There is a Bronze Age barrow (burial mound) very close to the cliff top, which is currently under investigation by local societies. The barrow represents evidence of the occupation of Peacehaven at least 3,500 years ago. A 2007 excavation of the new Bovis Homes site to the west of Peacehaven Community School's playing fields unearthed an astonishing range of evidence for a prehistoric settlement throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages.
Peacehaven was established in 1916 by entrepreneur Charles Neville, who had purchased land in the parish of Piddinghoe; he then set up a company to develop the site (he also eventually built nearby towns Saltdean and parts of Rottingdean). He advertised it by setting up a competition in the Daily Express to name the development. The newspaper concerned, the Daily Express, sued Neville over the competition, holding that it was a scam, since he was offering "free" plots of land in the town as runner-up prizes but issuing them only on the payment of a conveyancing fee. The name of the winner who chose the name 'Peacehaven' was Ethel Radford from Leicestershire. The newspaper won the case, but the publicity brought the scheme to a large audience. The idea was then to sell plots of land cheaply for people to build on themselves. Initially the town was New Anzac-on-Sea but less than a year later in 1917 it was renamed Peacehaven.
The town was originally formed for retiring World War I veterans in order for them to escape and recover from the effects of the war. The idyllic setting, sea air and simple lifestyle were thought to have aided good health. The land was also cheap and, as a result, working-class families from the city started to purchase plots and gradually build makeshift homes for weekends and holidays. This movement of frontier-style buildings made with whatever materials were available at the time was termed as the Plotlands movement. Inhabitants felt a sense of freedom in living off what they needed and enjoying a simpler life away from the busy, polluted city. The Plotlands provided the working class an opportunity that might not have been available otherwise.
By 1924 there were 3,000 people living in Peacehaven. Original houses were often very temporary affairs (some were old railway carriages). Others were constructed from former army huts, brought from North Camp near Seaford, a few of these still survive, having been given an outer concrete block wall (they can be identified by their oblong shape that tends to be end-on to the road). Eventually the local council invested in water and electrical services and so people started to build more substantial houses. After World War II, the local council introduced a zoning scheme in order to distinguish areas for improvement along the coast road. In 1974 the Town Centre Map and Action Plan was formed to aid development.
There are two listed farmsteads in the town: Halcombe Farm House built in the 17th century, and Hoddern Farm House from the 18th century. Another old building is the Shepherds Cot, now part of a private residential property in The Compts in north Peacehaven. This tiny cabin dates from the 1880s when it was built on farmland to shelter shepherds during the lambing season.
The popular singer and comedienne Gracie Fields bought a home in Peacehaven overlooking the sea, then established the Gracie Fields Home and Orphanage in Dorothy Avenue. In fact the children were not orphans; their parents were entertainers who placed their children there while they were on tour. It was administered by the Theatrical Ladies Guild. Dorothy House is now a care home for the elderly.
Peacehaven is located on fairly flat coastal land which is elevated around 40 to 50 m (131 to 164 ft) above sea level. The pebble beach below the cliffs can be reached by a stairs and concrete driveway and sea walk. There are a number of green spaces along the A259 and the cliffs, one of which is called The Dell. A cinema formerly stood on this site, and now it holds events such as car boot sales, fireworks, fairgrounds, motorhome exhibitions, the Donkey Derby and an annual carnival (though in 2005 the carnival was held on the Joff field located behind the Meridian shopping centre). In the 1950s, the carnival stalls were located on the then vacant land on the NW corner of the South Coast Road (A259) and Dorothy Avenue.
Neville was influenced by the American grid system of planning. There were originally no "Streets" in Peacehaven; only "Roads" and "Avenues". With very few exceptions, "Roads" ran east to west, and "Avenues" north to south, most forming crossroads where they intersected the South Coast Road (A259). Apart from this road, Roderick Avenue, running roughly up the centre, was the only surfaced road (except for the area of Local Authority housing around Friars Avenue (north) in Peacehaven until the late 1950s, when the process of making-up the roads began. This started in Telscombe Cliffs and worked eastwards. As part of this, many of the Avenues had their junction with the main road blocked off to reduce the number of junctions and crossroads. The town still retains its original "grid" layout (apart from the newer development to the west called Telscombe Cliffs and above Firle Road): rectangular plots of land on both sides of the main road. Aerial photographs from the 30's clearly show the "grid" pattern and, at that time, the scattered nature of the community. Peacehaven eventually grew to be larger in area than Lewes, the county town and the administrative headquarters of the region.
The parish includes part of the Brighton to Newhaven Cliffs Site of Special Scientific Interest. The cliffs are mainly of geological interest, containing many Santonian and Campanian fossils. The SSSI listing includes flora and fauna biological interest too.
