The pier was opened on 5 August 1872 by the then Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Earl of Granville. It was designed by Eugenius Birch, who also designed the West Pier, Brighton and Eastbourne Piers, both west of Hastings, and it is often seen as an innovative design considering the technical constraints of the late-Victorian period.
The original 2,000 seater pavilion was destroyed by fire in 1917. This was eventually replaced in 1922 and played host in the 1960s and the 1970s to notable artists such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Genesis, Tom Jones, Ten Years After, and Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett played his last ever show with the band here on 20 January 1968.
During the 1930s, the pavilion extension buildings received an art deco facelift and a theatre rebuild. This was to be its prime era. More renovation followed its temporary closure during WWII and it housed the famous Hastings embroidery during the 1066 celebrations in 1966.
Elements of the pier became listed in 1976 and subsequently changed hands on a regular basis with erratic structural renovation input from its subsequent owners.
In 1990 it suffered considerable storm damage, requiring a £1 million refurbishment. In 1996 it was put up for sale, but the future of the pier was put in grave doubt as interested buyers were reluctant to invest due to the serious amount of capital needed to improve the unstable structural supports.
Financial losses led to the appointment of liquidators who closed the pier in 1999. The pier was eventually sold in 2000 and reopened under new ownership in 2002. It was passed to an offshore enterprise in 2004.
In July 2006, Hastings Borough Council, upon discovering that part of the pier’s structure was unsafe, closed the pier to the general public. Stylus Sports, a pier tenant who operated the gaming attractions, in conjunction with Hastings Borough Council, funded much of the needed £300,000 repairs, which enabled the court order closing the pier to be lifted. This financial infusion enabled the majority of the pier to reopen on 4 July 2007.
On 12 March 2008 the Hastings Observer reported to concerned locals how storm damage had caused considerable damage and that two support columns were in imminent danger of collapse. The failure of the owners to respond to appeals from the Council to repair the areas and the continual deterioration of the structure led to its long-term future becoming uncertain.
The Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust was established to raise funds through various means to renovate the pier, ranging from community fund raising to larger scale grant applications. Their long term goal is to acquire the pier and form a not-for-profit company to renovate, reopen and revitalise the pier as a community owned asset. The Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust. The HPWRT strongly oppose to any decision to demolish and clear the site of the structure, which would cost an estimated £4 million of local money.
The pier suffered extensive fire damage during the early hours of Tuesday, October 5, 2010. Estimates indicate that 95% of the superstructure of the pier was subsequently destroyed in the fire. Hastings Pier was deemed to be the pier most at risk in the UK by the National Piers Society.
In May 2011, it was announced by Heritage Lottery Fund that a Stage 1 development grant, releasing the first £357,400 of a total £8.75m grant was awarded by Heritage Lottery. This development grant was intended to complete the business plan, develop the heritage learning and activities programme and raise the £1m funding match.