PortCities London

The Customs Service

A brief history of the customs

The first customs duties

Edward I halfpenny.
View full size imageEdward I halfpenny. © NMM

The English customs system was created by Edward I, although there had been earlier taxes on goods moving through the ports.

His 'Great Custom' of 1275 imposed duties on wool, leather and hides exported through London and 13 other ports. Controllers and local officials oversaw the collection of the dues.


Tudor improvements

Henry VII, 1457-1509.
View full size imageHenry VII. © NMM
The customs system was improved steadily under the Tudors. Henry VII encouraged the growth of foreign trade, and raised the level of duties in 1507. Customs revenue increased under his reign, and his cautious approach to finances meant the Treasury was looking healthy for the first time in centuries.

Elizabeth I, 1533-1603.
View full size imageElizabeth I. © NMM
Further progress came with the later Tudors. Queen Mary raised customs rates in 1558 and Elizabeth I introduced a lucrative duty on cloth imports.

Elizabeth also reformed the system, introducing a Book of Instructions in 1564 and the Port Books - the first proper register of ships and cargoes - in the following year.



The system at its peak

Smugglers, by George Morland.
View full size imageSmugglers, by George Morland. © NMM

The 18th century saw the expansion of the customs into a complicated system, with more than 2000 dutiable goods. The customs provided between one quarter and one third of the total tax revenue. However, the price of high tariffs was increased smuggling.



As governments became more concerned with the country's economic development, customs duties were increasingly used for purposes other than to raise revenue.

The imports of Great Britain from France.
View full size imageThe imports of Great Britain from France. © NMM

Protectionism meant the imposition of heavy duties on certain imported goods to encourage their production at home.

The duties made the imports more expensive - and therefore less attractive - than the local product.


The Free Trade movement

The barque Free-Trader in the London Docks.
View full size imageThe barque Free-Trader in the London Docks. © NMM
Britain's increasing economic power during the period of the so-called Industrial Revolution allowed it to export manufactured goods all over the world. Many economists came to believe that a world without customs duties - which they regarded as barriers to trade - would increase prosperity everywhere.


Support for free trade also followed the introduction of the most hated of all the protectionist tariffs - the notorious Corn Laws of 1816-19. The duties on foreign wheat were condemned as a 'bread tax' that punished the poor.

The move towards Free Trade

Unloading tea ships in the East India Docks
View full size imageUnloading tea ships in the East India Docks. © NMM

In the 1840s and 1850s, successive governments abolished most customs duties and the hated duties on corn, and only a handful of tariffs were kept. These included the lucrative duties on goods such as tea and tobacco.

To make up for the drop in customs revenue, income tax - first used during the wars with Napoleon - was reintroduced.

Although Free Trade has long gone and the customs still provide valuable revenue for governments, Britain never returned to the system of the 18th century. Today's Customs Service is as much about protecting society as it is about collecting taxes. 


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