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1976: Fire engulfs Southend Pier
Fire has destroyed the famous pierhead at the end of the world's longest pier, in Southend on the UK's south-east coast.

A hundred people used boats and the train which runs the length of the mile-and-a-quarter (2,145m) structure to escape.

Strong south-westerly winds fanned the flames, watched by thousands of holiday-makers on beaches on both sides of the Thames estuary this evening.

Firemen tackled the fire from tugs in the sea as well as from the pier itself.

Their efforts were hampered by the limited water supply at low tide and additional water was distributed from crop-spraying aircraft flying overhead.

Two firefighters were slightly injured as they struggled to control the blaze.

Initial reports suggest it started near a restaurant on the lower deck and damage looks likely to cost owners, Southend Council, more than 1m to repair.

An investigation into the causes of the fire will start tomorrow.

Pier of history

The pier has suffered fire before, in 1959, when a fire in the pavilion - at the shoreward end of the pier - trapped 300 people who had to be rescued by boat.

The two-level pierhead opened in July 1908 and the eastern Prince George Steamer Extension opened in 1929.

The pier was a popular feature of the Essex resort the Victorians called "Whitechapel-on-Sea" because of the number of east end Londoners who began to visit with the advent of rail travel.

During World War II the pier was taken over by the Admiralty and re-named HMS Leigh, to be used as a convoy assembly point.

The pier saw its heyday immediately after the war when the train carried nearly five million passengers in the 1949/50 season.

In 1970 the local council leased franchises for entertainments along the pier and the subsequent 250,000 investment regenerated it with restaurants, a cocktail bar, a nightclub and amusement arcade.

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Photograph of Southend Pier on fire
Fire in the historic Southend pierhead looks set to cause over 1m damage

In Context
Two tenants of the destroyed pierhead served a writ - dated 28 July - on Southend Council the day after the fire, to seek damages for various violations of the terms of the lease.

A year later there was another fire in the bowling alley at the shoreward end of the pier.

The railway was forced to close in 1978 for safety reasons.

After years of local campaigning the pier was re-built and re-opened in 1984 with a new railway two years later.

A ship crashed into the pier in 1989 and another fire in June 1995 destroyed the shoreward bowling alley and forced the closure of the railway again.

Throughout its difficulties Southend Pier has never closed to the public.

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