It was Thursday 29th July 1976 it had been a very busy day for Southend the town was packed and busting at the seams. The pier had been the focal point for people coming into town and residents wanting to let their hair down.
All day the pier had been busy but by 7:30pm things has finally begun to wind down, when above the joy and laughter came a cry that stopped everyone in their tracks a cry that was far from happy far from being full of joy it was a cry of fear a cry of panic, the cry was one that would result in the destruction of the pier that cry was FIRE.
Nobody saw the initial cause of the fire, but by the time it was spotted it was already taking a firm hold. The initially small blaze was first spotted by people working in the Sovereign Bar located on the eastside of the pier head.
The first signs of the impending disaster were some smoke emanating from between the wooden planks, the staff quickly filled buckets of water and threw them over the area affected, but their efforts proved fruitful.
The fire soon spread throughout the sprawling pier head leisure complex aided in its destructive march by a strong South-westerly wind.
With more than 500 people still on the pier head they all had to be evacuated, the age old British tradition of women and children first and queuing was impeccably observed as hey waited for the pier trains which were operating flat out to bring them all to safety without any members of the public being injured, the evacuation was speeded up by taking many people off by boats.
As the public went one way the pier trains returning to the pier head were commandeered by the fire fighters to transport crews and equipment to the fire.
Fighting the fire saw some 50,000 gallons of water were being pumped on to the fire every minute by two fire tugs from Tilbury Docks, five more fire fighting boats were called in from Chatham in Kent to join in the fight to save the pier.
The fire fighters on the structure of the pier were hampered by the low pressure of the piers water main, special pumps had to be brought in and positioned on the mud with hoses running to the deeper water off the pier head giving and inexhaustible of water
As the fire raged the fire fighting tugs and fire crews on the neck of the pier were aided with help from above, it did not start to rain but...
Southend Airport based Ladislav “Ladi” Mormol dive bombed the pier with his crop spraying aircraft dumping 400 gallons of water at a time swooping down to 100ft, as the flames from the inferno leaping more than 150 foot into the air.
During the fight to tackle the blaze two fire-fighters were injured when they jumped from a single sortie building to get out of the way of the rife range bullets that were spontaneously going off in the heat, one broke his ankle the other received flash burns was the main ammunition store exploded.
The scene of the unfolding disaster was an awe inspiring site, Southend seafront came to a complete sand still with thousands lining the promenade from Westcliff to Thorpe Bay not a space was to be had. It was not just the Southend foreshore that was at a stand still but the people of the Isle of Sheppy had also seen the fire and were thronging the beaches to watch the unfolding drama the scene was repeated all the way along the north Kent coast as far as Herne Bay.
The fight to bring the blaze under control last more than four hours with eleven fire engines and over 100 fire fighters in attendance
By the next day and despite all the efforts the pier head complex was left a charred smoking ruin.
With word of the disaster spreading Southend Pier was lead story on news bulletins on television and was featuring in every national newspaper in the UK. The reporting did not just stop in the UK but the blaze also featured in newspapers and television news across the world including New Zealand, Australia, USA most of Europe and even Russia!
As soon as it was deemed safe the investigation in to the fire begun, initial reports pointed to a cigarette being dropped between planking close to the restaurant on the lower deck.
An investigation was also set up into why a newly installed diesel-pump failed to work properly just 36 hours after it was inspected and passed as working, however even if it had worked the fire grew so quickly with such an intestacy that it quickly engulfed the pump-room.
On Monday 1st August 1976 just three days after the fire the pier was re-open to the public, the public paid 15p to travel down the pier as far as the fire damaged pier head, here they were able to view the devastated hulk for themselves, what greeted them was a scene of total devastation the once resplendent pier head had been left as a mass of charred timer and twisted iron.
The fire destroyed:
What the butler saw machines,
Watch your weight machines,
Victorian phone boxes,
Ornate lighting stanchions,
Ice Cream Shop,
A number of small kiosks,
Palmist “madam lena” kiosk,
Skin Diving School,
British Automatic Amusement Arcade,
Lancorgne Amusement Arcade,
Pier Head Deck Chair Company,
Kelvin Huges Radar School for Ship’s Officers,
Hall of Mirrors.
The area destroyed in the fire was not fully restored until 2005 some 29 years later. Much of the delay was put down to the costs and the fact that the traditional British seaside holiday had fallen out of popularity with the cheap foreign package holidays taking off.
Today the site of the fire remains empty for a few years a hexagonal pavilion was operated on the site but was demolished in 2005 after another pier head fire but that’s another story for another time....
In the papers:
These newspaper front pages are held by the Southend Timeline please click on them to see a much larger virsion. We are always on the look out for more pictures of the pier head before the fire, during the fire and the damages caused by the fire.