Page update August 2022
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This is an old webpage (needs updating) but you can read much more by checking out some of my published books on Amazon - see www.davidstjohn.co.uk/author.html These titles based on Southampton music memories:
DAVID ST JOHN - A LOOK AT ONE OF MY FAVOURITE BUILDINGS!
This page offers a historic perspective of a great Sotonian landmark and will then lead you to some rare images of the old ballroom. Please get in touch with me, if you have any of your own memories or photos that might be slotted into this and other pages. E-mail me at email@example.com
THE ROYAL PIER
Sadly, this elegant facade is all that remains of one of the finest piers in the UK, which dates back to the early 19th century close to the famous Southampton Docks which were once packed with ships and liners from all over the world and gave the city its great position and profile. People walked through the main entrance and booking hall, before taking a leisurely stroll along the wooden decking or just sitting in the sun and watching the busy activities of the docks on both sides. Back on April 10th 1912, the whole Pier must have been packed as onlookers gasped at one of the most magnificent liners ever built, glide slowly out of its berth on its way to a tragic end - the Titanic. She sailed from berth 44 about half a mile away in the Old Docks but would have been seen by those crammed onto the Royal Pier as she steamed down Southampton Water into the Solent and onto the watery grave that lay undiscovered until 1985.
An old picture postcard showing a liner sailing past the pier, from the direction of the New Docks. It does resemble the Titanic but is historically incorrect. The entrance hall was not built until 1930 and the ship did not sail in this direction. You can also see the more modern Pavilion Ballroom at the far end but it does give a good impression of how it all looked and will stir fond memories of many visitors over many years. Thousands of people must have fallen in love at one of the dances as eyes met across the dance floor - many of them getting married then taking their own children along to the Pier in later years. Maybe it all happened again..........
A BRIEF HISTORY
The Royal Pier was opened by a young Princess Victoria in 1833, just four years before becoming Queen in 1837. Many improvements were made throughout the 19th century - with new pontoons, landing stages, tollbooths and various extensions. Much of this was geared toward the Isle of Wight and Hythe ferries and its boom times came at the turn of the century until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. It berthed around ten steamers at a time and the pavilion provided tearooms with entertainment, including dancing, concerts, exhibitions, and even roller-skating from 1906.
A few old images, showing the changes
Picture postcards -again possibly Edwardian period?
An old view from the end of the pier - the New Docks were later built to the left
This picture postcard shows the old Royal Pier railway station which closed in 1921
Royal Pier - early 20th century. Note the old entrance hall.
After the War ended in 1918, the railway had deteriorated and was finally closed in 1921 although the busy Red Funnel ferry routes continued to flourish, and still do to this day. The pier pavilion was extended through the 1920s and the present gatehouse, described was opened in 1930. Some referred to it as 'wedding cake' style and to me it always reminded me of Brighton Pavilion tinged with Islamic art! This entrance building also features six magnificent iron lions that survived from the original gatehouse. They are holding shields bearing the Hampshire Coat of Arms, and a really fine example of a classic building.
In 1931 the world air speed record was broken by the Supermarine S.B.6 over Southampton Water and until the 1960s, this aircraft was exhibited on the pier as a visitor attraction at the rear of the gatehouse and was a prototype for the legendary Spitfire, designed and improved by Reg Mitchell who lived in Portsmouth Road, Woolston. March 2006 saw a 70th anniversary flypast over Southampton Water - this commemorated the first flight back in 1936 and must have been quite a stirring sight for those on the pier.
This aerial photo shows a view taken from a Supermarine Flying Boat with the pier in the middle and Town Quay behind. As the 1930 entrance hall is not showing, then this is probably late 1920s as these planes were being developed in the area. The Titanic sailed from berth 44 which is around the top right area of this rare image.
1944 D-day troops passing through the Royal Pier
The Pavilion Ballroom (entertainment side) remained closed during the Second World War being a target for German bombers that constantly strafed the city and dock areas. However, it was commissioned as a Royal Navy Shore base - HMS Squid! I was recently informed of a great Facebook post (Southampton Heritage Photographs). By kind permission of the family, I can now share their memories and we salute these brave sailors who served aboard this special ship! Within a short time, many of them would be having fun by dancing the night away. The setting will bring back more memories of the old Pier and one can imagine how they enjoyed sitting in the sun in between dashing for cover when the air raid sirens blasted out those spine-chilling sounds. A few names noted but maybe others might be able to identify others? Who knows how many of these lovely ladies are still around these days and would love to know that they now have a global presence! I'm sure that more information is availably by net searches but I will just add this to my webpage for now.
HMS SQUID 1944/1945
Back Row: ? ? Heather Cotton (Wells) Diana Massey, Rozelle Pierrepoint (Raynes), Margaret Gordon-Thompson
Middle Row: Gwen Bagg ? Joan Preece ('Winkle') Sue Huish Eve Sugg ?
Front Row: Margaret Sparkes, Gillian Sparkes, Lt Horace Sherwood, P.B. Gwen Dobson ?
