Custom House

Above: View of Custom House from the south side of the Thames in 2011. The reason for not choosing a later picture is because the clear skyline in this view is now ‘cluttered’ with high-rise buildings. When this view was taken, there were two barges by chance moored in front of the building which alluded to earlier times when the Thames was filled with sailing ships.

We are all familiar with paying customs – maybe after a holiday on a ship or at an airport. Have you ever thought of how long people have been paying customs in one form or another? If you think about the word ‘customs’ – meaning to collect duty on goods and the word ‘custom’ – meaning to be the tradition to do something, it would seem that the two words are the same – probably because it has been the ‘custom’ to collect ‘customs’ ever since the idea was first thought of.

In medieval times, ports around England were exporting wood in vast quantities and customs duty was levied, providing a large source of revenue for the Government of the time. This was the main purpose for the Custom House in London. It stood (and still stands) on the riverside within the City of London, about mid-way between London Bridge and the Tower of London. That is near the site of the first Custom House and it has remained the headquarters for the Customs service in Britain to this day.

It is believed that King Ethelred levied the first known customs duty which would have been around the year AD 1000. The first Custom House was built in 1275 on Old Wool Quay. It stood between Lower Thames Street and the Thames further east of the modern building. Geoffrey Chaucer – better known for writing ‘The Canterbury Tales’ – was appointed in 1374 as a customs official and would have worked in the Custom House. He became Comptroller of Customs and Subsidies on wools, skins and tanned hides in the Port of London.

In 1382 the Custom House of 1275 was replaced by a new building. It was erected on the instructions of John Churchman, a grocer, who was recorded by Stow as having built ‘a house on Wool Wharf, close to the Tower of London to serve for weighing wools in the Port of London’. The king granted this should be done and continued to provide balances, weights and a counting house for the customer and his officials. It was ‘to satisfy merchants who needed to weigh wool for customers, controllers and clerks’.

Around the 1550s, overseas trade expanded rapidly. The Lord Treasurer Winchester was responsible for some radical reforms in the Customs service with the passing of the Act for Legal Quays in 1559. A new and probably larger Custom House was built on the original site about 1559 which remained until it was destroyed in the Great Fire.

After the Great Fire, Christopher Wren was commissioned to build a new Custom House which was erected 1669-74. The fourth on the old site. In January 1715 a fire in Thames Street severely damaged the Custom House, particularly the west wing, which was the only building of Wren’s design to be lost during his lifetime. Due to the fire, a new and enlarged building, the fifth on the original site, was built 1722-25 to designs of Thomas Ripley who was Master Carpenter to the Custom House and later Controller of Works.

Above: Print showing the Custom House about 1720.

The immense growth of overseas trade in the second half of the 18th century made Ripley’s building altogether inadequate. To save interrupting the Customs work and since new land to the west of the original site was able to be obtained, a new building on a new site was decided upon. The new building, the sixth Custom House, was begun in 1813, on a site to the west of the original one, designed by David Laing. It was 550 feet (167 m) long and, due to the lack of firm ground, piles had to be driven into the earth for foundations. There were several problems with construction, the supply of stone and labour which meant that it was not completed until 1817. Another factor which prolonged the construction was the exceptionally long and severe winter of 1813-14, during which a frost fair was held on the Thames. Pile driving was stopped due to the hardness of the ground.

On Saturday 12 February 1814 all hopes of an early completion of the building and an easy transfer of the clerks with their records to the new building were completely shattered when about six in the morning a most dreadful fire burst out from the west wing. A little after seven about ten barrels of gunpowder exploded which blew up and entirely shattered the east wing. It was realised that more barrels of gunpowder were in the building, but they could not be rescued. This resulted in a tremendous explosion which carried the burnt papers, ships’ registers and a variety of matter as far as Dalston, Shacklewell, Homerton, Hackney and Highbury. From a contracted figure of £165,000, the final cost of construction rose to £482,956.

By 1820, cracks began to appear in the three-year-old building. The roof of the Long Room, in the centre of the building, began to sink and later the walls were found to be out of line. An inspection of the piles used for the foundations, in 1823, requested independently by John Rennie (Younger), revealed that they were only six to ten feet (1.8 – 3 m) long instead of 20 feet (6.1 m). David Laing, the architect, was suspended and later dismissed from office and the builder sued for negligence.

After being in use for only seven years, much of the middle of the Custom House began to subside. In 1825 Sir Thomas Smirke was called in to rebuild the central range which was designed in semi-classical style with Ionic pillars on the south front. The new river facade was 1,190 feet (363 m) long. This and the Long Room cost £200,000.

During the Second World War, the east wing was completely destroyed in the bombing. It was later rebuilt to the original plans.

The Custom House stands on the south side of Lower Thames Street. The interior, with the distinctive Long Room, is now used for administration. There is a museum of curios relating to the customs duties together with a number of ancient weapons. The building is still currently used by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs but the Government has announced that it is to be closed and sold off in 2020.


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