History

 

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History of Ramsey Pier

 

Summary

 

Ramsey pier is 2,160ft long and was built for the Isle of Man Harbour Board for the sum of £40,752 (about £4.3m in today’s terms) by Head Wrightson of Stockton on Tees, UK. The designer was Sir John Coode, who later became president of The Royal Society of Civil Engineers. Construction began in 1882 and the pier was officially opened on 22nd July 1886 by the Bishop Rowley Hill, though it had already been in use for about one year whilst being finished and ships were already docking at the pier head.

The pier was originally intended as a landing stage to allow Steam Packet ships to pick up or discharge passengers at low tide. At low water springs you could expect about 18ft at the pier head, enough for ships of about 250ft in length. Later a basin was dredged at the end to ensure that ships had an adequate depth of water. In the first year of operation 156 steam ships called at the pier to load or disembark passengers showing that the pier was already highly valued as an embarkation point.

The designer, Sir John Coode, was held in the highest esteem in engineering circles and was knighted for his work in creating Portland Harbour for the Royal Navy in Dorset, the largest deep water harbour in Europe. His many engineering harbour projects around the world by creating harbours opened up trade routes to other countries. His photo appears in the photos gallery.

The pier was finally closed in June 1990 after a massive fall in numbers of people using the pier and increasing maintenance costs. Some of the main timbers and under-deck girders were now badly rotted away and a complete overhaul was necessary. The IOM government deliberated on repair options and costs, but 25yrs after closure, nothing was forth-coming. A new group, The Queen’s Pier Restoration Trust (QPRT), has now been set up with the sole purpose of restoring the pier so that it can be preserved and used once more.

 

History in depth

 

Ramsey pier was constructed in the great age of pier building in seaside resorts around England which saw approximately 100 piers eventually built, and by the time it was finished in 1885 about 50 piers had already been put up on the English coast. Ramsey pier used the now favoured and ingenious technique of literally winding the 18ft long piles into the beach to a depth of 12-15ft using a hydraulic engine and possible using high-pressure water pumped down the side of the piles to the fluidise the sand and clay. The hollow legs supporting the deck were sleeved over the end of each pile and attached with 6 off 1.1/8” bolts. To achieve this a 2ft 10″ diameter cast-iron screw was attached to the bottom of the 6” diameter pile with a 6″ inch pitch. This was a revoltionary way to support the legs and the weight which they carried used on other piers around England, but it worked and has stood the test of time with no perceptible movement laterally or horizontally.

A lattice of wrought-iron girders was then built on top of the piles at a height of 25ft above the beach at the pier entrance, and a wooden deck built over the supporting girders. The main walkway is 21ft wide but there are 5 wider sections at 37ft width which act as lateral stabilisers to prevent sideways movement under side forces from the wind and waves. There are 3 sets of  expansion joints along the pier to take up longitudinal movement when the pier heats up in the sun and between the seasons. One set links the pier to the promenade with sliding joints at the end of the girders.

The pier head is 47ft wide and 120ft long and of stronger construction to withstand forces from the wind and waves. Ships were able to berth onto a framework of greenheart piles driven into the sea bed on the south side of the pier head which were braced back under the pier and made independent of the main structure. In the early years the south facing berth was used but vessels experienced problems coming alongside due to strong prevailing winds from the SW. A technique was evolved to stop the ship alongside the berth and about 10ft out and then allow the ship to be pushed onto the berth by the wind. But this still sometimes created heavy forces which strained the berthing head timbers and often damaged the ships side plating.

In the end a 300ft long east-facing berth was built and opened in 1898, 12 years after the pier had officially opened. However this berth was eventually removed in 1994 after it was declared no longer required and unsafe for use. Steam Packet ships had stopped calling at the pier by 1970 due to insufficient passenger numbers.

The pier initially operated with no shelter at the pier head and there were some bitter complaints from passengers about having to endure strong wind and rain whilst waiting for a ship. Eventually a small cafe with a band-stand atop was constructed on the pier head to provide refreshments and shelter for waiting passengers. Perforated thin sheet steel panels were also fixed to the railings on the south side to reduce the draft across the pier.

