The Clevedon Pier Supporters: Saving the Pier (1970-1998)

The collapse of Clevedon Pier in October 1970, after years of neglect, had quite an impact on local people. Many were saddened, most were intrigued, and a few were indifferent.

Nowadays many Clevedonians can remember where they were when they heard the news and will recount, with justifiable pride, how the broken Pier was saved from total demolition by a resolute and passionate body of local activists who galvanised support in the wider community. For it’s a wonderful story about how an ordinary community fought back against those in positions of power, some of whom wanted to take the easy route and write the Pier off. Nowadays history records the role of Sir John Betjeman and the dedicated people who formed the original Clevedon Pier Trust but to focus on their contribution, hugely significant is it was, would be to neglect some of the the individuals whose indignation and forthright response to the collapse proved to be the catalyst for the eventual restoration.

To hear Mike Hedger retelling the gripping story of how the original ‘Save the Pier’ sign was put onto the Pier click here. Image from the CPHT Community Archive

Pier Supporters on the beachfront, from the CPHT Community Archive.

The body of local people I am referring to, are the Clevedon Pier Supporters Club. The club was formed within weeks of the collapse and did not cease until the complete restoration of the Pier had been completed, some 28 years later. The Supporters Club had its roots in the aftermath of a Clevedon Urban District Council meeting in November 1970. 

At a gathering outside the old Council Offices on Highdale Road after the meeting had finished, Commander Thomas Foden, a popular ex Royal Navy man with a colourful personality, and others including Councillor Hilda Baker, resolved to “do something about the broken Pier”. Other local people, including Tony Williams, Michael & Valerie Sperring, Michael and Jo Hedger and Austin Davis were quick to react. The group had their first formal session in July of the following year, a couple of months after Sir Arthur Elton and Lilian Garland, the Chair of the Council, had called a public meeting and launched a public appeal for funds.

It was from this group that the Clevedon Pier Trust was formed in December 1971. Later the Trust formed a dedicated ‘Technical Group’, which would work out how, in engineering terms, the Pier could be restored whilst the Supporters Club would concentrate on building public support and raising funds. In 1972 Clevedon Civic Society publicly acknowledged the role played by the Supporters:

“In Clevedon, the Pier Supporters Club has stimulated and focussed a tremendous amount of local initiative, actively raise funds, and has found, especially among young people, the determination to preserve the Pier for what it adds to the environment.”

In the early years of the Club, as well as ‘lighting a fire that continued to burn for nineteen years’, the founding members were instrumental in winning support from those who mattered most – the local population. Newsreel footage taken at the time record people like Councillor Hilda Baker, Paul Cantrell, Mike & Jo Hedger, Ralph & Irene Fryer and Alistair McGann articulating their passions and vision for the Pier to anyone who would listen.

Pier Supporter in front of his car, from the CPHT Community Archive.

1989 Re-opening – Pier Supporters (CPHT Community Archive, Lilly Collection)

Having been the catalyst for the restoration the Supporters Club remained highly active until about 1975 when the focus of activity moved into a debate about whether the Pier should be demolished or restored. And there the story might have taken a different turn had Woodspring District Council (which had replaced Clevedon Urban District Council in 1974) not obtained a court order giving consent to the demolition of the Pier. The uproar that ensued, attracted a great deal of high-profile attention and when the matter went to a Public Inquiry in 1980 the Council’s plan was finally thwarted. The Pier was to be saved.

With morale raised by this landmark decision, the Pier Supporters who had dropped the word ‘Club’ from their title, convened their first AGM for five years. Recognising that the argument to save the Pier had been won, the Pier Supporters turned to the tricky matter of fund raising in recognition of the fact that the restoration would cost several million pounds.

The Pier Trust and the Technical Group of engineers who were advising the Trustees would plan and execute the work whilst the Pier Supporters would channel local support and raise funds. In recognition of this change of emphasis the Pier Supporters registered as a charity in 1983.

As the engineering work to rebuild the Pier gathered pace the Pier Supporters continued their fundraising whilst the Pier Trust and the ‘Technical Group’ began to seek larger-scale sources of funds for the rebuilding project. At times tensions between the two organisations did emerge as a result of differing priorities and the occasional personality clash. However, whilst the methodology sometimes differed, all were united by a passion for the Pier.

The importance of the Pier Supporters was captured in a beautifully crafted letter sent in 1987, in which Lady Margaret Elton articulated a picture of the Pier Supporters which captured the mood perfectly.

