Today marks 20 years since the West Pier erupted in flames following an arson attack.

Thousands of people gathered on the beach and watched in horror as the historic pier was engulfed by fire.

The blaze marked one of the final nails in the coffin for the Grade I listed pier, which had fallen into a state of disrepair over several decades.

The Argus looks back at the pier’s heyday and its tragic fall from grace.

Built during a construction boom for pleasure piers in the 1860s, the West Pier was the second of its kind in Brighton - following the construction of the Royal Suspension Chain Pier (which was destroyed in a storm in 1896).

Designed by architect Eugenius Birch as a place for visitors to enjoy the sea breeze, the pier opened to the public in October 1866 by Mayor Henry Martin and cost £27,000 to build.

Among the pier’s initial attractions included a miniature cannon fired at midday and the skull of a whale washed ashore in 1882.

The pier head was later extended in 1893, with a large pavilion erected and decorated with oriental towers - mirroring the style of the nearby Royal Pavilion.

The Argus: The West Pier and Brighton seafront as it looked in 1890The West Pier and Brighton seafront as it looked in 1890 (Image: Brighton and Hove Museums)

The West Pier did suffer some damage when the chain pier collapsed in 1896, but survived to be the city’s only pier for a time.

At the turn of the century, the pier became a hub for entertainment and attracted around 1.5 million visitors between 1910 and 1911.

Although the outbreak of the First World War caused a dip in visitor numbers, they soared to around two million between 1918 and 1919.


Facing competition from the Palace Pier, built in 1899, the pavilion was transformed into a concert hall in 1916, which welcomed performers from comedians Max Miller and George Robey to singer Florrie Forde.

The pier was also used by day trippers to and from France - and even had its own resident customs officials.

The Argus: The West Pier attracted millions of tourists in the late 1910s and early 1920sThe West Pier attracted millions of tourists in the late 1910s and early 1920s (Image: Argus archive)

During the Second World War, the pier had its central decking removed to prevent enemy landings, with an RAF fighter plane hitting the pier and crashing onto the beach in November 1944.

The fortunes of the pier began to decline after the 1940s and it entered into financial difficulty.

In 1965, the pier was bought by Harold Poster, who planned to develop the pier into a all-round holiday and conference centre to “give all the enjoyment of being on a luxury cruise”. After his company sought to demolish part of the pier, it was Grade II listed in 1969.

Following safety concerns, the pier was closed to the public on September 30 1975.

The West Pier Trust was created three years later and given the sole right to operate the pier by parliament, with the government upgrading the pier’s listing to Grade I in November 1982 - the first in the UK.

The charity received grants from English Heritage but, when the trust approved a controversial £30 million rebuilding scheme, English Heritage withdrew their offer.

The pier suffered damage in the Great Storm of 1987 and access from the shore was cut off in 1991.

The Argus: The West Pier as it looked in March 1992The West Pier as it looked in March 1992 (Image: Simon Dack)

Hopes were raised in 1998 with the creation of the new National Lottery, with £14 million pledged to restore the pier. However, the plans were caught up in difficulties finding a suitable partner and a legal battle with the Palace Pier who claimed unfair competition.

Tragedy struck in December 2002, when the pier partially collapsed during a storm, sending the pavilion tumbling into the sea. The concert hall fell over the following month.

On March 28, 2003, coastguard helicopters, lifeboats, police and firefighters were called to the pier after it burst into flames. A second suspicious fire ripped through the structure on May 11, with the pier’s last surviving kiosk swept away in a storm in December 2005.

The Argus: Thousands gathered on the beach as the West Pier was engulfed by fire in March 2003Thousands gathered on the beach as the West Pier was engulfed by fire in March 2003 (Image: Simon Dack)

The complete destruction of the pier left restoration plans in tatters.

The council later approved the construction of a “vertical pier” - the i360, next to the site, with some of the historic kiosks rebuilt in homage to the historic site.

Meanwhile, the decaying remains of the West Pier remain close to the beach, with further sections collapsing most recently in February 2016 and November 2022.

Despite this, the West Pier Trust remains hopeful that, one day, a new pier will take the place of the old.