It is a testament to the engineers of her day and Sir John Coode’s excellent design that you can stand on the beach by the promenade and sight down each row of legs, and they are all still perfectly straight and in line. The 2,160ft long deck is perfectly level indicating that there has been no sideways movement or sinkage since the pier was constructed 130 years ago.

Timbers to support a 3ft gauge tramway was included in the original design but the rails were not incorporated until several years after the pier opened. This was used for transporting baggage and light cargo with hand pushed small trucks. Hand pushed carts were also used and some of the photos show these. However it wasn’t until 1937 that a motorised passenger car was introduced with an enclosed van for luggage. This entered service after complaints from passengers about the fierce winds and rain experienced when using the pier.

There are pictures showing horse-drawn buggys waiting by the new landing stage which were used to deliver and collect passengers, baggage and ‘packets’ of cargo from the ships. The railway remained hand propelled until 1937 when an 8hp petrol engined Planet rail-car entered service. A new 10hp Wickham rail-car followed in August 1950 (see photo gallery).

The pier became known as the Ramsey Queen’s Pier when King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra disembarked at the pier-head in August 1902, followed by King George V and Queen Mary in 1920. The Queen Mother also disembarked in 1946 when the Royal Yacht Britannia anchored in the bay and the Queen Mother was taken to the landing steps by a royal launch. The Royal Yacht, the “Victoria and Albert” also made an unscheduled stop in 1847 (before the pier was constructed) when it anchored in Ramsey Bay due to heavy seas during a tour around the western isles, and Prince Albert alighted from a small boat onto the beach although Queen Victoria stayed on the ship feeling too ill. The gallery photos show all of these events.

The heyday for Ramsey Queen’s Pier was prior to the Great War when ‘promenading and taking the sea air’ became the in-thing on seaside promenades and piers, and England’s piers became more than just landing stages for passenger vessels but places for amusements, ice cream, dance halls and fun. 1914 alone saw the arrival of some 36,000 passengers from steamers onto the pier. Although Ramsey pier escaped the amusement halls that were put up on piers to attract visitors being only 21 feet wide, photos of the time show that it was well used with hundreds of fine gentry and ladies dressed to the nines promenading the deck.

In 1956 the original turnstile was removed from one of the octagonal green & white booths at the entrance and put into a small, rather dingy, pebble -dashed building which is still visible today.

But the last forty years of the 20th century witnessed a gradual decline in use with fewer and fewer passenger ships calling. Annual maintenance had been carried out by a team of 10 workmen who spent their days during the summer chipping off rust and painting coal-tar onto the iron work and legs, often suspended by rope slings like bosun’s chairs under the pier. During the summer months the ‘tap-tap-tap’ of chipping hammers had been a regular sound on work days. But a declining number of people using the pier saw a loss of interest in maintaining the structure.

In 1969 visitor numbers had fallen to a mere 3,054 people past the entrance turnstile. The last IOMSPC ship to call at the pier-head was the “Manxman” in September 1970 on route to Belfast, and then all services were suspended. However, photographs taken along the pier in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s (see photo gallery) show that the wooden deck, the hand rails and shelters were being maintained in remarkably good condition despite now being 80 years old.

Thankfully the pier remained open for use by holiday-makers wishing to promenade the deck, and anglers who have always been regular visitors. By 1979 the now disused landing stage at the pier head had deteriorated to the extent that it had to be fenced off from the main deck for public safety. 1981 saw the closure of the tramway and by 1990 the landing stage had separated from the main deck and was awaiting removal by the Department of Highways Ports and Properties, which took place in 1994. The seaward end cafe was destroyed by fire in 1991, some believe being deliberately set, and was replaced by a new shelter and toilets. These facilities were sadly vandalised within days of being opened and this, along with other structural concerns, finally sealed the pier’s fate.

 

A Brief History of the Pier Closure

 

After repairs to the shelter at the pier-head, in 1991 the DHPP issued a statement that they would close the pier if there was further vandalism. This warning was not heeded and the pier was closed to the public in June 1991 after further damage took place.

