Before the pier was built, passengers had the uncomfortable experience of coming ashore on the back of a porter and then, depending on the state of the tide, having to walk as far as half a mile across wet sand before reaching the town. The need for a pier was obvious, especially if the town was to attract the wealthy and fashionable visitors who were beginning to patronise other seaside resorts.
The pier was designed by John Kent of Southampton, and its foundation stone laid on 29 June 1813. The pier opened on 26 July 1814, with, as it still has, a timber-planked promenade. The structure was originally wholly timber, and measured 576 yards. By 1833, extensions took the overall length to 745 yards. It is this pre-Victorian structure that has, with some modifications, carried pedestrians and vehicles ever since.
A second 'tramway' pier was built next to the first, opening on 29 August 1864. Horse-drawn trams took passengers from the pier head to the esplanade. Before construction of the railway pier, the tramway continued to Ryde railway station at St John's Road. From 1886 to 1927 the trams were powered by electricity from a third rail, and from then until 1969 were petrol-powered.
On 12 July 1880 a third pier was opened, alongside the first two, providing a direct steam railway link to the pier-head. The railway was owned jointly by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway and London and South Western Railway, as far as Ryde St John's Road, to connect with their ship services to Portsmouth. However, trains were run by the independent Isle of Wight Railway and Isle of Wight Central Railway, who owned the tracks beyond St John's Road and operated services to Ventnor and Cowes via Newport respectively.
In 1895 a concert pavilion was constructed at the pier-head, and over the next sixteen years the original wooden piles were replaced with cast iron. It was at Ryde Pier that the Empress Eugénie landed from Sir John Burgoyne's yacht "The Gazelle", after her flight from Paris in 1870.
The pier head was remodelled in the 1930s using concrete, and during the Second World War was used for military purposes, after various modifications.
The Concert Pavilion was at the centre of the narrative in Philip Norman's book, Babycham Night; the author's family ran this venue when it was known as the Seagull Ballroom in the 1950s, and his relatives produced the eponymous champagne perry. The pavilion was later demolished, but a few of the rotting piles are still visible around the edge of an extended car parking area constructed in 2010.
The tramway closed in 1969 and the structure was partially dismantled. This has left the disused and decaying tramway pier between the railway and promenade piers. The remaining structure has proved useful for temporary diversions, such as when a ship sliced through the promenade pier in 1974. In autumn 2010 the whole length was fitted with a temporary deck to provide a walkway, during re-building works on the Promenade Pier.
Ryde Pier was made a Grade II listed building in 1976. In the early 1980s a modern waiting area, including some of the original buildings, replaced the original Victorian waiting rooms at the pier-head. Further modifications were made in 2009, including provision of a conservatory-style refreshment area with views towards Ryde. In May 2011 the lighting columns on the Promenade Pier were fitted with Victorian-style brackets and lanterns.
The pier is still a gateway for passenger traffic to and from the Isle of Wight, with the Island Line train running from Ryde Pier Head railway station (at the pier head), via Ryde Esplanade down the eastern side of the island. The Wightlink catamaran runs regularly between Ryde and Portsmouth. It is possible to drive along the pier, and there is parking at the pier head.
People are still allowed to walk along the pier, but must contend with motor traffic driving along the same wooden walkway. From the pier head there are panoramic views across the Solent to Portsmouth four miles away. On clear days, Fawley and its Refinery can be seen away to the west.
In 2005, Ryde Pier featured briefly in the film Fragile, in an inaccurate scene where Calista Flockhart is driven along the Pier after leaving a Red Funnel car ferry. In reality, the pier is only served by Wightlink craft, with Red Funnel services based out of Cowes and East Cowes, six miles to the north-west.
From August 2010 to March 2011, Ryde Pier was closed to vehicles to allow structural repairs underneath the promenade pier, which had failed a regular inspection by Trant. The pier remained open to pedestrians, who from October 2010 used temporary decking on the tramway pier. Some Wightlink foot passengers were allowed to use Island Line train services along the pier free of charge. Work to extend the Pier Head to allow for additional car parking continued during this period. The promenade pier then re-opened.
On the weekend of 26 July 2014, the pier celebrated its 200th anniversary.
For a few decades, Ryde had a second pier, the Victoria, a few hundred yards to the east. It was promoted by the Stokes Bay Pier and Railway Company to provide a landing for a rival ferry service from Gosport. It opened in 1864 as the main pier was getting its tramway. Being somewhat shorter than Ryde Pier, it could not be used at all points of the tide, and so offered little competition to the main Ryde to Portsmouth ferry services. When the Stokes Bay company was acquired by the London & South Western Railway in 1875, the ferry service ceased, and Victoria Pier became a pleasure pier only, with public baths at the head and a swimming platform at the dry end.
By 1900 use of the bathing facilities was declining, and the second pier gradually became derelict. In the austerity of the First World War it was considered redundant and a hazard, and in 1916 its demolition was authorised by Act of Parliament. By the 1920s it had gone. Until the construction of the marina in the 1980s, the outline of the shore-end abutment could be made out in the sea wall near Ryde Pavilion, and at low spring tide the stumps of the piles could be seen in the sand offshore.
The Royal Pier Hotel was built soon after the original pier, to serve its increasing trade and traffic. It stood on Pier Street opposite the bottom of Union Street for a hundred years, becoming a well-known local landmark.
Its position across the end of the steep final section of Union Street created a difficult 90-degree turn for drivers. In 1930 a bus descending Union Street took the turn into Pier Street too fast and overturned, killing several passengers and pedestrians, and damaging the south front of the Hotel. At the inquest the Pier Hotel was found to be a hazard to drivers, and instead of being repaired its demolition was ordered. By 1931 the Pier Hotel and the entire range of buildings back to the end of St. Thomas's Street had been removed, and Pier Street itself ceased to exist, becoming part of the Esplanade.