The origin of most of what we now call seaside piers lies in the need for people to be able to embark and disembark safely from passenger ferries. As far back as 1292, according to the Sheriff’s accounts of the time, one such ferry was the Porthesgob ferry, operated by the Bishop of Bangor. This had landing places at Gorad y Git and Garth Point on the mainland and at Cadnant, Porth Philip Ddu, Borthwen and as far as Gallows Point on the Anglesey side. Getting ashore was likely to have been a somewhat hazardous affair, via primitive jetties subject to the rise and fall of the tides.
The Garth Ferry, operating from the stone jetty adjacent to where the Garth Pier now stands, was the principal crossing point to Anglesey before the construction of the Menai Bridge in 1826, and a ferry continued to operate from this jetty for many years after. Later records describe how, with the rise of steamer traffic between Bangor, Liverpool and other North Wales ports, passengers had to be rowed ashore in small boats, and the loading and unloading of cargo was challenging in the extreme. A better solution to these problems was obviously needed and so in 1885, Bangor City Council began exploring how the existing ferry services could be modernised to take advantage of the growing sea-borne traffic. Discussions with the Morgan family, who had been lessees of the Garth Ferry for almost a hundred years and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who owned the ferry, took place but it wasn’t until 1891 that the council acquired the old slate yard at Garth and improved the stone landing jetty, enabling a popular, twice weekly service to Liverpool on the Prince Ja Ja steamer.
This was a period in which piers were beginning to be recognised as valuable attractions to seaside resorts and, although Bangor could not match the attractive beaches of many other resorts, the idea nevertheless took hold that a proper promenade pier with its own landing stage would be of great benefit to the town. An intial approach was made to the Mayoh Brothers of Manchester to prepare plans for a Pier together with cost estimates to enable the council to obtain permission from the Board of Trade to erect such a structure at Garth. Initial construction estimates of around £14,000 soon escalated to closer to £25,000 to include the purchases of the Garth Ferry, improving the existing landing points and purchase of new ferry boats. These costs were to be covered by a loan which the council would apply for from the Local Government Board.
However, these proposals did not meet with universal approval and strenuous objections were raised to the imposition of such a large expenditure on a council which was already facing serious financial challenges. Nevertheless, following a Local Government Board enquiry in 1893, the loan was approved and the council was free to press on with the construction of a new pier. The council decided not to use the Mayoh Brothers on the project but to ask Mr John James Webster of Westminster to advise them. Mr Webster was a very experienced bridge engineer and and also designed the Promenade Pier in Dover which opened in 1893 and was of a similar design to Bangor’s pier. Webster assisted in the application for Parliamentary orders to build the pier and Royal Assebt was received at the end of August 1894, following which he was engaged as engineer for the project. The passing of the Bangor Pier Bill was celebrated by a large procession from the town clock to the ferry where a silver key to the ferry gates was presented to the council by Mr Morgan, who had been the lessee of the Garth Ferry.
Tenders were invited for the construction of the pier and the contract was eventually awarded to Alfred Thorne of Westminster, who had worked on a number of pier projects both within the UK and overseas. Work began in autumn 1894 and took eighteen months to complete. It was officially opened by Lord Penrhyn on 14 May 1896 following a procession through the town and a crowd of over 5,000 people assembled to watch the opening ceremony. The pier was 1,500 feet long and 24 feet wide along most of its length with a wider section at the pier head, 59 feet long and 99 feet wide, supporting a covered bandstand and leading to a floating landing stage reached by a girder bridge. Two large ornamental gates, flanked by small pavilions, stood at the entrance to the pier and a series of larger domed pavilions were positioned in recesses at intervals along the deck. Most of the original design still survives and the pier is generally thought to be one of the most elegant in the UK. The pier was a resounding success with regular, frequent steamer services calling at the new landing stage with passenger numbers in the hundreds of thousands using the services up to 1914. The puier was also a popular venue for entertainments providing pierrot shows, brass bands, variety performances, competitions and swimming contests.However, alternative venues for variety shows in the town caused the performing companies to move from the open sided and weather prone bandstand on the pier. The sides of the bandstand were eventually boarded in to provide a more comfortable environment.
From its opening in 1896 to March 1914, over 440,000 people paid to use the the pier’s services plus 296,000 purchasing contract services with roughly the same number attending the pier entertainments. There was standard entry charge of 2d (approximately 65p in 2019)with an increased charge of 4d to 6d (approximetely £1.30 to £1.95 in 2019) for special events. 6d would be around a fourteenth of a skilled tradesman’s daily wage.
Disaster struck in December 1914 when the merchant steamer Christiania collided with the pier during a storm, smashing a 150ft gap through the structure. A temporary walk way was constructed by the Royal Anglesey Engineers but proper repairs were not carried out until 1922, when further serious structural faults were discovered. Additional repair work was put in hand and improvements to the landing stage were also carried out. But from the mid-1920s, the popularity of the pier bgan to wane as bus services became available to replace the ferries and larger passenger vessels made Bangor impractical as a landing point. The entertainments available also declined during this period and by the early 1930s, the pier was making heavy losses and questions began to be raised about the wisdom of retaining the pier and its services within public ownership.
The Second World War caused any ongoing plans to be interrupted and part of the pier’s decking was removed to prevent enemy invaders using the pier. When the war ended the pier was in a very sorry state leading to some views that it should be simply demolished or sold. Neither of these happened however and the council made improvements to the pier and encouraged its use for events such as dances. But the pier was entering a phase in which it continued to lose money and deteriorate structurally.
Following a survey in the late 1960s that showed it was suffering from serious decay and had become unsafe, the council had no option but to close the pier in 1971. Complete demolition of the pier by Arfon District Council, who then owned the pier following local government reorganisation in 1974, was narrowly avoided by just a single vote. Further attempts at demolition were set aside when Bangor City Community Council achieved Grade II* status for the pier, later taking ownership of the pier in 1978 for just 1p and a promise to restore it. It was estimated that restoration would cost £470,000, a sum well outside the ability of the Community Council to cover, and so intensive fund raising efforts were put in hand.
Eventually, in October 1982, financial support from a number of organisations including the Secretary of State for Wales, the Welsh Development Agency, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and the Historic Buildings Council meant that restoration work could begin. A scheme set up by the Manpower Services Commission gave short-term work on the project to local unemployed people. Bad weather caused costs to rise and the additional funding was met by a sponsorship scheme in which various components of the pier could be sponsored for amounts between £5 and £2,500. Additional sponsorship was also provided for the pier head building and the ornamental entrance gates. The pier won a Prince of Wales Award in 1983 and a Europa Nostra conservation award in 1988. Finally, in May 1988, at an eventual cost of £3 million, the beautifully restored pier was opened by the Marquess of Anglesey.
There followed a fairly uneventful period in which the pier retained its popularity with Bangor’s residents and the many visitors to the city, with the Tea Rooms at the pier head developing a reputation for the excellent quality of its scones. However, the maintenance of the structure was not receiving the attention it deserved and by 2011 it became clear that problems were developing with the pier’s sub-structure.
A detailed account of the ongoing modern history of the pier is now available via the website of the National Piers Society at https://piers.org.uk/pier/bangor-garth/