The construction of Blackpool Pier (eventually North Pier) started in May 1862, in Layton-cum-Warbreck, part of the parish of Bispham.
In October 1862 severe storms suggested that the planned height of the pier was insufficient, and it was increased by 3 feet (0.91 m).
North Pier was the second of fourteen piers designed by Eugenius Birch, and since Margate Pier was destroyed by a storm in 1978, it is the oldest of the remaining examples of his work still in use. It was the first of Birch’s piers to be built by Glasgow engineering firm Richard Laidlaw and Son.
The pier, which cost £11,740 to build, originally consisted of a promenade 468 yards (428 m) long and 9 yards (8.2 m) wide, extending to 18 yards (16 m) wide at the pier-head. The bulk of the pier was constructed from cast iron, with a wooden deck laid on top. The cast iron piles on which the structure rests were inserted using Birch’s screw pile process; the screw-tipped piles were twisted into the sand until they hit bedrock. This made construction much quicker and easier, and guaranteed that the pier had a solid foundation. The cast iron columns, 12 inches (300 mm) in diameter, were filled with concrete for stability at intervals of 20 yards (18 m), and supported by struts that were on average were slightly more than 1 inch (25 mm) thick.
The pier’s promenade deck is lined with wooden benches with ornamental cast iron backs. At intervals along the pier are hexagonal kiosks built around 1900 in wood and glass with minaret roofs topped with decorative finials. On opening two of the kiosks were occupied by a bookstall and confectionery stall and the kiosks near the ends of the pier were seated shelters. The pier-head is a combination of 420 tons of cast iron and 340 tons of wrought iron columns; standing 50 feet (15 m) above the low water line, it sees a regular 35 feet (11 m) change in sea level due to the tide.
The pier was officially opened in a grand ceremony on 21 May 1863, even though the final 50 yards (46 m) had not yet been completed. All the shops in the area were closed and decorated with flags and streamers for the ceremony, which included a procession and a cannon salute, and was attended by more than 20,000 visitors. Although the town only had a population of approximately 4,000, more than 200,000 holiday makers regularly stayed there during the summer months; this included 275,000 admissions in 1863, 400,000 in 1864 and 465,000 the following year. The pier was officially opened by Major Preston, and he and 150 officials then travelled to the Clifton Hotel for a celebratory meal.
The pier was intended primarily for leisure rather than seafaring; for the price of 2d (worth approximately £4.90 in 2012) the pier provided the opportunity for visitors to walk close to the sea without distractions. This fee was insufficient to deter “trippers'”, which led to Major Preston campaigning for a new pier to cater for the ‘trippers’. In 1866, the government agreed that a second pier could be built, despite objections from the Blackpool Pier Company that it was close to their pier and therefore unnecessary.
As permitted by the original parliamentary order, a landing jetty was built at the end of North Pier in incremental stages between 1864 and 1867. The full length of the jetty was 158 yards (144 m), and the extensions increased the pier’s total length to its current 550 yards (500 m). The Blackpool Pier Company used the jetty to operate pleasure steamers that made trips to the surrounding areas. In 1871 swimming and diving lessons were added to the pier.
To differentiate itself from the new pier, North Pier focused on catering for the “better classes”, charging for entry and including attractions such as an orchestra and band concerts, in contrast to the Central Pier (or the “People’s pier”), which regularly had music playing and open-air dancing. The pier owners highlighted the difference, charging at least a shilling for concerts and ensuring that advertisements for comedians focused on their lack of vulgarity. Sundays were given over to a church parade.
Blackpool North Pier’s Indian Pavilion was destroyed by fire on September 11, 1921
On 8 October 1892, a storm-damaged vessel, Sirene, hit the southern side of the pier, causing four shops and part of the deck to collapse onto the beach below. Several columns were also dislodged, and the ship’s bowsprit hit the pier entrance. All eleven crew members were rescued when they were hauled onto the pier. Damage to the pier was estimated to be £5,000 and was promptly repaired.
Nelson’s former flagship, HMS Foudroyant, was moored alongside North Pier for an exhibition, but slipped anchor and was wrecked on the shore in a violent storm on 16 June 1897, damaging part of the jetty. The wreck of the ship broke up during December storms.
The wreck of HMS Foudroyant in June 1897
The pier was closed for the winter during 1895–96 as it unsafe; as a result, the pier was widened as electric lighting was added.
An Arcade Pavilion was added in 1903 at the entrance to the pier and contained a wide range of amusements to suit all tastes. Further alterations were made to the pier in 1932-33 when the open air stand was replaced with a stage and sun lounge.
In 1936, a pleasure steamer returning from Llandudno crashed into the pier. The collision left a 10 feet (3.0 m) gap, and stranded a number of people at the far end.
The 1874 Indian Pavilion was severely damaged by fire in 1921. It was refurbished, but was then destroyed by a second fire in 1938. In 1939 it was replaced by a theatre, built in an Art Deco style. At around the same time, the bandstand was removed and replaced with a sun lounge.
In the 1960s, the Merrie England bar and an amusement arcade were constructed at the end of the pier nearest to the shore. The 1939 theatre, which is still in use, narrowly escaped damage in 1985 when the early stages of a fire were noticed by performer Vince Hill. In the 1980s, a Victorian-styled entrance was built. In 1991 the pier gained the Carousel bar as an additional attraction, and a small tramway to ease access to the pier-head. By this point, the pier had ceased to have any nautical use, but the jetty section was adapted for use as a helicopter pad in the late 1980s. The Christmas Eve storm of 1997 destroyed the landing jetty, including the helipad.
The North Pier is one of the few remaining examples of Birch’s classic pier architecture and is a Grade II Listed building, the only Blackpool pier to hold that status. It was recognised as “Pier of the Year” in 2004 by the National Piers Society.