By Emma Harwood

It won the RIBA Stirling Prize for its sophisticated, contemporary design last year. Yet almost half of the £14 million Heritage Lottery and other public funding spent on its reconstruction went towards restoring the unseen, yet most important part of Hastings Pier: its sub-structure.

Battered constantly by waves and jetsam, damaged by storms, sand and shingle, the cast iron columns, steel beams, trusses and ties which make up the underbelly of Hastings Pier form a constantly evolving structure that requires ongoing surveillance in the face of the corrosive, abrasive elements.

Built between 1869 and 1872 after many delays in its construction, it has required meticulous, costly, yet vital maintenance ever since. National archives show a letter written to the Board of Trade in 1907 from a Hastings gentleman concerned about whether enough was being done to keep it safe.

Indeed, when Friends of Hastings Pier spokesperson Adam Wide queried the decision this summer by administrators Smith and Williamson to sell the rebuilt pier to Abid Gulzar, despite a number of other bids being on the table, they stated in their reply: “Several potential bidders fell away when they explained to us that they recognised the significant and essential maintenance costs of the fabric of the pier and the costs of keeping on the employees or making them redundant under TUPE legislation.”

In other words, the new owner needed to be someone who could afford the considerable and ongoing expense of maintenance beneath, as well as the bills associated with staffing and running the top part of the pier.

“The unfortunate thing about a pier is that you take a wheelbarrow full of money and you tip it off the end and nobody sees what’s happened to it.” Peter Wheeler, Chief Engineer of Hastings Pier discusses the complexities of maintaining the pier.

Columns and trusses
The most important parts are the cast iron columns on which everything stands. For the last 150 years they have been abraded by shingle and sand washed against them with every wave. ‘Sacrificial abrasion guards’ have to be put in place to protect them.  Cross bracing needs to be kept taut, to prevent sway, while horizontal bracing must be kept in place to prevent buckling of the columns.

The original pier in 1872 was supported by Warren trusses, composed of equilateral triangles and held together by iron rivets. The pier builders would have heated the rivets before bashing them into place. Over time these trusses all decayed and were replaced by Pratt trusses. These are now held together by the galvanised steel nuts and bolts giving them a design life of 50 years.

Meanwhile the beach end of the pier stands within an ‘accelerated low water corrosion zone’. This means that the nuts and bolts must be checked, tightened and replaced on a frequent basis so that nothing gets loose, because once this happens the parts start to ‘chatter’ and wear, and the structure becomes vulnerable to the power of the sea, with every surging wave impacting on it.

In the 21st century there is also increased amount of jetsam in the water, including metal fallen from the pier in years gone by, which might be smashed against the columns in a storm. During storm Eleanor in January, a piece of two metre steel on the seabed was tossed along the beach 300 metres to the lifeguard hut.

Chief Engineer
Peter Wheeler, a Royal Engineer, has been consulted on piers at Weston-super-Mare, Southsea, Eastbourne and Brighton and has worked on marine and engineering projects around the world.   He became the chief engineer for the Hastings pier in 2013, helping to design a programme for its reconstruction and ongoing maintenance.

“The great aspiration was for somebody to be involved with the entire reconstruction and carry that knowledge forwards”, he says. “There was never enough money during the reconstruction to replace it all, so all areas went into a carefully programmed schedule of work.”

A team of apprentices was trained to become assistant engineers in order to inspect, maintain and keep it safe.

For the first year of the pier’s new ownership, the estimated cost of ongoing work was £45,000, to be spent on steel nuts and bolts and the planned replacement of components, excluding the wages of the engineering team or extra work required in the event of storm damage.

Mr Wheeler explains: “There were very careful calculations made.  Bidders like Friends of Hastings Pier included it in their plans because they realised that this would be where all the money would have to be spent. Ignoring it has literally been the downfall of many piers.”

He sums up: “Nobody in their right mind would build a pier in a highly corrosive environment, which is subject to an earthquake 365 days of the year, 24 hours a day and is being ground away. It’s a bonkers thing – and that’s what makes it so magical”.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. The future of our volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.