IT’s well known that Southend Pier once came close to being demolished.

Emma Palmer takes a look at documents held by the Essex Records Office which reveal why the structure was in such peril during the 1970s and how plans for an exciting 60mph aerobus to whizz passengers to the pierhead almost became a reality.

Basildon Standard:

It has endured many ups and downs during its 131- year history, but one of the most troubled times for Southend Pier occurred in the 1970s when it came perilously close to being confined to the history books forever.

After decades as the town’s most popular attraction, the tide began to turn for the pier in 1971 following an accident.

Four-year-old Cheryl Byfield from Rayleigh was playfully jumping off a bench onto the pier deck when a rotten plank see-sawed up and sent the tot plunging through the gap and 30ft into the water below.

Fortunately, the water was just deep enough to carry the child to a stanchion and she clung on for dear life.

Basildon Standard:

She was plucked out of the sea by family members and taken to hospital for shock.

An investigation into the accident was called for by the newly-formed Southend Council Amenities Department and the £4,000 report subsequently uncovered a number of serious structural failings on the pier. The news was a hammer blow.

It was going to cost a lot to get the pier up to grade.

Many people- councillors included- just didn’t believe the substantial investment was worth it.

The pier had been haemorrhaging cash anyway- to be exact it was losing an average of £58,000 a year at this time.

A report presented to Southend Council into the pier situation in 1972 stated the condition of the pier was generally poor, reflecting a lack of maintenance over the years.

The rotting hard wood decking and the electric tramway on the pier had been a lingering problem since as far back as 1934.

A structural examination of the pier in that year found a number of weak spots.

It came to light that no maintenance work at all had been carried out on the pier during the entire First World War- 1914-1918 and it was probable that the severe deterioration of the historic structure had begun during those years.

Basildon Standard:

As a result of the 1934 report, some £20,000 was put into improvements.

In 1972 several options about the future of the pier were put on the table by Southend Council.

They ranged from carrying our full remedial work, estimated to be a colossal £535,0000 to scrapping one of the pier trains tracks to closing the pier either temporarily or permanently.

One of the more exciting options was to get rid of the costly and ageing pier trains in favour of installing a high- tech aerobus.

The proposal would have seen pylons placed alongside the pier linked by a steel cable cars controlled by a driver.

The cars could carry 100 people each and go at speeds of 60mph, even in adverse conditions.

The aerobus had been designed by famous ski lift engineer Gerhard Mueller and although it was still a prototype in 1972, it was attracting the attention of Southend councillors.

Despite the price tag of the projecting being £300,000 and the fact it would take eight months to build, some councillors believed the aerobus would become a novelty which would draw in much-needed visitors to the pier.

The project never came to fruition of course and the pier’s future continued to hang in the balance for several years to come.

By November 1974, the figure to overhaul the pier had risen to £2.5 million and in 1980 councillors finally voted to close the pier.

The story could have ended there if not for a lion-hearted fight put up by members of the Southend Pier Action Group, who made sure this never happened.