Popular pier’s 135-year history plagued by fires

A Miss Southsea beauty contest on South Parade Pier in the 1960s
A Miss Southsea beauty contest on South Parade Pier in the 1960s
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South Parade Pier has had a chequered history, largely dominated by three fires.

The Southsea landmark was built between 1875 and 1878 to the design of G Rale.

Front page of the The News from June 12th 1974 showing the Pier on fire.

Front page of the The News from June 12th 1974 showing the Pier on fire.

It was opened in 1879 by Princess Saxe-Weimar and, initially, its main purpose was as a steamer jetty for Isle of Wight passengers.

But on July 19, 1904, it was wrecked by fire and had to be completely rebuilt. The picture below shows large crowds gathered to watch the blaze at the far end of the structure 108 years ago.

Its replacement, which was 600ft long, opened in 1908 and the photograph below was taken shortly before the opening ceremony on May 7 that year, with builders perched precariously on every vantage point. No health and safety concerns in those days.

It was designed by local architect G E Smith and cost £85,000. It had a concrete deck and windscreens protecting visitors on all sides. A spacious pavilion contained two halls: one housed a 1,200-seat theatre, the other serving as a cafe during the day and a dance hall at night. At the seaward end, a similar pavilion incorporated a bar and lounge.

But in 1966 the theatre was damaged by fire and removed the following year.

It was during the 1960s that this marvellous photograph of the Miss Southsea beauty contest was taken.

Such events were hugely popular and here you can see the girls approaching the stage at the seaward end led by a short man with a parasol.

Then, of course, there was the devastating fire in 1974 during the filming of the late Ken Russell’s Tommy. The pier re-opened the following year after a £500,000 rebuild.