was at Seaview, near Ryde on the Isle of Wight.
Designed by Frank Caws with a deck supported by wire cables and built in 1879-82, it suffered the same fate as Brown’s piers suffering storm damage before being demolished in 1952.
- Brighton Toy and Model Museum
- National Piers Society
- Bishop, J.G., The Brighton chain pier: in memoriam. Its history from 1823 to 1896., Brighton, 1897
- Simes, S. Description of the Brighthelmston suspension chain pier, with a narrative of its erection, of its opening, ... Brighton: Creasy and Baker, 1839
- Weale, J, Brighton chain Pier. In Supp. to vol.II and Plate vol.II in Theory Practice and Architecture of Bridges, London: J. Weale, 1843
- Miller, G and Jones, S K. Samuel Brown and Union Chain Bridge (Friends of the Union Chain Bridge), ISBN 978-1-5272-1616-7, 2017