1989 – Pier Supporters Float (CPHT Community Archive, Fryer Collection)

“The Clevedon Pier supporters are a proud lot, and rightly so … it is the most thoughtful who devote themselves to giving significance to the present by understanding the past … the Pier Supporters are more important than ever. Rapidly growing towns need to look beyond the new bricks and breeze blocks to the pattern of the townscape, and in the case of Clevedon, its magnificent seascape where the Pier is, and has been for over a hundred years, “the Necessary Monument”.

Some of the very capable and committed people who were grappling with the engineering challenge of rebuilding the Pier and the grant applications which would unlock the bulk of the funding, were sometimes perceived as being dismissive of the smaller scale fund raising initiatives that the Pier Supporters were investing so much energy into, and this did sometimes cause distractions. However, Margaret Elton, amongst others, was astute enough to recognise what the Supporters already knew – that the fund raising was a very worthy endeavour in itself, but it was the togetherness that such activities engendered which was important.

Lady Elton captured this in the final paragraph of her letter.

“Above all, Clevedon needs the Pier Supporters who demonstrate what needs fighting for, and what pleasure concerted action in the right cause can do. Every fund-raising activity is worthwhile, and brings friends together for a cause larger than ourselves. This is the pleasure that in different towns people do not realise they are missing, a pleasure which comes from combined imagination, hard work and ingenuity.

1994 – Pier Supporters at Triangle Farm (CPHT Community Archive, Fryer Collection)

Indeed, the Supporters, from their inception in 1970 to their demise in 1998 – under the leadership of people like Commander Tom Foden, Hilda Baker, Tony Stewart, Gillian Lundqvist, Ralph and Irene Fryer, Michael and Valerie Sperring, Frank Benatt, Austin and Margaret Davis, Tony Williams, Maurice Simms, Geoffrey Hills and Graham Oldershaw – raised tens of thousands of pounds undertaking all sorts of community activities. The minutes over the years record steamer trips in the Bristol Channel, skittles on the Pier, carnival floats, collecting silver paper for recycling, beach BBQs plus many other events.  A roll of honour recording the membership of the Clevedon Pier Supporters from 1971-1989 (see image below) acknowledges one hundred and ten individuals. For some it was a family affair – the name ‘Tinkling’ is prominent with that particular household fielding no fewer than six Pier Supporter members.

With the Pier Supporters and the Pier Trust running along parallel tracks, the restoration was achieved. The Pier deck was reconstructed and re-opened in 1989 and the Pier Supporters were instrumental in getting the Toll House shop re-opened and the Toll Gate reinstated around about that time. Furthermore, most Pier Supporters volunteered on the Pier – working the till and guiding visitors. As the project moved to its climax in the late 1990s everyone involved coalesced around celebrating the full re-opening in 1998. To this end, in 1997, Ralph Fryer (Chair), Hilary Tinkling (Vice Chair) and Austin Davis (Secretary) drew the Supporters Club and the Pier Trust together in an extraordinary meeting which resulted in the release of almost £5,000 held by the Supporters and recognition for the Trust whose then Chairman, Niall Phillips, was presented with a commemorative tie – a seemingly small gesture which signalled a profound recognition of what had been collectively achieved.

Pier Supporters presenting ‘big cheques’ (CPHT Community Archive, Fryer Collection)

1998 Pier Supporters present a ‘big cheque’ (CPHT Community Archive, Fryer Collection)

The Pier having been restored to its original splendour, the Pier Supporters were disbanded in October 1998. Ralph Fryer summed up a ‘job well done’ in his final letter to the Pier Supporters Chairman, Sir Charles Elton; “we are disbanding the Pier Supporters, the task of completely restoring the Pier having been achieved”.

So why write about these matters now? The answer is that whilst it is entirely appropriate to acknowledge and praise those who won the Public Inquiry, raised the big grants and delivered the restoration, it is important that we don’t forget that it may never have happened had it not been for a small number of local people who had the gumption to stand up and fight for the Pier when all seemed lost and who devoted years and years of their lives to championing the cause. For the full history of the restoration the reader should look elsewhere, but to fully understand what happened then the critical role of the Pier Supporters must be appreciated.

Image: 1998 Pier Supporters present a ‘big cheque’ (CPHT Community Archive, Fryer Collection)

Written by Phil Curme, Chair, Clevedon Pier & Heritage Trust

With thanks to the following individuals who have generously donated their papers, artefacts and oral history relating to the Pier Supporters to the Clevedon Pier & Heritage Trust Community Archive: Austin Davis, Jackie English, Mike Hedger, Jane Lilly and Hilary Tinkling.

Also thanks to the volunteer archive team at the Clevedon Pier & Heritage Trust who do such a great job in keeping Clevedon’s unique heritage safe and accessible.

Watch a four-minute short film about the campaign to save Clevedon Pier. Clink the start button above.