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The Customs Service

The need for a reliable tax
A brief history of the customs
The customs in London
Smuggling and its prevention
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The customs in London

The Custom House

The headquarters of the Customs Service was the Custom House, near Billingsgate in the City of London. This became one of the most impressive buildings on the riverfront and also one of the unluckiest.

Christopher Wren.
View full size imageChristopher Wren. © NMM

The first Custom House was built around 1275 to collect the dues for Edward's Great Custom. It was replaced by a larger building in 1378. In 1559 it had to be rebuilt after a fire. This building perished in the Great Fire of 1666. Like so much of the City, it was rebuilt by Christopher Wren. Wren's Custom House, completed in 1671, was the grandest yet built.


A view of the Custom House.
View full size imageThomas Ripley's Custom House. © NMM
Wren's fine building did not last long. In 1714 it was severely damaged by a nearby explosion. It was rebuilt between 1715 and 1727 by Thomas Ripley, who reused Wren's foundations. Ripley's building contained the famous Long Room.

View of the New Custom House, taken from the River Thames.
View full size imageDavid Laing's Custom House. © NMM
The huge growth in Britain's seaborne trade made a larger building necessary a century later. David Laing completed a new Custom House in 1813-17. Shortly after Laing started work, Ripley's building was destroyed by another fire.  

The Custom House
View full size imageThe Custom House, 1886. © NMM
Laing's building also had an unfortunate fate. In 1825 part of the Long Room collapsed. This was caused by the rotting of beech piles used along the river. The Long Room and facade were rebuilt by Robert Smirke. Despite damage during the Blitz, Smirke's Custom House survives today.

The Long Room

The Long Room, Custom House.
View full size imageThe Long Room, Custom House. © NMM
The most important - and the most striking - part of the Custom House was the Long Room. This was first introduced in Thomas Ripley's building and later recreated in the new Custom House. The Long Room contained the public offices of the Customs Service.

The Long Room at the Custom House, c. 1901.
View full size imageThe Long Room at the Custom House, c. 1901. © NMM
All paperwork regarding duties payable on cargoes was taken to the customs officials there. This was a complicated business. When there were almost 2000 dutiable goods, and ships carried many different goods, calculating the necessary duties for each vessel was an immense task.   

A receipt from the Custom House, 1819.
View full size imageA receipt from the Custom House, 1819. © NMM

After all the calculations were completed and the dues paid, the Long Room officials would issue the necessary receipts. Only then could the goods be unloaded.




Customs posts at the docks

South facade of HM Customs and Excise Office.
View full size imageThe Customs and Excise Office at the Royal Albert Dock. © NMM
The Custom House in the City was convenient for shipping using the Upper Pool. Once the docks were built, the Customs Service set up posts at each of the major docks.

Customs Building, Stave Yard, Surrey Commercial Docks.
View full size imageThe Customs Office at the Surrey Commercial Docks. © NMM
The Custom House at the Royal Victoria Dock gave its name to the entire district, and the name survives as a station on the Docklands Light Railway. However, the local customs posts all closed when the inner London docks closed.  



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