It’s 30 years ago since the Isle of Wight suffered the brunt of the worst storm to hit the UK in living memory.
The Great Storm of 1987 claimed the lives of 18 people across the country, as winds reached speeds of 115mph.
Earlier that evening BBC weatherman Michael Fish gained notoriety when he announced on screen that someone had called in to say a hurricane was on its way, but he told people not to worry, because it wasn’t going to happen.
Thankfully, no one was seriously injured when the storm struck the Island, but the winds wreaked havoc. Many buildings suffered extensive damage, roads were blocked and hundreds of trees were uprooted, with precious species at Ventnor Botanic Gardens among the casualties.
But the worst devastation on that infamous night of Monday, 15 October, happened in Shanklin, when its pier, that had stood proudly in the bay for nearly 100 years, was reduced to a heap of rubble. Just three small structures of the 1,200ft pier remained, but such was the severity of the storm that parts of the structure have never been found to this day.
Neil Cole, a Shanklin longshoreman and part-time fireman at the time, still vividly remembers the happenings of that fateful night. Neil and his wife Marie now run the Sail ’n’ Surf cafe on Shanklin Esplanade, but 30 years ago, he was in the watch room at the fire station.
He said: “We had lots of ‘shouts’ that night, and we knew what was going on because we shared the radio wave with the police. Then we had a report that the pier arcade had blown down. The police went down and informed us that it wasn’t just the arcade, but virtually the whole pier had gone.
“I left the fire station and headed towards the Esplanade just to have a look. I managed to get down the hill to the bottom of Hope Road, but then had to turn my van round and reverse along the seafront, because large pieces of debris were flying through the air, including big sheets of plywood and roofing felt. It was scary, because some of the debris was flying around as high as the top of the lamp posts.
“Strangely, the waves were not coming up the beach, but were all being blown across the bay towards Sandown. I had never seen anything like it before, and have never seen anything like it since.
“Once I got to the pier, I could only see where the slot machine arcade had been. Then when the weather began to clear a bit, I could see the full extent of the damage.
“Although the arcade had gone, the bit of the pier it stood on had somehow survived, as had the two Victorian toilets that also stood on it. I never knew why the Council eventually decided to demolish that area – I still believe it could have been salvaged, but there were suggestions it would be a danger to shipping.
“In fact there were three different sections along the pier that were still standing, but you couldn’t reach them because there was nothing in between.”
Neil returned the following morning to a scene of total devastation.
He added: “People were taking wood off the beach because all the pier decking was teak. In the end the police closed the Esplanade. There were also fruit machines scattered on the sand, but there was very little looting because they had all been emptied a couple of days before the storm.
“In the end much of the wood was burned on a big bonfire on the beach. But up to three years later there were still bits of the pier being found – nuts, bolts and bits of wood.”
He added: “There was a big slide on the pier, and the only piece of that ever found was part of the steps to climb up it. The slide itself totally disappeared and has never been found to this day.”
Fred Sage had been the owner of the pier since 1976, and it is thought he actually set light to some of the timber on the beach because he was very upset that people were taking it away as souvenirs.
It was the end of an era that began in the 1870s when the Shanklin Esplanade & Pier Co. was formed, and work began to build the pier in August,1888. It hit bad times, and when it was auctioned by receivers in 1892, facilities included a bandstand/500-seat pavilion and a pier-head landing stage.
Passengers were picked up at Shanklin, as well as at Ventnor and Sandown to travel to Portsmouth. And in the early 1900s you could even catch a ferry at the end of the pier to travel to Cherbourg.
The pier was taken over by Shanklin Council in 1899. A £400 pavilion opened in 1909 but was destroyed by fire nine years later. And during the Second World War, the pier was sectioned and suffered bomb damage.
The pier was closed throughout 1975 but re-opened in 1976 under the ownership of Fred Sage. Shows and cruises resumed and the Shanklin Pier Preservation Society was formed to raise money for repairs. Leading Leisure plc took over from Mr Sage in 1986, but after they went into liquidation, no one actually owned the structure, so South Wight Borough Council had to take responsibility for it. It proved a costly exercise, as they eventually had to fork out £189,000 to demolish the parts that remained in February, 1993.
Before it was blown away, Shanklin Pier had been the focal point of the town. The theatre at the centre of the pier was always popular, with regular dances and shows. At one time there was a roller skating rink at the end of the pier, but that had already been removed prior to the Great Storm.
And since October 15, 1987, Shanklin Esplanade has never been quite the same.
Story by Peter White: The Beacon Magazine. Pick up your free copy across the Isle of Wight.