It was re-opened in 1947 having been leased by Mecca Entertainment and in 1963 the pavilion was extended at a cost of over £100,000 and converted to a Ballroom. The Golden Years of the Royal Pier really took off throughout the Fifties and Sixties as it was a popular venue featuring top dance bands followed by the pop group explosion and other attractions. The early Sixties also saw the top names in the TV wrestling game slug it out in the ring including big stars such as Jackie Pallo, Steve Logan, Mick McManus and many more colourful characters.
The Seventies saw a gradual decline of the much loved Pier and by 1979 the Mecca Ballroom had ceased trading, The 900ft pier closed on 31st December of the same year due to its economic decline, lack of investment and the major fire that decimated the mostly wooden buildings but leaving the steel supports intact.
I have recently had some inside information passed onto me by a previous city councillor and Harbour Board official who was involved with this very phase of the Royal Pier decline and offers an insight into some rather alleged dubious dealings! Mecca were hoping to rebuild the burnt out Pavilion but it was discovered that they had obtained the lease after a 'private' deal by a local Alderman Hammond and without the prior agreement of the Harbour Board. This meant that Mecca, in their haste, had overlooked the fact that they had no right of passage across the main Pier to reach the Pavilion so were powerless to take it any further as the Harbour Board decided that it was not in the best interest to grant such a right. These sensitive meetings were held 'in camera' i.e. no public access or reporting and very much part of the 'old boys' network that has now died out. There was a lot of bad feeling generated at this time and the general public had no idea of what was really happening behind closed doors. This sealed the fate of the sad old Pavilion which then fell into further disrepair.
The Red Funnel Ferries used more space for car parking and the gatehouse/entrance hall was converted it into a Pub/Restaurant in 1986. In 1987, a serious fire completely destroyed the pavilion and bandstand at the pier head and a subsequent fire in 1992 destroyed much of the pier neck, and caused serious damage to the rear of the gatehouse. This blaze effectively sealed the fate of Southampton Royal Pier and signalled the end of an era. This photo has been sent to me from Chris Golden, one of the many DJs that appeared at the ballroom and certainly brought a tear to my eye when I saw the damage on a later visit to Southampton.
Royal Pier circa 1987 after serious fire damage
With its derelict wooden pier jutting out over the water, and the ornate pier gatehouse now standing alone, Southampton Royal Pier presents yet another sad chapter in the national decline of seaside piers.
2006 The sad remains of a once great pier in the foreground with Town Quay behind
Fast forward to 2008 - I am glad to report that the old deserted gatehouse and entry hall building has been renovated by local businessman Kuti Miah who owns several Indian restaurants in the area. He has now opened the Kuti's Thai Restaurant which offers great views across to the docks and surrounding waterway so this might pave the way for further investment in the rest of the derelict Pier that still stands defiantly in the water.
Kuti's Royal Thai Pier-opened 2008
The whole docks and Town Quay areas need to be utilised as well as making sure that the annual Southampton Boat Show maintains its local profile and hopefully stays at its nearby Mayflower Park site for years to come. If you check out the local Echo newspaper and website, you will find many stories linked to the Pier and many local people are very happy to see the much loved building back in use and maybe one day I can organise some live entertainment that will take people back to the Golden Days of the Fifties and Sixties when many a dancer whisked a partner around the old ballroom surrounded by palm trees and the thousands of mini stars bouncing off the large mirror ball! Read my personal account below and it might even stir your own memories - if so, please send them to me by e-mail.
Following on from this webpage started back in 2007- I had the great pleasure of appearing at the magnificent Kuti's Royal Thai Pier restaurant and marked a return to where my entertainment career first saw the light of day in 1958 as a ten year old rock n roll singer! I was also joined by the legendary Pier DJ Johnny Dymond as we recreated the Sounds of the Sixties along with DJ Geoff Knight who also trod those same boards through the Sixties and beyond. See other webpages with forthcoming reports on this nostalgic return - the first entertainment since the mid 80s before fires and neglect finished off this 'Mecca' for dance-goers.
A great night-time view of the main entrance - it made you feel good before the fun started!
I grew up in Woolston and was taken to the Pier on many dance nights - this led to me appearing there in 1958 (see my Biography page) My family used to enjoy a great night out, but this meant a short 'cruise' to get across to the Southampton side - yes the much-missed Floating Bridges! The old Itchen Ferry had been in operation for a few hundred years, as people were rowed across the River Itchen which separates the East and West suburbs of Southampton. The 19th century saw the introduction of pairs of large steam-driven boats that were guided by chains under the water and this saved a few miles extra travelling to cross the river up at Northam or St Denys. It only took a few minutes to cross over but I remember those old tubs with much affection as do many others who recall those days.
The Floating Bridges finally ceased in 1977 as the new Itchen Road Bridge was finally open and you may wish to search the net to find out more about these fascinating ferries that remain in older peoples' memories. In later years, the Floating Bridges allowed people to 'go over town' to work or play, and the Royal Pier was a popular destination. The downside was that you had to leave the Pier in good time to catch a bus or walk back to the docking stages before the last ferry ran! Then you had to jump on the last bus which took the long way round - quite a few miles that took you back to the Woolston side a few tantalising hundred yards across the water! If you missed the last bus, then you had a taxi or a very long late walk in all weathers. Take a look at any Southampton maps or local heritage sites and you will see what I mean.
