Located on the north Wales coast, this is a story of a much loved, but neglected pier and the fight to save Victoria Pier by a group of dedicated locals after years of false starts and misfortune.
Ste Wright | 14 min read
Although found around the world, the Victorian seaside pleasure pier is a quintessentially British structure that have struggled to adapt to the social changes of the past century. Victoria Pier in Colwyn Bay is no exception. According to the National Piers Society, only half of the 100 coastal piers around the UK survive; many of these facing an uncertain future. After many years of neglect, the story of Victoria Pier in Colwyn Bay is a story of a phoenix rising from the ashes.
The Victoria Pier & Pavilion (Colwyn Bay) Company Ltd was incorporated on 9th November 1897. The pier in its original form was built in two phases; the first 350ft, entrance buildings and pavilion making the initial phase with the seaward stretch forming the second. The design of the pier and pavilion was the work of Mangnall & Littlewood with construction responsibility falling to the Widnes Iron Foundry. William Brown & Sons of Salford, who had a reputation for theatre construction were responsible for constructing the 2,500 seater Pavilion.
Construction started 1st June 1899 with the first piles being driven into the seabed using steam powered machinery. Unlike a lot of earlier piers, the piles used in Colwyn Bay were screwed into place instead of being driven in. The pier opened a year later on Friday 1st June, 1900.
Phase two of the construction saw the pier reach its full length of 750ft from spring 1904 to 1905. No landing stage was ever built, nor was one ever intended.
The first decade of the pier saw little to no profits, the earliest years being the most profitable. The pier was placed for sale in 1911 but failed to sell over a number of years, with the outbreak of the first World War halting any further attempts.
In 1916 a smaller 'Bijou' theatre was added to the end of the pier, accommodating 600 people which proved popular and helped reverse the financial fortunes of the pier.
27 March 1922 brought disaster when the Pavilion Theatre was totally destroyed by fire along with its contents with the convenient exception of the pier's fire insurance policy. The decking, entrance buildings and Bijou theatre survived.
In September 1922, the receivers who had run the pier since its 1913 liquidation sold the remaining structure to the local council for £4,750 and Victoria Pier & Pavilion (Colwyn Bay) Company Ltd was officially wound up the following December.
Construction was awarded to Braithwaite & Co who saw a construction programme replacing the original pavilion with a new 1,350 capacity theatre. It opened on 23rd July 1923, costing the council £45,000 (including costs associated with the initial acquisition). The new pavilion could be used for theatrical performances, or by removing two-thirds of the stalls seating, became a dance hall.
The life of the second pier pavilion was cut short, it too succumbing to fire on the night of 16th May 1933, just 10 years after opening. This was followed by a separate fire which consumed the Bijou theatre at the end of the pier only 10 weeks later on the 28th July 1933. This second fire was spotted at 4 am by a signalman Hugh Hughes at the signal box in nearby Colwyn Bay station.
With the fear of history repeating, the local council decided to press on with the construction of a new pavilion on Victoria Pier, except this time it was to be built using fire retardant materials in the Art Deco style, synonymous with the 1920s and 1930s. The first two pavilions had been steel framed constructions finished in timber; the third was built using a steel frame, asbestos and cement cladding. A covered walkway from the entrance to the pavilion was also added at this time.
Professor Stanley Davenport Adshead of London University was a specialist in fireproof buildings and consulted in the construction which was undertaken by Horseley Bridge & Thomas Piggott Ltd of Tipton Staffordshire. Seating around 700 people, the new pavilion was modest in size (and price, costing half of that it replaced) when compared to the earlier two pavilions. Inside was decorated by Professor Adshead's daughter, Mary Adshead and Eric Ravilious depicting murals of abstract underwater scenes.
The third Pavilion opened May 8th 1934 and remained popular with locals, even throughout the Second World War where it didn't suffer being sectioned to prevent a Nazi invasion, as so many did at the time. The post-war years saw a decline in audiences as variety shows and orchestral performances fell out of fashion. These were replaced by wrestling, dancing and talent shows to mention a few.
The pier struggled to maintain relevance during the fast-paced social changes that the early 1960's brought and was soon placed up for sale. At some point, during the 1950s a structure existed at the end where the Bijou theatre once stood. This appears to have disappeared in the late 1960s.
