Eugenius Birch (1818-84)

Engineer Eugenius Birch is most famous for his seaside pier constructions. During his life he was responsible for no fewer than 14 of them including some of the best known such as Brighton West and Blackpool North. Born in Gloucester Terrace, Shoreditch, Eugenius was the son of a corn dealer, John Birch and his wife Susanne. His older brother, John Brannis Birch, worked closely with Eugenius on his engineering projects.

Pier end
Aberystwyth Pier – Mid Wales. The original pier was designed by Eugenius Birch and built in 1865. In this photo only a very small part of Birch’s original work can be seen. A long section at the seaward end was washed away in a storm less than a year after the pier opened and it was replaced with a narrower part, several years later, by a different engineer. Only the section under the pavilion (the yellow building) is Birch’s work

Birch’s early education took place in Brighton but he developed his taste for engineering while watching the cutting of the Regent’s Canal near his home in London. While he was a young boy he submitted an idea to the Greenwich Railway Company that, at the time, was novel and innovative. He suggested a method to put wheels under a railway carriage, rather than at the sides.

At the age of 16 he was apprenticed to a works in Limehouse, London. Within three years he was achieving success with medals for his drawings of working engines and machinery.As well as piers Birch was responsible for other, more conventional, structures such as bridges and he was involved in building the Calcutta to Delhi railway in India where he learned some of the oriental design that he later incorporated into his seaside structures. His first pier was built at Margate in 1853 but altogether he was responsible for 14 around England and Wales: Aberystwyth, Blackpool North, Bournemouth, Brighton West, Deal, Eastbourne, Hastings, Hornsea, Lytham, Margate, New Brighton, Plymouth, Scarborough and Weston-Super-Mare Birnbeck.

Most were constructed in cast iron because he believed that wrought iron piers would be a hazard if they were hit by boats. He argued that wrought iron would bend and buckle, and would take a great deal of repairing. Cast iron, however, would shatter, reducing the damage area and hence cutting repair costs. Neglect and old age have put paid to most of Birch’s piers, however, and little now remains of his original work.