We crossed over the river, then walked up past the Old Dock gates along Canute Road and finally reached the Town Quay with the Royal Pier opposite. Having paid the entrance fee at the front entrance (above) we then walked along the wooden decking - the ladies often getting their stiletto heels caught and broken in the gaps! For some years, they displayed an old Supermarine Seaplane just by the main entrance as mentioned above and many passers by broke into singing the Dambusters March with aeroplane gestures, in thinly disguised tributes to the Spitfire and other warplanes that saved the country from enemy attacks just a few years before! Some of the German visitors and passers by often joining in for a laugh (well - most of them......)
There was always a great atmosphere at the ballroom and I enjoyed watching the musicians and their techniques. Seeing the dancers enjoy themselves made me even more determined to make a living out of entertainment and inspired me in later years. I also remember everybody dancing and singing on the way out of the Royal Pier after another exciting night - our crowd sang all the way back to Woolston!
February 2010 e-mail received with a great photo of an old Southampton Harbour Board cap badge:
John Donald was another budding young musician back in the late Fifties and early Sixties and spent much of his time in Liverpool so well into docks, ships and music - all linked as we know. He writes:
John now lives in Cambridge and is an authority on badges! John buys and sells these unusual items so always welcomes any enquiries via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The old Royal Pier holds a fascination for many people and I receive several e-mails from all over the world- especially from those lucky enough to have enjoyed the dance nights at the old Pavilion Ballroom in the Fifties and Sixties. Many of us former groups, singers and DJs look back with fond memories of appearing at the best venue in town but saddened to see the decline of the once magnificent jetty that was a landmark on Southampton's waterside. One can only imagine the eyesore that greets passengers sailing in and out of the port on many new cruise ships that have made the city a major terminal. However, in recent weeks I have been contacted by a US based businessman who has outlined a major project for a Titanic 2 replica ship as well as themed 'Rock Ships' - see my my Site Map page for more info. It also encompasses some amazing plans for the old Royal Pier and I will be releasing more details as and when confirmation is received.
Another twist came in the form of a DVD sent to me anonymously , with no covering letter or address but postmarked Southampton- I naturally scanned it for possible viruses and then opened to discover a set of amazing photos taken on the actual jetty that has been fenced off for years. The whole Pier jetty is in a dangerous condition and there are security measures all around the area but it appears that a shadowy group of young thrill-seekers have managed to sneak onto the crumbling structure. No damage was intended and they merely wandered around, taking photos of several views, including amazing images of the old wooden boardwalk that saw millions of feet pass over them on the way to the ballroom or around the pier area for sightseeing, fishing etc. I am reproducing a few of these photos that show the severe damage, originally caused by the fires of 1987 and 1992 as well as the recent collapse of part of the jetty. Enjoy these incredible images of the old Royal Pier - the first time in some 33 years! Superb camera work and I thank whoever sent me this mystery disc full of forgotten views of my own favourite Southampton landmarks. Not forgetting that I started my long showbusiness career from this very spot back in 1958 when the Royal Pier was shaking to the news sounds of rock n roll and within a few years evolved into the much loved Mecca Ballroom, presided by the best DJ in town- Johnny Dymond! See other pages for photos and memories of the old Pier that might see a long awaited restoration in the very near future- please come back to this and other webpages for news that is trickling in all the time. The blog 2010 page is the main update page but other pages are often updated with relevant news.
WARNING- TRESPASSING IS A CRIMINAL ACTIVITY AND CAN BE DANGEROUS-CCTV SECURITY NOW IN PLACE
THE ROYAL PIER- OCTOBER 2010
The original boardwalk/ballroom area-collapsed structure in foreground Note original Victorian struts and this 'sightseer' gazing at the recent damage.
Standing on the site of the Pavilion Ballroom The old wooden boardwalk where the dance hall once stood
Great shot with outline of the Pavilion (front entrance)
Looking back with Kutis Thai Pier Restaurant (restored former entrance hall)
Terrific shot- ballroom to the left of this end of the pier
Looking across to Mayflower Park- new docks/cruise terminal to the left (out of shot)
ONCE AGAIN- PLEASE DO NOT ATTEMPT TO COPY THIS ILLEGAL ACTIVITY.
NO RESPONSIBILITY CAN BE TAKEN BY ANY SOURCE- THE PIER IS IN A VERY DANGEROUS STATE OF DECAY
Forwarded on by Pete Broyd (ex Pier vocalist) rare aerial shot with a Sunderland (?) Flying Boat going over the Old Docks
William Hollins- top right (standing)
Band marching through Southampton- note the tramlines
These programmes were photographed and e-mailed. Other programmes have been photocopied (see below these images)
Note Bandsman William Hollins on 'Solo Euphonium' 26 years old and an early Royal Pier musician!
WW1 Concert at Cadlands near Fawley -opposite Southampton on the edge of the New Forest- old map below.
Note that visiting artistes from the old Hippodrome Variety Theatre (later Grand Theatre) offered their service. Early 'Help For Heroes' fund raising concert!
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