Custom House

Custom House in 1828 showing the new classical riverside façade by Sir Robert Smirke that replaced that of David Laing. This engraving by R.G. Reeve is after a painting by the early 19th century artist Samuel Owen, who for a time was a ship’s captain and sailed for the East India Company. He produced many maritime paintings including two volumes of Thames pictures.

At each major English port the officials responsible for collecting duties on imports and exports on behalf of the monarch were based at a building known as Custom House. For centuries Custom House in London played a central part in the working of the commercial Thames and was a major source of income for the Exchequer.

England’s major export during the early Middle Ages was wool and in 1203 King John introduced a tax on its export. London duties were paid at Wool Quay, immediately upstream from the Tower of London. By the time of Edward I import duties on wine and other goods were providing a considerable income to the Exchequer. London’s first recorded Custom House building was constructed at Wool Quay by the Sheriff of London in 1382 during the reign of Richard II. The poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer was Comptroller of the Customs of Wools, Skins and Tanned Hides from 1374 until 1386, and based there for his work as manager of tax collectors.

Those officials appointed as collectors and controllers during the mid-15th century were from amongst London’s leading merchants and stayed in their posts for short periods, often then rising to higher civic offices. The leading London customs officials during the latter years of Edward IV and reign of Henry VII, however, were royal servants who held their positions for many years. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth eight principal officers were employed at Custom House, each with between two and sixteen men below them.

The medieval Custom House was rebuilt in red brick 1559 of three stories, with the lower level being an open arcade. Inspectors from there known as ‘tide-waiters’ boarded each ship as it arrived to obtain a certificate of the vessel’s cargo. That was recorded at Custom House and the duty calculated. With confiscated goods stored inside, often of a flammable nature, fire was always a danger. When the Elizabethan property was destroyed in the Great Fire it was the first building that Charles II proposed to be rebuilt, with funds coming from a newly-introduced tax on coal arriving into the capital. The King surprised everyone by appointing Christopher Wren, a professor of astronomy from Oxford, to oversee the work, his first design project in London, at a cost of £10,000. Wren’s building was constructed in a U-shape around a courtyard. It featured a main hall known as the Long Room, where merchants and ships’ captains came to make payments. It gave its name to the equivalent office in customs buildings in all Britain’s ports, regardless of their shape and size.

Wren’s building was in turn devastated by fire in 1715. Its replacement, designed by Thomas Ripley, was of the same plan as Wren’s but of three storeys rather than two. Daniel Defoe wrote of it “As the city is the centre of business, there is Custom-house, an article, which, as it brings in an immense revenue to the public, so it cannot be removed from its place, all the vast import and export of goods being, of necessity, made there…The stateliness of the building, showed the greatness of the business that is transacted there: the Long Room is like an Exchange every morning and the crowd of people who appear there, and the business they do, is not to be explained by words, nothing of that kind in Europe is like it”.

With growing trade in the port, and being somewhat dilapidated, a larger building was being planned when in 1814 it anyway met the fate of its predecessors, destroyed by fire along with ten houses. Surrounding properties east of Billingsgate were purchased for the larger site with a waterfront almost 150 metres long. A new building was designed by David Laing, Surveyor to the Customs and a pupil of John Soane, featuring a much-praised triple-domed hall in a French style. Its facade onto Lower Thames Street was in a plain style of yellow stock brick but more decorative Ionic colonnades faced onto the river. The cellars housed a warehouse where seized goods were stored before going for auction. During excavation work, older wooden medieval embankments were discovered and a sturdy stone wall that may have been part of the Roman fortifications, as well as other ancient objects. The new building was opened by Lord Liverpool, First Lord of the Treasury in May 1817. Unfortunately, Laing had not foreseen that the piling underpinning the building had been poorly and fraudulently carried out by a contractor and in 1825 part of the river façade and the floor of the main hall collapsed. By then such work was the responsibility of the Office of Works and their surveyor Robert Smirke was commissioned to put things right. He created a new river-facing façade that remain today.

In the early 19th century the tide-waiters boarded inbound ships at Gravesend and stayed on board until their cargoes were discharged in the Port. In the docks and wharves ‘landing-officers’ took note of goods as they came ashore, and once duties were paid a receipt was given. These particulars were then taken to the Long Room where clerks sat at desks compiling the information. The system was modified in later decades whereby the master of each ship arriving or leaving the Port was obliged to attend the Long Room to report on its cargo and necessary payment made.

At the first year of the reign of Elizabeth nearly £74,000 was collected at Custom House. In 1840 that had risen to over £11,000,000, almost half of the total from the United Kingdom’s ports. Throughout that century customs duties were progressively simplified. In 1853 there were over 1,100 rates of duty, yet most income came from just a small number of types of goods. Towards the century’s end the number of rates had been greatly reduced and focussed on those imports that created most income, namely tobacco, spirits, tea and wine.

The Custom House of today is comprised of David Laing’s west wing and a central section, including the current Long Room by Robert Smirke. The East Wing was badly damaged during the Second World War and rebuilt in 1966. As the Port of London moved ever further downriver, and the methods changed by which duties were paid, Custom House was no longer required for its original purpose. Ships’ masters no longer arrived to pay their duties and the building continued as a rather grand office of HM Revenue & Customs. HMRC were due to vacate the building in 2021 and plans have been submitted for the building to be converted into a hotel.

Sources include: Walter Thornbury ‘Old & New London’; W.W.Hutchings ‘London Town Past and Present’; Arthur Bryant ‘Liquid History’; ‘The Overseas Trade of London: Exchequer Customs Accounts 1480-1481’ ed. H.S.Cobb; Fiona Rule ‘London’s Docklands – A Lost Quarter’; Gustav Milne ‘The Port of Medieval London’; Daniel Defoe ‘A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain’; John Summerson ‘Georgian London’; HM Revenue & Customs – Custom House visitor guide’.

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