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The Edwardian daredevil divers of Brighton’s West Pier 2

Walter Tong diving into the sea from a high board

Walter Tong performing a dive from the West Pier , Brighton. c.1910s. © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Take a deep dive into the digital image bank at Brighton Museum with this end of the pier story of daredevil Edwardians

Looking at the burned and largely collapsed ruin of Brighton’s West Pier today it’s hard to believe that it was once a bustling hive of entertainment.

Designed by architect Eugenius Birch and opened in 1868, the pier reached its heyday in the early 20th century and was host to a variety of performances – from music, dance and theatre shows to swimming and diving displays.

A diver performing a swallow dive from a high board above a pier

Professor Cyril performing a swallow dive on the West Pier, Brighton. © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

a diver performing a back forward dive from a board off a pier

The diver and aquatic entertainer Zoe Brigden, a regular performer on the West Pier, Brighton. © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

a diver performing a dive off of a high board on a pier

Walter Tong, pro diver and life saving champion, diving off of the West Pier, Brighton. c1910s. © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Throughout the early 1900s, a troupe of professional divers performed Swedish diving, fancy and high diving and other aquatic acts such as synchronised swimming, performing their death-defying feats throughout the day and drawing crowds of Edwardian ladies and gents to the then-bustling pleasure pier.

An expert performer of high, fancy and ‘Swedish diving’ and ornamental swimming, and a decorated lifesaving champion to boot, Walter Tong was one of these daredevil stuntmen who launched themselves from the pier into the chilly sea below in the name of entertainment.

His act featured the ‘Moleberg’ – an eye-watering backwards somersault dive invented by the eccentric Swedish acrobat Anders Fredrik Mollberg.

Postcard of diver and life saving champion Walter Tong

Walter Tong, professional diver and life saving champion of the West Pier, Brighton. c1910s. © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Diver Walter Tong on the West Pier, Brighton

Walter Tong, professional diver and life saving champion, on the West Pier, Brighton. c1910s. © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Postcard of divers Walter Tong and Zoe Brigden

Postcard featuring Walter Tong and Zoe Brigden, who entertained crowds on the West Pier, Brighton. c1910s.  © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Performing with Tong, Zoe Brigden was a Brighton-born swimming champ who turned professional in 1913 and was famous for her daring ‘wooden soldier’ dive, during which she plunged headfirst into the sea, with her arms firmly by her side. Happily she survived this perilous routine and retired from diving in 1925 to open a hairdressing salon.

One particularly daring stunt was known as ‘flying the foam’ during which the star of the show would launch themselves from the pier on a bicycle, much to the delight of the Edwardian crowd. It also resulted in some wonderfully surreal postcards.

Diving performer Professor Reddish cycling off the West Pier

Professor Reddish,”Flying the Foam” – cycling off Brighton’s West Pier into the sea. © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

The most famous performer of this unusual act was Professor Reddish, who was captured on film in 1906 by director James Williamson performing a selection of his other fancy dives.

The exciting footage not only reveals the feat of daring performed by Reddish, but also employs some very early special effects, showing the dives in reverse to appear as if Reddish is rising miraculously from the sea onto his diving board.

There was also Professor Powsey, whose Saturday evening act in the summer of 1905 included a so-called ‘Devil’s Dive’ which he performed by plunging into the channel from a height of 70 feet while enveloped in flames – a feat he achieved by wrapping himself in burlap sacks, dousing them with petrol and employing his son to set him alight.

Professor Powsey went on to entertain at Southport Pier for 18 years, and his daughter Gladys, trained by her father, became a performer on the West Pier as a swimmer and diver, as well as a dancer and contortionist; she is also said to have performed an uncanny impression of a seal.

Diving entertainer Professor Powsey cycling into the sea from the West Pier

Professor Powsey’s Terrible Cycle Dive. West Pier, Brighton, c1910. © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Diver Gladys Powsey performing at the West Pier

Gladys Powsey performing a dive from the West Pier. © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Sadly, the West Pier entertainers’ daredevil antics were not always without incident, and in 1912 professional diver Professor Cyril, real name Albert Higgins Heppell, was fatally injured during one of his displays.

When preparing to perform one of his bicycle dives from the roof of the West Pier Pavilion, he slipped and fell heavily onto the deck below, badly fracturing his skull.

A performer and his dogs on Brighton's West Pier

James Doughty and his performing dogs on the West Pier, c1904

The entertainments along the pleasure pier weren’t limited to divers, however. Notable band leader Victor Vorzanger occasionally performed with his band at the West Pier’s theatre.

Believed to have one of, if not the first, mixed race bands on record and comprising British and expatriate African American jazz musicians, Vorzanger’s band was famous for using a pistol as part of its percussion.

There was also James Doughty and his performing dogs. Doughty ran away from school at the age of 13 to become a travelling performer, and at 65 joined the circus in Brighton. He entertained generations of children on the West Pier with his performing dogs, and before he died in 1913 at the ripe old age of 95, he was Britain’s oldest clown.

See more photographs and postcards of the West Pier performers and much more from the Museum collection on Brighton Museum’s online Digital Media Bank: https://dams-brightonmuseums.org.uk/

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Brighton Museum and Art Gallery

Brighton & Hove, East Sussex

Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, with its rich and diverse collections, creates a vibrant cultural centre in and around the Royal Pavilion estate in the heart of the city of Brighton & Hove. Dynamic and innovative galleries provide greatly improved access to the Museum's nationally and locally important collections. Objects…

2 comments on “The Edwardian daredevil divers of Brighton’s West Pier

  1. bunie on

    We owe these collectors who present their collections to museums a great debt .
    We can now enjoy these marvelous images from over 100years ago and be captivated by the skill and courage of the Divers off Brighton Pier, quite wonderful.

    Reply
  2. Lozzz31 on

    Really interesting article! I’m glad that health and safety legislation exists now but some things were definitely more exciting back then!

    Reply

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