In 1968 the pier was acquired by Entram Ltd, a subsidiary of Trust Houses Group for £53,766. During the first year of ownership, the Pavilion was converted into the Dixieland Showbar. The Moorish designed original entrance kiosks dating back to the very earliest time of the pier were demolished and The Golden Goose arcade was added to the neck where the covered walkway once ran.
The entrance of the pier was slightly widened to allow access to the rest of the pier without having to venture through the arcade. Trust Houses Group merged with Forte Holdings in 1970 to form Trust Houses Forte Group and after owning the structure for just 5 years and considerable investment, sold it to Entamatics Ltd in 1973.
The seaward end began a period of poor maintenance and steady decline. In 1975 the pier was granted the Grade II listed status, but despite this, a proposal to demolish the seaward end was made a year later. A petition of 4,000 signatures saw the proposal declined by the planning committee.
Parker Leisure Holdings acquired the pier in 1979 for £115,000 and converted the pavilion into a disco. Wales Weekly News reporting the planning consent on 22nd November 1979, with planning being passed in January the following year.
During this time, the Golden Goose Arcade received a flat roof extension. This included two small towers on either side of the entrance at the shoreward end, extending to roughly where the original kiosks used to be. The pavilion was completely stripped of its external Art Deco features including its illuminated dome turrets and all windows were sealed up. It was renamed from 'Dixieland Show Bar' to 'CJ's Nightspot'.
On the 12th of June 1986 the deterioration of the 'once attractive pier pavilion' was reported when Chris Williams of Parker Leisure appeared before a sub-committee to ask for the license for the nightclub be renewed. Answering the question of the deterioration he replied:
The type of people who come to the pier are not used to anything better, and they create their own surroundings by the way they treat the place
Following a storm in 1987, the seaward end was closed to the public on safety grounds and a further application was made to demolish it. In this year, the seaward end was closed to the public with the rest of the pier closing completely in 1991.
The pier was placed up for sale, but little interest was shown. The seaward end continued to deteriorate, with sections of the ornate balustrading falling into the sea at the end and down one side. In 1993 the then Clwyd County Council granted permission to demolish the seaward end beyond the Pavilion.
September 1994 saw the ownership of the pier to Mike and Anne Paxman. Mike Paxman was an engineer by profession so was well suited to the challenge. After funding setbacks for grant aid (they were not eligible with the pier being in private ownership, the pier was partially reopened on 5th April 1995. The former Golden Goose arcade was subdivided, providing tenanted units consisting of a record shop, a sweet stall, a licensed bar, a fishing tack shop and a cafe to the front of the building which was run by his wife.
Part of the pier neck reopened shortly after. Insurance issues saw the family converting the former cafe at the front of the pavilion into a self-contained flat where the family lived.
In a bid to overcome the issue around funding, a trust was set up with the ultimate aim of securing grants for the purchase of the pier and restore the whole structure in phases. In August 2003 the pier was placed for sale, this time on eBay. After failing to reach its reserve price it eventually went on to be sold to Steve Hunt, a Cambridgeshire based businessman who owned a business trading in antique slot machines and fairground items.
Under Mr Hunt's ownership, the pier re-opened on 17th January 2004. He refits a larger bar in the former Golden Goose amusement arcade and began the restoration of the pavilion building. November 2004 saw the first public live performance in the pavilion building in 20 years.
2008 saw a legal challenge with regards to disputed business rates. This ultimately resulted in Mr Hunt being made bankrupt by Conwy Borough County Council. Years of litigation between the Council and Mr Hunt meant the pier received little to no maintenance, accelerating the decay whilst in the custody of receivers Royce Peeling Green. Using section 315 of the Insolvency Act 1986, the ownership transferred to the Crown Estate.
2010 saw the Victoria Pier Pressure Group announce £5.5m plans to restore the pier with plans being submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund. A year later, the chairman of the Colwyn Bay Civic Society called for the demolition of the structure but in spite of this, Conwy Borough County council announced plans to acquire the pier in May 2011.
Following a £36,000 grant from the Welsh Government, the ownership of the structure was transferred from the Crown Estate to Conwy Borough County Council in March 2012, coinciding with a formal bid for £4.9m towards the first phase of restoration.
