The college was founded by Thomas Lane Devitt in 1917 as Pangbourne Nautical College with the function of preparing boys to be officers in the Merchant Navy through the 'Devitt & Moore' shipping, and later in the Royal Navy. In 1969, it shed much of the nautical training in favour of a more traditional academic focus, and became Pangbourne College. Though the college is now more academically oriented, it still holds true to many of the traditions which makes it a unique school today. The college was traditionally male orientated, but it has been fully co-educational since 1996. The Royal Hospital School at Holbrook, Ipswich, share similar characteristics.
The school has won the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup four times at the Henley Royal Regatta. The headmaster, Mr. Thomas Garnier, served in the Royal Navy before switching to a career in teaching. He has taught physics and housemastered and became headmaster following the departure of Dr Kenneth Greig in 2005.