Diving on the Piers

The city’s seafront is already buzzing with tourists and locals alike and the summer has only just begun.

In the days prior to the First World War, visitors to Brighton and Hove also gravitated there, attracted by the beach and various leisure and entertainments on offer.

Poster advertising excursions to Brighton via the “Shakespeare Route” with the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway (SMJ), c1910.
Poster advertising excursions to Brighton via the “Shakespeare Route” with the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway (SMJ), c1910.

In the early 1910s, Brighton’s two extant pleasure piers helped preserve its crown as ‘Queen of Watering Places’. Both the West Pier and Palace Pier offered a vast array of entertainments including theatre, concerts, and novelty acts such as James Doughty and his performing dogs. 

‘The West Pier, Brighton’ (1913) by Spencer Gore, on display in Brighton Museum’s exhibition ‘Down from London: Spencer Gore & Friends’ until December 2021.
‘The West Pier, Brighton’ (1913) by Spencer Gore, on display in Brighton Museum’s exhibition ‘Down from London: Spencer Gore & Friends’ until December 2021.

The West Pier also lured the crowds with more hair-raising feats. Often advertised were swimming demonstrations coupled with ‘high and fancy diving’, that is diving from great heights from the end of the pier into the sea.

Notable performers were the “Professors” Cyril, Reddish and Powsey, the latter’s daughter Gladys Powsey, and Zoe Brigden – you may have seen her name on one of the city’s buses. Another was Walter Tong who was regularly billed as ‘Professional Diver and Life-Saving Champion’.

Walter Tong, professional diver and life saving champion of the West Pier, Brighton. c1910s.
Walter Tong, professional diver and life saving champion of the West Pier, Brighton. c1910s.

Born in Bolton in 1892, Walter had learnt to swim by the age of nine and as a member of the Bolton Swimming Club became its captain. Throughout his teens he attained various awards from the Royal Life Saving Society which runs Drowning Prevention Week each year in the month of June. In 1913, he rescued a drowning man near the West Pier.

Walter Tong, professional diver and life saving champion, on the landing stage of the West Pier, Brighton. c1910s.
Walter Tong, professional diver and life saving champion, on the landing stage of the West Pier, Brighton. c1910s.

As an entertainer, Walter was a great exponent of the daring ‘Moleberg’ Dive invented by eccentric Swedish acrobat Anders Fredrik Mollberg. This involves a backwards somersault that the plucky young diver would perform from 40 to 50 feet.

Walter Tong, professional diver and life saving champion, performing a dive off of the West Pier, Brighton. c1910s.
Walter Tong, professional diver and life saving champion, performing a dive off of the West Pier, Brighton. c1910s.

Although the entertainers are long gone and the pier is a skeleton of its former self, part of its structure endures as a photogenic curiosity. The stories of those connected with the pier live on in the museum’s collections and through the endeavours of the West Pier Trust and others.

Dan Robertson, Curator of Local History & Archaeology

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