The head of the Heritage Lottery Fund Wales Jennifer Stewart stated they were "impressed with the council's imaginative plans to transform Colwyn Bay Victoria pier and its art deco Pavilion into a much-needed community and tourist centre" yet despite this, the bid for funding was rejected.
Throughout 2012 the legal battles between former owner Mr Hunt and Conwy Borough County Council rumbled on in Cardiff Crown Court, where the court ruled in the council's favour. This escalated in April 2013 when an appeal case was heard at the High Court in London.
May 2013 sees the Heritage Lottery Fund approved a grant of £594,000 to enable a feasibility study, facilitating a further bid for £4,379,60 to restore the structure and its art deco Pavilion.
A report was undertaken, stating the costs of the restoration were likely to exceed £15m. The owners Conwy Borough County council set out plans to consider demolition, something which wouldn't be easy given the pier was a grade II listed building. December 2013 saw the council vote in favour of demolition, despite strong local opposition. The cost of demolition was estimated to be around the £1m mark. February 2014 saw the £594,900 Heritage Lottery Find grant be formally declined while Shore Thing and the Victorian Society criticised the council for not fully considering the restoration plans.
During 2014 the legal proceedings between Mr Hunt and the council continued. By October 2014, the structure had become unsafe, seeing debris falling from the pier. This prompted the erection of a fence around the entire structure. Colwyn Bay Town Council decide to support The Colwyn Victoria Pier Trust in a new funding application in opposition to the stance of Conwy Borough County Council.
May 2015 saw disappointment for the joint bid between Colwyn Bay Town Council and Colwyn Victoria Pier Trust when the Heritage Lottery Fund reject their bid, largely due to the lack of support from Conwy Borough County Council. The legal costs for Conwy Borough County Council in the ongoing legal battle with Mr Hunt top £250,000, something local MP David Jones criticise the council for.
May 2016 sees inspections carried out by Conwy Borough County Council in support of their plans for demolition, but listed building consent still remained an obstacle. New Chair of Colwyn Victoria Pier Trust states "Demolition is not an option, not until all other avenues have been explored", an opinion justified as a former Chief Planning Officer. December 2016 sees the legal battle between Mr Hunt and Conwy Borough County Council conclude when his appeal for ownership fails in the High Court, and a ruling stating no futher appeals could be lodged.
After positive engagement between Conwy Borough County Council and Colwyn Victoria Pier Trust, January 2017 sees an agreement for the dismantling and storing of the pier with a view for restoration at a later date. The following Febraury, a large section of the decaying seaward end of the pier collapses.
The collapse prompts action from the council, who by now had become increasingly concerned by the safety of the pier. A vote was passed to dismantle the seaward end ahead of listed building consent being granted to prevent further collapse. Later that month, Storm Doris hits the shores of North Wales, causing complete collapse of the end section of the seaward end.
An agreement was made in March 2017 to satisfy listed building consent that a shortened boardwalk be constructed from the salvaged assets of the pier. Conwy Borough County Council agree to work in Partnership with Colwyn Victoria Pier Trust in their plans to rebuild the art deco pavilion. Demolition of the seaward end commences and is complete by the summer of that year.
By October 2017, approval from the Welsh Government is granted for the demolition of the remaining structure. Demolition commences in Spring 2018 with some of the original murals by Eric Ravilious and Mary Adshead being salvaged from the Pavilion. By June 2018, the structure had been completely demolished, with the exception of 9 of the cast-iron columns which were to be used in the rebuilt boardwalk.
July 2018 sees contracts awarded to Donald Insall Associates to draw detailed plans of the restoration scheme with the formal planning application being made on 17th December 2018. On 17th July 2019, construction contracts are awarded to Kinmel Bay-based Grovesenor Construction Ltd with metalwork restoration being awarded to Calibre Metalwork Ltd.
Differing slightly from the original, the new pier plans reveal the wider tapering entrance is replaced with a universal width from the start. The restored basastrade includes repliclas of the original lamp posts down the 45m length. Using paint analysys, Calibre reveal that the colours used in the restored assets are to be salmon pink and cream.
July 2020 sees construction start for the new truncated pier. Originally planned for a summer completion, the estimated completion is pushed back to Spring 2021. As of February 2021, the truncated pier nears completion - a start to a new future for the much loved asset to locals, and UK seaside heritage alike.