A Sussex Camera Obscura

Paul Dixon’s wife knows that there is another love of his life –  a beautiful if rather elderly lady whose recent makeover has given her a new lease of life.  Paul is the Chief Engineer for Eastbourne Pier and it is clear that he loves the old lady very much indeed.

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Eastbourne Pier in about 1905

I met Paul a few hours after a massive thunderstorm has crashed over Eastbourne and the morning air was cool and the sea calm.   As we walked between the older patrons and the young visiting students, Paul told me that he knew every inch and every bolt at the pier. “Not only above the decks but below where few people get to see”.  Paul is a  Pier Engineer and has worked on piers all around the country but Eastbourne is clearly his favourite and he has now moved to Eastbourne from his home in Cumbria.

The end of the pier is currently undergoing restoration.  The pier owner, Mr Sheikh Gulzar, is clearly committed to restoring the pier to (and maybe beyond) its previous Victorian magnificence.  Paul showed me a large Union Flag that he had just replaced.  “They are ripped to shreds by the storms” said Paul but although they cost several hundred pounds they are always replaced as Mr Gulzar loved to see the Union Jack be flying over the pier.  Paul told me he wants pleasure boats to once again moor at the pier so the landing stages, once bustling with fishermen are being repaired.   I remember when I was young seeing the bright yellow speedboat being dropped into the water and racing off into the sea.

The reason for my visit was to see the old camera obscura, the highest point of the pier at some 130 feet above sea level.  As we climbed the wide stairs (for some reason called the Triumphal Staircase) up to the golden dome,  the wonderful panorama of Eastbourne opened up beneath us.

Camera Obscura stairs
The Triumphal Staircase

This must be the very best view in Eastbourne maybe in Sussex. Paul opened a locked door which led into a bright circular waiting room, with fantastic views seaward towards the Sovereign Light Tower.  To one side some wooden stairs wound their way upwards, blocked by an original hand painted green sign asking patrons to wait a few moments before being taken up to the camera obscura’s viewing room.

Camera Obscura Sign.jpg
The Original hand-painted sign

Camera obscuras are an ancient method of projecting light and images onto a surface though a small aperture or pinhole. There has been a camera obscura at Greenwich since the late 1600s  In September 1879 a camera obscura opened on the rising ground near Mr Earp’s Mansion then known as ‘The Cliffe’ in Eastbourne.  This site is now occupied by the Hydro Hotel. For a fee of tuppence you could see the surrounding coast to a distance of about 14 miles on a clear day.

Note the Camera Obscura in the bottom right

A new theatre was opened at the end of the Pier In June 1901 and a camera obscura was installed in the dome above it. The obscura worked with a periscope that stuck up through the silver topped dome to reflect  an image onto a six foot wide white table in the darkened room below.  At the time it  was the largest in the country, possibly in the world.  The periscope could be moved around to give a 360 degree view and was particularly effective in bright weather with fine views towards Beachy Head and inland to Willingdon.

Paul and I climbed the spiral stairs.  The viewing room was smaller than I remember it when I was last there some 50 years ago!.  The circular room was filled with scaffolding but Paul pulled aside a sheet to reveal the white concave viewing table.

Camera Obscura Paul Dixon
Paul in the Viewing Room

The Pier’s camera obscura was a popular attraction and for many years was leased to William Augustus Pelly, a shipping agent who lived nearby in Cavendish Place.  He became an expert in the device but many of its secrets were lost when he died in the war.   At the start of the war the Pier Company were given just ten minutes notice that it was to be requisitioned by the army and the camera obscura became an observation post and the equipment was removed.   The men posted there were lucky to survive when it was hit by machine gun fire from a low flying German aircraft on a hit-and run raid.  During the raid the swivel top of the dome was shattered.

Camera Obscura Top.jpg

In 1952 it was decided to reopen the obscura but this was not without problems as much was missing.  Some lenses were found hidden behind slot-machines and Dorothy Pelly returned some of the equipment that her father had taken home.  After much trial and error a suitable mirror was found and the attraction was reopened to the public, operated by William Wood the pier “Amusement Manager’.   He seemed to enjoy the role and the images were sometimes so clear that on several occasions he was accused of projecting a film image onto the table. This was countered by sending a member of the audience down onto the pier to wave to up to the camera.

The time had come for me to see what the obscura could do. Above us, the mechanism in the apex of the dome looked fragile.  Paul pulled a rope to open the aperture and suddenly turned the lights out.

Camera Obscura Mechanism
The Camera Obscura mechanism

Suddenly the white painted table was full of colour. The view looked down the length of the pier and across the town to the Downs.  It was of course a moving image and people could be seen walking up the pier and the open-top busses passed along the prom.  There was something oddly exciting seeing the image which was strange as exactly the same view could be seen from outside.  Maybe it is because there is  something faintly voyeuristic about seeing someone when they can’t see you?

Camera Obscura view 3
The view !

The camera obscura was closed during the winter of 1956/7 for repairs but was a popular attraction until the disastrous fire of January 1970.  It was restored and reopened in 2003 but has been closed to the public now for many years.  Today the golden dome of the camera obscura shines brightly. Underneath the camera obscura mechanism still needs more work but I was thrilled to have the rare opportunity to see this beautiful piece of Victorian engineering in action.  Under the care and expertise of Paul I hope it can be fully restored so the public can once again see what their ancestors saw over a century ago.


I would like to thank the Pier Company and particularly Paul Dixon for showing me behind the scenes.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Vivienne VandenBegin says:

    Thank you. I’ve found the information fascinating and hope there will be a time to see it for myself Vivienne VandenBegin

    Sent from my iPhone



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