Pier that rose from ashes and is still going strong
It’s long legs have stretched out into the English Channel for more than 130 years, combatting all the elements that have been thrown its way. Built when Queen Victoria was on the throne – and a frequent visitor to Osborne House – Sandown Pier has become a part of Isle of Wight heritage, retaining many of the charms associated with a traditional seaside holiday.
It has been battered by gale force winds and high tides, and survived fires. In 1989 one fire caused more than £2million worth of damage, but the famous old pier rose from the ashes to continue to play host to tourists and locals of all ages.
Since the sad demise of Shanklin Pier 30 years ago, Sandown’s is the only entertainment pier still active on the Island, although almost inevitably much has changed from the day when it was first opened way back in 1879. The popular Pavilion Theatre, that played host to some of Britain’s finest singers and entertainers, has long gone, and still missed.
But you only have to walk along the wooden planks of Sandown Pier and you feel a sense of stepping back in time. Indeed, you can even look down through the gaps between the planks and see the sea lapping beneath you.
Then there are those wonderful, over-sized saucy ‘postcards’, where you stick your head through a hole to have a photograph taken. A helter skelter, spinning teacups and bumper cars are all located the end of the pier, more reminders of days gone by, along with donuts, candy floss and toffee apples. But there’s also an arcade with all the modern, hi-tech games for those forbidden to bring their X-Box on holiday!
The opportunity to walk out above the sea is as exciting to children — and many adults — now as it was to the many Victorian visitors, and the views from the pier are superb, both out to sea, and back towards land.
According to the National Piers Society, the first Sandown Pier Bill was passed by Parliament in 1864 but work did not begin until 1876 under the supervision of chief engineer W.Binne. The 360ft pier opened for the 1879 season, and following the creation of a new pier company, it was extended to 875ft in 1895. The pier, complete with new pier-head pavilion, was re-opened in September that year, and paddle steamers were a common sight at the new landing stage.
In 1918 Sandown Urban District Council became owners, and following amalgamation with the neighbouring Shanklin Authority, a new 1,000 seat, shoreward-end pavilion was opened on October 23rd, 1934 while the pier-head pavilion continued to be used as a ballroom.
The pier was sectioned during the Second World War for defence reasons and the condition of the landing stage deteriorated. A new concrete ‘double-decker’ landing stage was finally opened in 1954, nine years after the War ended.
Then in 1968 came the major decision to rebuild the pier. Work began three years later and included replacing the old, fire-damaged pavilion and building a new bar and cafe. It was finally re-opened by Lord Mountbatten on July 22nd, 1973.
Sandown Pier Ltd, under George Peak, bought the pier in 1986 with the provision that South Wight Council leased back the theatre for 10 years, and nearly £1 million was spent on refurbishment that winter. When fire struck during the August Bank Holiday on 1989, the pier did not fully re-open until June of the following year, although the shoreward end was back in business within 30 hours of the blaze.
The closure of the Pavilion Theatre on Sandown Pier was a bitter blow. Beacon columnist John Hannam remembers it well, and was there when the curtain came down for the last time. At the time John vowed neve to step back on the pier again – and never has!
The Pavilion theatre was opened on October 23, 1934, by the Admiral of the Fleet Lord Jellicoe. Sandown Town Council borrowed £26,000 from Whitehall and it was built in five months. From then on, iconic comedians and later chart-topping singers made the journey across the Solent to perform on Sandown Pier – the likes of Cyril Fletcher, Frankie Howerd, Diana Dors, Petula Clark, Dick Emery, Adam Faith and the Springfields.
John revealed: “Cyril Fletcher and his wife Betty Astell brought their Masquerade to the Pavilion in the late 1950s. One of their unproved youngsters was and Island-born young lady by the name of Sheila Hancock. Cyril was the first of the real name comedians to summer in Sandown.
“One of the highlights came on June 26th, 1977 when there was a Gala Jubilee performance for The Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Later that summer singing trio The Bachelors topped the resident summer show for a week, and broke all box-office records.
“That sell-out led to Mike and Bernie Winters headlining the peak weeks the following year, and the comedy duo also performed their very last show there before splitting up.
“One of the biggest crowd-pullers of all time was Jimmy Tarbuck, who played to a 98 percent capacity over a six-week spell in 1981, and other 80s stars included Russ Conway, Matt Monro, Don Maclean and Charlie Williams. Legendary comic Tommy Cooper was there in 1982, as were Larry Grayson and Freddie Starr, while Cilla Black appeared in 1983.
“Jimmy Tarbuck returned for the third time in 1989, and many locals acts also appeared at Sandown Pavilion, including the Sandown Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society.”
The Pavilion theatre finally closed in 1998, and the theatre was replaced with a bowling alley and the rainforest themed Lost World Crazy Golf course. The indoor arcade has a huge Magic Island children’s play area, and there are games for the whole family including 10-pin bowling. Parents can relive the childhood memories of the penny slot machines while the kids enjoy modern day video games.