It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. The arrival of the railways to previously undistinguished coastal towns and villages provided a wonderful opportunity for such places to develop into that bastion of Britishness – the seaside resort together with its promenade, boarding houses, battleaxe landladies and sand in the unmentionables . Today’s tale is of Hornsea – one little east coast resort with aspirations…
The railway came to Hornsea bringing flocks of day trippers from cities like Hull to breathe the bracing sea air. Up and down Britain’s coastline, seaside towns were adding visitor attractions to entice these trippers to part company with their hard-earned “brass”. Little Hornsea was no exception and its leading light, “King Hornsea” was a gentleman called Joseph Armytage Wade. He was a businessman, a significant local employer, had all ten fingers in twenty local pies and was liberally endowed with all the necessary characteristics – bombastic, over-bearing, self-righteous – to earn the title of town prat. He decided that what Hornsea really needed to attract visitors was a pier and to this end, in 1865, he formed a company and obtained the necessary permissions to build one. He got as far as driving ten piles into the sand of the proposed site and then stopped. The ten piles, known locally as the ten virgins stood, as all good virgins should, untouched for the next ten years.
Roll forward ten years and enter into the lists one Pierre Henri Martin du Gillon – a foreigner and sacre bleu, French to boot. Du Gillon bought a well-situated lump of land and drew up the most visionary and spectacular plans for “his” pier – known as the South pier. He didn’t just want a plank platform sticking out to sea; no, his plans included housing, a hotel, an aquarium and gardens. He proposed protecting it all by a huge sea wall. Yet there was more. He cleverly planned a a quay for fishing boats such as the herring fleets where they could land their catches. The quay would be linked by a tramway to the railway station and from thence to the fish markets at Hull. The plan outshone anything Mr Wade had ever come up with. The townsfolk rubbed their hands with glee (and to make sure that the anticipated wealth stuck firmly to them).
There was just one teensy-weensy fly in the ointment – du Gillon needed a narrow strip of land to link the proposed site to the railway station – land owned and suddenly cherished by Mr Wade. Discussions were opened, cordiality the plat du jour and our Frenchman came away from those discussions under the impression he had reached an agreement with Wade for the sale of the strip of land. Du Gillon drew up the agreement and Wade refused to sign it.
From that point on it was shovels at ten paces and the dispute would reach into the highest courts in the land. Thinly veiled allegations, not so veiled insults, letters to the press – Wade threw the works at du Gillon and yet sensing he had the townsfolk and two powerful local landowners behind him du Gillon pressed on. Wade’s current actions and earlier inaction stirred up the town against him but he was nothing if not a doughty fighter. When Du Gillon applied for a compulsory purchase order for the land, Wade, as Chair of the local Board of Health, whilst appearing to support du Gillon’s plans pointed out that the strip of land impinged on local sewage arrangements and the Board would need to think very carefully before supporting the purchase order in case it affected the town’s health interests. It was all a pile of poo but it potentially threw yet another shovel in the works for du Gillon. But he rode his luck and buoyed on by local support applied for permission to build his pier. Nothing daunted Wade hit back with his own application to build his pier – the North Pier and battle was joined. Finally both men appeared before a House of Commons select committee whose chairman ruled thus:
Each of you agree to the construction of the other’s pier or permission will only be granted for the building of one pier.
In the end, they agreed the compromise and little Hornsea was to become a two pier town.
Du Gillon was first out of the stalls in the building stakes but his scheme was doomed to failure. His capital had been eaten up with legal costs and he discovered that converting public support into public funds was akin to the water and wine miracle and certainly beyond his talents. He ran out of cash to splash and finally the weather did for him. A fierce storm blew up destroying his equipment and machinery overnight. He wound up his pier company and left Hornsea never to return.
His rival, after some serious gloating, fared little better when it came to finances and although the North pier was finished for the summer of 1880, one of the construction companies to whom Wade owed money took out a restraining order preventing Wade from taking possession of it. So whilst Hornsea had a pier stretching out to sea, it couldn’t actually be used. Later that autumn, during a violent storm, the brig the Earl of Derby lost her sails and was driven inexorably onto the newly built pier. The omens were not auspicious.
Eventually in the summer of 1881 Wade’s North pier opened but never really attracted the paying punters and the locals weren’t overly enthusiastic either – especially about paying to go on it -some having a habit of breaking in after hours. Wade died in 1896 and his pier just outlasted him before being demolished in 1897. Thus ends the tale of two piers.