The proposal for a pier was first mooted at the end of 1863, and highly favoured by the town’s major landowner, the 7th Duke of Devonshire. It was to have been 1000 feet in length and, at a cost of £12,000, would have been situated at the end of the town’s grandest avenue, Devonshire Place. However, the project was delayed and finally abandoned in favour of the present site at the junction of Grand and Marine Parades, thus creating the easterly end of what amounts to a shingle bay. The pier interrupts what would otherwise have been a ribbon development of buildings – to the west, high-class hotels, with modest family hotels and boarding houses to the east.
The Eastbourne Pier Company was registered in April 1865 with a capital of £15,000 and on 18 April 1866 work began. It was opened by Lord Edward Cavendish on 13 June 1870, although it was not actually completed until two years later. On New Year's Day 1877 the landward half was swept away in a storm. It was rebuilt at a higher level, creating a drop towards the end of the pier. The pier is effectively built on stilts that rest in cups on the sea-bed allowing the whole structure to move during rough weather. It is roughly 300 metres (1000 ft) long. A domed 400-seater pavilion was constructed at a cost of £250 at the seaward end in 1888. A 1000-seater theatre, bar, camera obscura and office suite replaced this in 1899/1901. At the same time, two saloons were built midway along the pier. The camera obscura fell into disuse in the 1960s but was restored in 2003 with a new stairway built to provide access.
Paddle steamers (such as the PS Brighton Queen and the PS Devonia) operated by P and A Campbell ran trips from the pier along the south coast and across the Channel to Boulogne from 1906 until the outbreak of the Second World War. These were resumed after the war, but the paddle steamers were gradually withdrawn from service. In 1957, the final season was operated by a motor vessel.
During the Second World War, part of the decking was removed and machine guns were installed in the theatre providing a useful point from where to repel any attempted enemy landings and a Bofors anti-aircraft gun was sited midway along the length of the pier. In December 1942, an exploding mine caused considerable damage to the pier and nearby hotels; it had been tied to the stanchions by the local police, who were under the mistaken impression that it was fitted with a safety device. In 1943, a detachment of Royal Canadian Engineers fixed camouflage netting over the stanchions to conceal flotillas of small vessels, such as wooden assault landing craft. A George Medal and a British Empire Medal were awarded to two of the engineers who dived into the sea on 3 February 1943 to rescue a comrade who had fallen from a cableway which crossed a 30-foot gap in the structure.
Various traditional pier theatres were built over the years but after the last one was destroyed by fire in 1970, it was replaced by a nightclub and bar which remain to this day. On the landward half of the pier stands a fish and chip kiosk, an amusement arcade and a fast food outlet. Further out, as well as the club there is a cafe, a restaurant, a glassblower, a clothes shop and a tattoo parlour. The tower at the end of the pier is often used as a viewing point during the annual air show. In May 2009 the Listed building status of the Pier was upgraded from Grade II to Grade II*
Six Piers Limited placed Eastbourne Pier up for sale in 2009, with an asking price of £5.5 million. The sale price included a tea room, two bars, an amusement arcade and a nightclub.