A report commissioned by the IOM government showed that restoration costs were put at £2.5 million and demolition at over £1 million. The ‘Friends of Ramsey Queen’s Pier’ formed in 1994, with the comedian Norman Wisdom as the first president, to promote the retention and restoration of the pier, and a section was opened for public access for National Piers Day in June 1996. Also in 1996 divers removed broken tie rods, cleaned the bracketry and installed some new cross ties between the pier legs at the seaward end where they had become detached. The cost of these repairs was met from the pier’s £40,000 annual provision.

In 1999, a report commissioned by the Friends of Ramsey Queen’s Pier declared that the Queen’s pier was in much better condition structurally than previously considered and many other British piers, and a full refurbishment would cost £1.273 million. However, for the next ten years progress was painfully slow as various reports were commissioned by Tynwald to estimate the costs of repair for different options of use, with full restoration costs spiralling from £1.3 to 10 million by 2010. Fortunately in 1995 the pier was listed on the Island’s register of Protected Buildings ensuring that it would have to be repaired and not demolished. In 2005 Tynwald set up a select committee to examine all of the options. However there appeared to be little interest within Tynwald to see these costs met and work on repairing the pier carried out.

In January 2009, a Council of Ministers working group declared that Queen’s Pier was of “national heritage significance and should be refurbished and brought back into public use“. In July 2009, Tony Wills and Tim Wardley from the UK National Piers Society visited the Island and were fully supportive of the campaign by the Friends of Ramsey Queen’s Pier to see the pier restored. Also in September 2009, consulting engineers BWB Consulting UK were commissioned by the Council of Ministers Steering Group to establish options and their costs to secure the future of the pier. In the same year the FOQP also commissioned their own survey to establish repair costs for comparison.

Sterling efforts were being made during this time by the Minister Phil Gawne and a few other MHK’s to save the pier, and several business plans were produced by the select committee to ensure its survival, but these lacked support from the majority of members within Tynwald. The Steering Group produced a recommendation in May 2010 with 2 options to save the pier with a promise that if neither of these were taken up then the pier would be demolished.

Finally the members of Tynwald voted to stabilise the pier structure at a cost of £1.8m. This vital piece of work was carried out in 2011 where all the 1.65” diameter diagonal cross-ties between the legs were replaced throughout the length of the pier, along with some horizontal truts to stabilise the legs from movement which would eventually lead to a fracture of the legs or the castings at their top and bottom by repeated movement. Two short deck girders were also replaced which had come to the end of their life.

Anything that could fall off the pier, ie. all the hand railings, lighting columns, seats, deck fittings and loose timbers, were removed and labelled for storage because some of the timbers to which these things were attached had become rotted with age. We are told by the work-men that seagulls were now nesting in some of these well rotted timbers! These fittings are now being kept in four 20ft containers at Jurby where they will be examined and refurbished.

In May 2012 a new report commissioned by the IOM government recommended  that the Pier be restored in seven phased stages costing between £1.2 million and £1.7m each and progressively reopened to the public after each phase was completed. However due to financial constraints in government spending caused by a change in the VAT arrangements with the UK this work was never started.

A new group has now been formed, called the Queen’s Pier Restoration Trust (QPRT), to take over management of the pier to restore the entire length very close to its original design and keeping as many of the original features as possible, using public donations and the engineering skills of suitably trained volunteers to do the work. There have been changes in legislation since the pier was opened in 1886 to what is now permissable for public walkways, but it is the intention to keep as much of the original shape, features and fittings as possible, replace the corroded under-deck beams with new, replace probably all of the timber-work which is now 130yrs old, and re-open the pier in phases as each of the five 320ft sections, and 120ft long pier-end are completed.

QPRT hope that you will see this as a worthwhile venture and will want to make a donation (large or a few pounds) to see this work realised. One day we will be able to stroll along these decks once again taking in the sea air, and partake of a cup of tea and a sandwich at the end.

(Richard Crowhurst, 2018)