In the early 19th century, Southend was growing as a seaside holiday resort as it was thought that spending time by the sea was good for your health.
However, the coast at Southend consists of large mudflats, so the sea is never very deep even at full tide which meant large boats were unable to stop at Southend near to the beach and no boats at all were able to stop at low tide.
This meant that many potential visitors would go past Southend and on to Margate, and other resorts where docking facilities were better.
To counter the waning tides, local dignitaries pushed for a pier to be built. This would allow boats to reach Southend at all tides. The campaign was led by former Lord Mayor of the City of London Sir William Heygate, 1st Baronet, a resident of Southend.
On 14 May 1829 the first Pier Act received the Royal Assent. On 25 July the Lord Mayor of London Sir William Thompson laid the foundation stone of the first section of the pier. By June 1830 a 600-foot (180 m) wooden pier was opened, based on oak piles.
In 1830 the Pier employed a horse tramway to convey goods and visitors to and from the pier head.
However the pier was still too short to be usable at low tide, so by 1833 it had been extended to three times its length and by 1848 was the longest pier in Europe at 7,000 feet (2,100 m).
It was sold by the original owners for £17,000 in 1846 after getting into financial difficulties.
By the 1850s the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway had reached Southend, and with it came a great influx of visitors from east London.
The many visitors took their toll on the wooden pier and in 1873 it was sold to the Southend Local Board (the local government in place at the time).
In 1887 work began building the new iron pier, which was later opened to the public that summer, though it wasn't completed until 1889 at a cost of almost £70,000.
It was an immediate success, so much so that demand outstripped the capabilities of the pier and a further extension was proposed. This extension was completed in November 1897 and formally opened the following January.
By 1891 the pier railway ran the then full length of the pier and carriages were in use. The system expanded, until eventually, by 1930, four trains, each made up of seven carriages, were running on a double track.
In 1907 an upper deck was added to the pier head, and the pier was further extended in 1927. The construction work was undertaken by Peter Lind & Company that still trades today. The work was carried out to accommodate larger steamboats.
It was formally opened on 8 July 1929 by Prince George, Duke of Kent. This new part of the pier was on the east side and was named the Prince George Extension; it was 326 feet (99 m) long and cost £58,000. The work of doubling the electric railway, completed in 1931, cost £35,000.
The pier closed to the public on 9th September 1939, and for the next six years it was taken over by the Royal Navy and renamed HMS Leigh.
Its purpose in the war was twofold. Firstly it served as a mustering point for convoys. Secondly, it was Naval Control for the Thames Estuary.
In 1945 the pier reopened and visitor numbers exceeded pre-war levels, peaking at 5.75 million in 1949–50.
The Dolphin Café was built out of the scrap and timber left by the navy. This joined the other attractions added to the pier that year such as the Sun Deck Theatre, the Solarium Café, as well as amusements and a Hall of Mirrors.
In 1949 the rolling stock was replaced with four new trains.
In 1959, a fire destroyed the pavilion located at the shore end of the pier. Over 500 people were trapped on the other side of the fire and had to be rescued by boat.
The pavilion was replaced by a ten-pin bowling alley in 1962, however, by then British holidaymakers were turning to package holidays abroad. The use of the pier slowly began to decline and with it the structure began to deteriorate.
In 1976 a fire destroyed much of the pier head. The massive blaze was battled by fire fighters working on the pier and from boats, and even using a crop-spraying light aircraft.
The following year the bowling alley was damaged in another fire, and a year after that, the railway was deemed unsafe and had to be closed.
In 1983 a grant from the Historic Buildings Committee meant the much needed repair work to the pier could commence and new railway and rolling stock could be bought.
The total cost of the 1984/86 reconstructions was £1.3 million. HRH Princess Anne inaugurated the new railway service on 2nd May 1986.
On 7th June 1995 the bowling alley was destroyed by fire. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries and there was no damage to the shore railway station or the Pier Museum, although storerooms and workshops were destroyed.
All services to the pier head were cut, access to the walkway was severed and some 30 metres of the railway track were damaged.
In June 2002 the RNLI Lifeboat Station and Gift shop was officially opened, and was funded by the RNLI.
In 2003 the new pier entrance was completed in the Summer costing £1.9 million.
On 9th October 2005 a fire severely damaged much of the old pier head including the railway station, pub, restaurant, gift shop, and toilets.
The Southend lifeboat was deployed to transport the first fire fighters to the scene. The pier head station was destroyed in the blaze, so a replacement with two platforms was constructed to take the pier trains as close as possible to the area where the blaze took place.
On 16th September 2009 the new station platform and office was officially opened in the summer by the Worshipful Mayor of Southend.
On 17th May 2012 the new Cultural Centre was lifted onto the pier. The unique £3m Cultural Centre was designed by White Arkitekter working in partnership with London-based architects Sprunt, and was constructed off-site at Tilbury Docks.
From there it was lowered onto a barge and transported along the Thames. The 170-tonne structure was then hoisted onto the pier head at high tide using a 400-tonne marine sheer leg crane.
On 17th July 2013 His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent ceremonially re-named the iconic Southend Pier Cultural Centre ‘The Royal Pavilion‘. The Duke unveiled the plaque bearing the building’s new name after officially opening the new RNLI lifeboat house on Southend seafront.
Southend Pier has held a number of Royal visitors including the Duke‘s father, HRH Prince George, who officially opened the Prince George extension in 1929.