In 1830 two London businessmen visiting the area came up with an inspired idea. One of these entrepreneurs, George Burge, had recently worked for the great engineer Thomas Telford on the construction of St Katherine’s Dock. Burge knew that the shallow water near the shore meant that any passengers wishing to land and take the waters had to be brought across in beach boats known as hoys, an uncomfortable and inelegant method of travel. He also knew that a similar problem across the Thames Estuary in Essex had recently been solved by the building of a landing stage more than a mile long which allowed passengers to disembark from paddle steamers and walk or ride on a cart towards the growing resort at the end, becoming known as Southend.
Burge returned to London and persuaded Telford to get involved with the project. Thomas Telford was President of the Institute of Civil Engineers and a well known figure. But he was now 72 years old. Although his name has forever been associated with Herne Bay, it is almost certain that the town’s first pier was actually designed by his chief assistant, Thomas Rhodes. Whereas Telford always worked in iron, Rhodes was a carpenter and he made the fatal decision to build the Herne Bay pier from wood.
Burge had no difficulty in raising the funds for the pier’s construction although £50,000 was a very considerable amount of money. Work began in 1831 and was completed a year later. At the same time Burge began buying land and, with local landowner Sir Henry Oxenden, he became involved in planning the town’s development. Ambitious designs were drawn for the new town by local builder Samuel Hacker, including a series of elegant squares and a wide Promenade running parallel to the sea which for many years would be viewed as one of Herne Bay’s major attractions.
The first pile was driven on 4 July 1831 and, less than a year later, on 12 May 1832 the first passenger steamer, the Venus, docked at the pier head. The first pier was an incredible 3,613 feet long and a sail powered trolley way was installed to transport alighting passengers and their luggage to the town. It made its debut run on 13 June 1833.
The decision to build in wood not iron was already proving to be a mistake. After only seven years the whole structure was in danger and urgent repairs were needed. The pier had become a victim of the devastating effects of the Teredo navalis worm eating through the wood which had never been properly protected. The solution was costly and time consuming and involved driving nails into every one of the inner and outer piles. But the greatest threat to the pier’s future came from a different direction. In 1861 the railway arrived in Herne Bay and the steamers which brought travellers from London to the end of the pier emptied. In 1862 steamer services from London stopped entirely and the Pier closed. It was finally demolished in 1870 and the useful remains sold for scrap.
From: The Herne Bay Pier Trust