It has been a seaside resort since 1760, and is the gateway from the Norfolk Broads to the North Sea. For hundreds of years it was a major fishing port, depending mainly on the herring fishery, but its fishing industry suffered a steep decline in the second half of the 20th century, and has now all but disappeared. The discovery of oil in the North Sea in the 1960s led to a flourishing oil rig supply industry, and today it services offshore natural gas rigs. More recently, the development of renewable energy sources, especially offshore wind power, has created further opportunities for support services. A wind farm of 30 generators is within sight of the town on the Scroby Sands.
Great Yarmouth (Gernemwa, Yernemuth) lies near the site of the Roman fort camp of Gariannonum at the mouth of the River Yare. Its situation having attracted fishermen from the Cinque Ports, a permanent settlement was made, and the town numbered 70 burgesses before the Norman Conquest. Henry I placed it under the rule of a reeve.
In 1208, King John granted a charter to Great Yarmouth. The charter gave his burgesses of Yarmouth general liberties according to the customs of Oxford, a gild merchant and weekly hustings, amplified by several later charters asserting the rights of the borough against Little Yarmouth and Gorleston. The town is bound to send to the sheriffs of Norwich every year one hundred herrings, baked in twenty four pasties, which the sheriffs are to deliver to the lord of the manor of East Carlton who is then to convey them to the King.
A hospital was founded in Yarmouth in the reign of Edward I by Thomas Fastolfe. In 1551, a grammar school founded and the great hall of the old hospital was appropriated to its use. The school was closed from 1757 to 1860, was re-established by the charity trustees, and settled in new buildings in 1872.
In 1552 Edward VI granted a charter of admiralty jurisdiction, later confirmed and extended by James I. In 1668 Charles II incorporated Little Yarmouth in the borough by a charter which with one brief exception remained in force until 1703, when Queen Anne replaced the two bailiffs by a mayor. In the early 18th century Yarmouth, as a thriving herring port, was vividly and admiringly described several times in Daniel Defoe's travel journals, in part as follows:
Yarmouth is an antient town, much older than Norwich; and at present, tho' not standing on so much ground, yet better built; much more compleat; for number of inhabitants, not much inferior; and for wealth, trade, and advantage of its situation, infinitely superior to Norwich. It is plac'd on a peninsula between the River Yare and the sea; the two last lying parallel to one another, and the town in the middle: The river lies on the west-side of the town, and being grown very large and deep, by a conflux of all the rivers on this side the county, forms the haven; and the town facing to the west also, and open to the river, makes the finest key in England, if not in Europe, not inferior even to that of Marseilles itself. The ships ride here so close, and as it were, keeping up one another, with their head-fasts on shore, that for half a mile [800 m] together, they go cross the stream with their bolsprits over the land, their bowes, or heads, touching the very wharf; so that one may walk from ship to ship as on a floating bridge, all along by the shore-side: The key reaching from the drawbridge almost to the south-gate, is so spacious and wide, that in some places 'tis near one hundred yards from the houses to the wharf. In this pleasant and agreeable range of houses are some very magnificent buildings, and among the rest, the custom-house and town-hall, and some merchants houses, which look like little palaces, rather than the dwelling-houses of private men. The greatest defect of this beautiful town, seems to be, that tho' it is very rich and encreasing in wealth and trade, and consequently in people, there is not room to enlarge the town by building; which would be certainly done much more than it is, but that the river on the land-side prescribes them, except at the north end without the gate....
From 1808 to 1814 the Admiralty in London could communicate with its ships in the port of Great Yarmouth by a shutter telegraph chain.
The town was the site of a bridge disaster and drowning tragedy on 2 May 1845 when a suspension bridge crowded with children collapsed under the weight killing 79. They had gathered to watch a clown in a barrel being pulled by geese down the river. As he passed under the bridge the weight shifted, causing the chains on the south side to snap, tipping over the bridge deck.
Great Yarmouth had an electric tramway system from 1902 to 1933.
During World War I Great Yarmouth suffered the first aerial bombardment in the UK, by Zeppelin L3 on 19 January 1915. That same year on 15 August, Ernest Martin Jehan became the first and only man to sink a steel submarine with a sail rigged Q-ship, this off the coast of Great Yarmouth. It was also bombarded by the German Navy on 24 April 1916.
The town suffered Luftwaffe bombing during World War II as it was the last significant place German bombers could drop bombs before returning home, but much is left of the old town including the original 2000m protective mediaeval wall, of which two-thirds has survived. Of the 18 towers, 11 are left. On the South Quay is a 17th-century Merchant's House, as well as Tudor, Georgian and Victorian buildings. Behind South Quay is a maze of alleys and lanes known as "The Rows". Originally there were 145. Despite war damage, several have remained.
The town was badly affected by the North Sea flood of 1953. More recent flooding has been a problem, the town flooding four times in 2006. In September 2006 the town suffered its worst flooding in years. Torrential rain caused drains to block as well as an Anglian Water pumping station to break down and this resulted in flash flooding around the town in which 90 properties were flooded up to 5 ft.
On the evening 5 December 2013 homes were again evacuated due to flooding risk. A tidal surge coupled with high winds led the environment agency to issue several severe flood warnings in and around the town. High tide was expected at around 22:30, though again there was little damage experienced.