A huge blaze which engulfed the historic West Pier in Brighton today was probably the work of arsonists, say firefighters.

The inferno at the pier's old theatre sent 100 years of history up in flames in less than an hour.

Station Officer Phil Thompson, of Preston Circus fire station in Brighton, said this afternoon: "The fire is definitely of doubtful origin. There is no way it could have started on its own."

Sussex Police have appealed for the driver of a black speedboat, seen near the derelict pier ten minutes before the fire was spotted, to come forward.

Mr Thompson said he believed what was left of the pier was unlikely to collapse. Timber had been burned away but a solid-looking cast iron and steel framework remained.

This afternoon, smoke was still billowing from the pavilion end of the pier, which appeared to have been gutted.

The fire was spotted at 9.45am today. Crowds gathered on the shoreline as smoke started rising from the seaward end of the Victorian structure.

Fanned by a strong easterly wind, the smoke rapidly became a swirling mass as the end of the historic pier - until now still relatively intact - turned into a fireball.

Firefighters raced to the scene but could do nothing. Mr Thompson said they would now stand by and simply watch the pier smoulder away until it had burned itself out.

Coastguards and lifeboat crews made their way to the pier to lend assistance.

By 11.30am the flames began dying down, leaving only the skeletal frame of the once-proud theatre.

It was the second pier blaze within weeks. In February a huge fire destroyed part of the funfair at the sea end of the neighbouring Palace Pier.

Rachel Clark, the West Pier Trust's general manager, said today: "There will be a full investigation and an engineer is on his way down."

The trust, which owns the pier, has been given planning permission for its restoration and had been due to start early next year.

The fire could be a crushing blow for the Grade I listed pier, which has stood derelict for decades. However, a city council spokesman said the restoration might still go ahead.

He said: "We're obviously anxiously trying to find out how it will affect the restoration.

"There was always going to be a substantial element of rebuilding rather than restoration. This will clearly mean far more rebuilding than envisaged.

"We're certainly not giving up and are remaining optimistic until we have reason not to be."

Estate agent Toby Carrington saw the fire from Grand Avenue. He said: "The whole rear end of the pier is just engulfed in fire. Someone up there clearly doesn't want it to be there.

"I can't understand how this structure in the middle of the sea can suddenly catch fire on its own."

Bob Jarrad, 50, of East Street, Brighton, said: "I'm gutted, especially when it has just been decided to restore it after all these years."

John Connor, 52, of Portslade, said: "It is a shame. I used to fish on it many years ago. It was very good fishing.

"I cannot understand why it has gone up in flames. I would have liked to see it rebuilt but I don't think it will happen now."

The starlings which used to roost in the southern section of the West Pier were making a temporary home on the roof of the collapsed northern half.

As word spread that the pier could be on its last legs, thousands of people lined up along the promenade to say farewell.

Those in flats and hotels opposite leaned out of windows and motorists slowed to a crawl to catch what they knew might be their final glimpse of the West Pier.

Police cordoned off the beach surrounding the structure.

Dr Geoff Lockwood, chief executive of the West Pier Trust, said: "I am extremely curious about how a fire could have started on the pier which was not accessible from the land. There was no electricity or combustible material there."

The West Pier was designed by the Victorian engineer Eugenius Birch and built in 1866. It closed to the public in 1975.

The pavilion which was destroyed today was built in 1893, 27 years after the pier opened.

It was soon converted into a theatre seating 1,400 people but after the Second World War it was converted into an amusement arcade.

It closed before the rest of the pier, in 1970, on safety grounds.

Report by Barbara Davidson, Adam Trimingham, Simon Flacks, Phil Mills and Steve Rogers
Picture special: thisisbrightonandhove.co.uk/fire/
West Pier story: thisisbrightonandhove.co.uk/news/local_issues/
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