Hayes was born in Bristol on 7 June, 1819 (GRO), but spent his youth in Dublin where his father ran a hotel close to the quays and docks. He decided early upon art as a career, and was a student at the Dublin Society Schools. A keen sailor, he spent his time sailing around Dublin bay in his small yacht, and even made it as far south as Cork. He was later employed as a steward's boy on board a ship bound for America.

He first exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1842, and contributed to all but five of the next sixty-three annual exhibitions, showing a total of two hundred and fifty-five paintings. He lived in Dublin for the next ten years, moving to London in 1852, where he apprenticed himself to Telbin, a scenic artist. Under Telbin, he worked on the scenery of the Adelphi and other London theatres. His first work shown in London was View of the River Liffey and the Custom House in 1854 at the British Institution.

The following year he sent his first work to the Royal Academy, and for the next forty-nine years he was a regular exhibitor there. In addition to painting the shores and harbours of the English coast (during which time he stayed in West Cornwall), he travelled widely to Holland, France, Spain, and Italy in search of new subjects for his work. An exhibition of one hundred and fifty pictures, the result of twenty years of work, was held in Messrs Dowdeswells in Bond Street, London in March 1888. On 7 November 1904, age 85, Edwin Hayes died.