The Prime Meridian is marked by a 3.5 m (11 ft) tall obelisk, commissioned by Charles Neville. It was unveiled on 10 August 1936, and has been relocated twice due to erosion of the cliffs.
Peacehaven's lowest tier of government is the Peacehaven Town Council who are responsible for local planning, highways and other amenities. The council consists of 17 elected councillors from three wards, North, West and East Peacehaven. The May 2007 election returned 17 Conservative Party councillors.
The next level of government is Lewes District Council with responsibilities for the wider ranging areas such as council tax collection, environmental health and democratic services. Peacehaven provides six councillors to the district council, representing the same three wards as the parish council. Election are held every four years, the May 2007 election returned six Conservative Party councillors.
The county council for East Sussex has responsibility for Education, Libraries, Social Services, Civil Registration, Trading Standards and Transport. Elections for the County Council are held every four years. Peacehaven parish is combined with the neighbouring Telscombe parish forming the Peacehaven & Telscombe Towns electoral division which elects two councillors to the council. The May 2013 election returned two UKIP councillors. Peacehaven is in the Brighton Kemptown constituency for the UK parliamentary elections.
At European level, Peacehaven is represented by the South-East region, which holds ten seats in the European Parliament. The June 2004 election returned four Conservatives, two Liberal Democrats, two UK Independence, one Labour and one Green, none of whom lived in East Sussex.
Peacehaven is twinned with the French town of Épinay-sous-Sénart and the German town of Isernhagen.
There is a leisure centre and the Co-operative Meridian Shopping Centre, two dentists, a GP practice in the Meridian Health Centre and a number of pubs, cafes and restaurants located throughout the town. These include a Stonehouse pizzeria and grill, the Dewdrop Inn, Oriental Taste, Baan Thai and Thai Elephant restaurants plus chain fast food outlets including Subway and Greggs and independent eateries including Road Shack vegetarian and vegan café, the Coffee Haven, the Pantry, an ice cream parlour and patisserie Deja Vu, and Big Mouths Burger Bar on the South Coast Road, as well as the RIBA award-winning Gateway Cafe in Cententary Park - adjacent to the huge eco-friendly children's playground with views over to the nearest Downs.
In late 2006 a number of meetings between the then Mayor, Cllr Elayne Merry, and local businesses lead to the formation of the Peacehaven & District Chamber of Commerce in February 2007. The Chamber organises regular networking and support meetings for the benefit of its members plus an annual Trade Show to promote local services. 2009 saw the first Business Awards ceremony in which the winners in each category received a "Monument" to mark their achievement.
There are four churches in Peacehaven and one in Telscombe Cliffs. The Church of the Ascension, build by L. Keir Hett to replace Peacehaven's Anglican church, to replace a temporary building which had been erected in 1922. The Roman Catholic Church, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, was also founded in a temporary building in the 1920s; this survives as the church hall of the present brick structure. A Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall and an Evangelical church are also in use. Telscombe Cliffs United Reformed Church serves the population of both communities.
The town has one secondary school, Peacehaven Community School. There are also two primary schools: Peacehaven Heights Primary and Meridian Primary School. The town also has a library located in the Meridian Centre.
Peacehaven has a Non-League football club Peacehaven & Telscombe F.C. who play at The Sports Park. The club hosts a variety of football tournaments that range from age U10–U16 every summer. There is a small leisure centre and a bowls club. There are dance schools, such as Harlequin and Studio 54, as well as football and martial arts clubs. The Women's Institute meets regularly at the Meridian Centre along with other community groups including a memory cafe and regular movie screenings.
The town plays a part in Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock. At the end of the novel, anti-hero Pinkie Brown drives to Peacehaven with his new wife, Rose, intending to persuade her to commit suicide. Instead, he meets his own death here, falling over the cliff after being blinded with vitriol.
More recently Peacehaven was selected for the site at which a car is pushed over the cliff in the TV thriller series The Level, while earlier Tiffany's ashes were portrayed to be cast over the cliffs, in the BBC soap EastEnders in 1999, with viewers having been told at her funeral that she had spent happy childhood holidays there. Filming however, took part in the nearby town of Seaford. Also, a Mr. Bean episode was shot at the cliff tops of Peacehaven and down to the beach.
The film Quadrophenia starring Phil Daniels in the leading role as a Mod named Jimmy also ended up in Peacehaven. At the end of the film he finds out his idol, the suave Mod "poster boy" Ace Face (played by Sting), is in reality a bellboy. He steals Ace's scooter and heads out to Peacehaven Cliffs and an uncertain fate.
Miodrag Kojadinović has a short story about a search for an ancestor in Peacehaven that plays with the concept of a "haven of peace", which won a prize for stories with Jewish themes and appeared in Serbian and Hungarian, both out of Novi Sad.