Customs House

In early Plantagenet period Customs Revenue was derived from our greatest export – WOOL

Its location embraces three original quays, formerly known as Hartshorn Quay, Old Wool Quay and New Wool Quay. The Old Wool Quay is that with which the Customs Revenue has the longest connection and its name indicates that it was the quay on which the wool about to be exported was weighed for Customs purposes and the King’s weigher, held the equivalent of the Custom Officer of today. However the first levied customs duty date back to King Ethelred who levied duties in 979.

The first Custom House was built east of the present site in 1275. It was rebuilt in 1378 and again in 1559 after its destruction by fire. Point of interest ….Chaucer was retained by the King as Comptroller of Customs in 1377.

After the Great Fire of London, Sir Christopher Wren, built a new Custom House. It was considered the most perfect building and its proportions were delightful and it was admirably suited for its purposed. Unfortunately it had a comparatively short life.

More importantly It was one of the first buildings to be completed after the fire because of its financial revenue source. Finished in 1671, the main office ran for nearly the entire length of the building. It was called the Long Room and it eventually became the tradition to call all clerical offices in custom houses throughout Britain by this name. In 1714 Wren’s Custom House was severely damaged when a store of gunpowder blew up nearby.

The replacement Custom House was built to a similar design to Wren’s building by Thomas Ripley. The main office ran for nearly the entire length of the building. Again burnt down in 1814 the new building suffered subsidence, but was constructed at the end of the Napoleonic Wars when the London Docks were booming. The customs revenues of the Port of London amounted to half of those collected in the whole of England.

In 1812 a David Laing, (baptised at St Dunstan’s in the East,) was asked to produce plans for a new custom house in London, replacing the old building of 1718. His first suggestions were rejected, so he produced a simpler scheme, for a massive rectangular block. Laing estimated the cost at £209,000, but the contract was won by Miles and Peto, with a tender of only £165,000. During construction, costs escalated, and there were disputes between Laing and the contractors. In 1818 Laing published a book of plans and drawings which included details of the problems he had encountered in laying the foundations of the New Custom House. The foundations proved inadequate: in 1820, cracks appeared in the vault of the king’s warehouse in the central section of the block, and four years later the facade of the long room above it collapsed, followed by the warehouse vaults themselves and the long room floor. Sir Robert Smirke, called in to investigate, reported that the work paid for had not been done to specification. The facade was rebuilt to Smirke’s own design with new foundations-. an elegant late-Georgian building the east wing of which was bombed in the WW11 and rebuilt to the original designs. After the collapse of the New Custom House Laing was suspended from his post as Architect & Surveyor of the Board of Customs, and his practice was ruined.


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