Prehistoric activity in the vicinity of the town is indicated by several Iron Age burials to the west, and cropmark enclosures (presumed to be prehistoric or Roman) to the north and east. A first-century Roman farmstead was excavated at the Springfield Industrial Estate to the north-west of the historic town by the Passmore Edwards Museum in the 1970’s. A possible Saxon loomweight has been found between the church and the town, suggesting domestic Saxon activity in the vicinity.
The Domesday Book records a small manorial village at Burnham. The medieval town centre is three-quarters of a mile south of the parish church of St Mary. The church and the adjacent hall may be relicts of an earlier village nucleus, either Saxon or early medieval in origin. They occupy a position comparable to that of other villages in the Dengie peninsula in that they are sited inland from the coast on the higher drier ground, whilst Burnham town is the only surviving medieval settlement in the Dengie to be sited directly on the water’s edge.
A market-charter was granted in 1253 to the Fitzwalter family, who owned the manor and it is probable that this is the approximate foundation date of the present town. Burnham appears to have been planted to take advantage of the estuary, both for trade and more importantly for fishing. The fishery rights to the River Crouch belonged to the Manor of Burnham under a grant made by the crown before 1272. The landowners in turn granted licenses to their tenants to dredge and fish. The reeve’s accounts for 1390-1 (of the Manor of Burnham) deal with the rents from fish-weirs and oyster layings (Quaife, 1966-70).
In the eighteenth century domestic dwellings were built at the end of the tenement plots to the south of High Street, facing on to the Quay. Judging by the number of late eighteenth/early nineteenth century cottages erected on the High Street, it would appear that considerable urban renewal took place at that period. In the nineteenth century the town began to expand northwards with the building of Chapel Road, Ship Road and Granville Terrace, all of which run at right-angles to the Quay and High Street.
The post-medieval and early modern economy for Burnham-on-Crouch was based on the fishing trade, especially oysters, and on ancillary services including boat-building and coopering. The Mildmay Iron Works was the second biggest employer in the town The boat-building trade is now based on recreational craft rather than fishing boats.