The Domesday Book records that Wivenhoe was a small manorial village in 1066. It is not known when it began to take on an urban aspect, but the taxation data suggests that the settlement did not really expand until the end of the medieval period. In the medieval period the Church and churchyard appear to have marked the approximate northern limits of the town, with the southern boundary of the town formed by The Quay. In the post-medieval period there was some expansion to the north and east of the town, but the main period of expansion took place in the second half of the nineteenth century following the construction of the railway. The main ship-building works were located on the marshlands to the east and west of the town. On the north-western side of the town, off High Street, stood Wivenhoe Hall, which was rebuilt in the sixteenth century and demolished in 1927.
The economy of Wivenhoe was dominated by its estuarine position. It is probable that the medieval buildings facing onto the quay included warehousing and fish-processing facilities, whilst there may also have been boat-building yards on the quay itself. In the post-medieval period Wivenhoe served as an entrepôt for Colchester and it is possible that it also served the same function in the medieval period. In the post-medieval period farm produce from the Wivenhoe hinterland was exported to London, and coal imported in exchange. This activity was reflected in the eighteenth-century maps by the presence of several coal-yards and seven granaries for the storage of grain in transit. However the principal employers in the town were the boat-building and fishing industries, including all their ancillaries such as rope-makers, sail-makers and coopers for the packaging of oysters. In the nineteenth century the ship-building industry was dominated by the building of fishing-vessels and bespoke yachts. By the twentieth century this had expanded to include the building of container ships, and the refitting of ships for use during the two World Wars. The last of the large boat-yards closed in 1986.