Today Southend Pier is as firmly fixed in the thick estuary mud as it is in the hearts of the city’s residents. It is inconceivable that it could be going anywhere soon.

Yet many people will be blissfully unaware just how close the treasured landmark once came to being bulldozed into oblivion.

We’ve all heard the quote by poet Sir John Betjeman: “The Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier”, yet the wordsmith and Poet Laureate had a lot more than that to say about our 1.33-mile-long pleasure pier.

In fact when he was approached by campaigners in the 1970’s asking him to back their fight to save Southend Pier, Sir John - a huge advocate for protecting Victorian architecture - composed a very poetic letter to The Times newspaper, pledging his full support.

At the time the future of the historic structure was hanging in the balance. A near-fatal accident had led to a chain reaction of bad news for the pier.

The accident that started it all occurred in 1971 after a child from Rayleigh was almost killed after plunging through rotting planking on the pier.

Echo: Southend councillors look at the planks on the pier following the 1971 accident where a little girl fell through into the waterSouthend councillors look at the planks on the pier following the 1971 accident where a little girl fell through into the water (Image: Newsquest)

Four-year-old Cheryl Byfield had playfully jumped off a bench onto the pier deck. A rotten plank sea-sawed and tiny Cheryl fell through the gap and plunged 30ft into the water below.

Fortunately, the tide was just deep enough to carry her to a stanchion and she clung on for dear life. She was plucked out of the sea by family members and taken to hospital for shock.

An investigation into the accident was called for and the report uncovered several serious structural failings on the pier.

For some time, the future of the pier was in jeopardy as the council debated whether to invest money in the repairs.

Because it wasn’t just pocket change that was needed. Some reports suggested as much as £2million would have to be found in order to revive the once famous Victorian attraction.

In 1976 when the pier was devastated by the worst fire in its history, it seemed the end was nigh.

However, members of the Save Southend Pier Action Group, including Peggy Dowie and her husband Ron, along with many others, were not about to give in.

Echo: Peggie and Ron Dowie pictured in the 1970s fighting for the pierPeggie and Ron Dowie pictured in the 1970s fighting for the pier (Image: Newsquest)

They steamed into action. Peggy once explained to the Echo how the fight began: “The pier had played a big part in both our childhoods. We had grown up around it,” she said.

“Our feeling was, ‘They can’t do that. It’s our pier’. There was a suggestion people didn’t care about the pier any more. We wanted to bring out in the open just how many people cared and how much they cared.”

The Save Southend Pier Action Group was wholly funded at the outset by a loan from Ron Dowie’s building business.

The heart of the campaign was a giant two-day festival, billed under the slogan: “Show you care by being there.”

There were also marches where thousands of placard-waving people would turn out, public meetings, a letter writing campaign- you name it!

Sir John Betjeman’s support also helped to bring the plight of the pier to the attention of the wider public.

In his Times letter, dated February 1974, he wrote: “Sir, I am one of millions who have used Southend Pier as the nearest place to London for real sea air, recreations and complete change of scene. It is easy to reach by train from London.

“In winter or summer, the pier is a delight with its tramway, once a toast rack type, running for a mile and third into a wide prospect of sea and sky. There is all the advantage at the end of the pier of being right out to sea and of no feeling of sea sickness.

“One can walk on the pier, one’s nose unaffected by fumes of oil, one’s ears un-assaulted by the internal combustion engine, one’s fears un-aroused by roads traffic, one’s eyes delighted by the far flat coast of Kent and Essex and the long straight line of the sea.

“The Pier has been generously maintained by Southend Corporation. Next week I understand the corporation may decide it can no longer afford to keep this historic and famous pier in repair. I hope the historic and famous pier will be considered not merely of local interest bur of national importance, yours truly.”

Sir John Betjeman.