Sir Robert Smirke
- Original design
- Sir Robert Smirke, 1813
There has been a brief succession of Custom Houses on or near the present site for over six hundred years. Some were burnt to the ground only to be re-built by eminent contemporary architects. For example, Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to build a replacement Custom House for the building destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. His building, a two-storey structure of classical design, was occupied in 1671. In 1715 it was consumed by fire.
Work began on the present Custom House in 1813 and it was finally opened in 1817. The building was designed by David Laing, the Customs Surveyor for buildings. However in 1825 there was major subsidence in the centre part of the building and Sir Robert Smirke was commissioned to undertake reconstruction.
In 1940 the East Wing suffered considerable damage as a result of enemy bombing of the Pool of London and had to be demolished. It was rebuilt in 1966.
Laing's original main entrances and staircases were removed by Smirke during his re-design and reconstruction of the building. However, Smirke's hall and spiral staircases use many of Laing's original materials including the iron stair balustrading.
The war memorial was originally situated in the Long Room and it commemorates those officers of HM Customs and Excise who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-18 and the Second World War 1939-45. It is the site of our annual Remembrance Day service.
It was Sir Christopher Wren who incorporated the Long Room as the main feature of the building, a feature which has been retained ever since. The room measures 190 feet long, 63 feet wide and 54 feet high.
In this room most of the business with the public was conducted. Rows of customs clerks would deal with merchants, ship's captains and brokers in clearing goods. It was their duty to ensure that not only were tariffs collected, but that all laws and regulations were observed in relation to goods brought into and taken out of the United Kingdom through the Port of London.
The weather-vane repeater on the north facing wall was included as part of the original works as it was considered essential public information to those waiting for colleagues and cargo.
The clock on the south face is the original made by Thwaites and Reed of Clerkenwell in 1817. The Long Room remains in daily use an administration office.
Situated adjacent to the Long Room this was an addition to the building by Smirke in 1825. The room has numerous cupboards, lockers and an upper level which is reached by way of an encased staircase. It is believed that the room was used originally as a changing room by the various uniformed staff situated throughout the building. The room is now used for meetings and conferences.
HM Customs and Excise is probably the oldest law enforcement organisation in the world, the first recorded Customs duty was taken in 743 AD and there has been a continuous Customs service ever since. The Excise was conceived during the English Civil War and celebrated the tercentenary of its foundation in 1983.
Over the centuries many strange taxes have come and gone including windows, hats, hair powder, fish, gloves and vinegar. Our ships (known as Cutters) have patrolled the coast since 1688 and have been responsible for many seizures of goods, the first being of 'quicksilver and drugs' in the 1690s.
The need for literacy and numeracy among our officers meant that many authors, playwrights and poets served in either Customs or Excise including Geoffrey Chaucer, Robert Burns, Congreve, Dryden, Tom Paine and Daniel Defoe.
Our officers served in the blockade of France under Nelson and guns from our cutters helped to defeat the only invasion by the French during the Napoleonic wars in 1793; since 1856 the service has been unarmed. Other firsts include the first women employed in the Civil Service (as search officers in the 1830s) and the first chemical laboratory in a government department.
In the twentieth century we have seen the growth of travel and trade in a way unprecedented in history including air travel, the Channel Tunnel and the creation of the EC. The introduction of VAT in 1973 gave us new responsibilities as did the rise in drug smuggling and the trade in endangered species.
Today the department protects society and adminsters indirect taxation in the UK and plays a full role throughout the world by providing advice and expertise to developing countries and taking part in international initiatives of the EC and UN.