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At The Custom House

February 14, 2021
by the gentle author

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Custom House by Robert Smirke, 1825, with elements by David Laing, 1817

I walked down in the frost recently to visit the Custom House. For years, I was unaware of the nature of this enormous austere building which presents an implacable front of Portland stone to the Thames between the Tower of London and old Billingsgate Market. Once I understood its purpose, then its commanding position over the Pool of London became evident.

For more than seven hundred years, this is where all cargoes passing through the Port of London were declared and duties paid, as well as serving as a passport office for migrants, registering upon arrival and departure. Perhaps no building is as central to our history as a seafaring nation than the Custom House. In recent years, we have come to re-evaluate the morality of the creation of Empire and the wealth it delivered. London was the financial capital of the system of slavery and the centre of the sugar trade, and the Custom House was part of this.

The evolution of the Custom House through the centuries follows the growth of Britain’s status as a trading nation, which makes this a pertinent moment to reflect upon the history of the building and the legacy it embodies.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the epic Long Room – claimed to be the longest in Europe – at the heart of the Custom House was renowned as a wonder in its own right. Londoners came to observe the variety of races of traders from across the globe who attended to fulfil their obligations in the form of tariffs and taxes.

When Geoffrey Chaucer worked as Comptroller of the Customs of Wools, Skins and Tanned Hides in the Custom House constructed by John Churchman in 1382, duties had formerly been collected since 1203 at Wool Quay just to the east. Tudor expansionism was reflected in an enlarged Custom House of 1559, destroyed a century later by the Great Fire.

The rebuilding of the Custom House was the first priority and it was Christopher Wren who established the pattern of the central Long Room surrounded by smaller offices, which has been maintained in the subsequent buildings each larger than the one before. It is a template that has been replicated in Custom Houses around the world.

Wren’s Custom House was destroyed by fire in 1717, initiating a series of ill-fated replacements that suffered multiple calamities. The next Custom House, designed by Thomas Ripley, caught fire in 1814, resulting in an explosion of gunpowder and spirits that dispersed paperwork as far as the Hackney Marshes. Simultaneously, the unfinished replacement, designed by David Laing, foundered when builder John Peto died unexpectedly leaving the project with insufficient financial backing.

Within two years of completion, Laing’s new Custom House developed structural problems, revealed when the ceiling of the Long Room partially collapsed in 1824. Canny architect Robert Smirke advised occupants to move out of the Long Room two days before it fell down and undertook an investigation which exposed shoddy workmanship and unstable riverfront foundations done on the cheap.

Unsurprisingly, Smirke was employed to rebuild and repair the Custom House, and he replaced the entire central section containing the Long Room in 1825. It is Smirke’s sober sensibility that prevails today, incorporating Laing’s east and west wings into an authoritative frontage of uniformity with an institutional restraint in embellishment and a spare, sombre proportion throughout.

For decades, the Custom House has been inaccessible to the public which is why a building of such central significance has become relatively unnoticed, yet it is publicly-owned. Now Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs has vacated it and it has been leased to an offshore property developer based in the Bermuda tax haven. They have submitted a planning application for an unsympathetic conversion to a luxury hotel that will be destructive to the fabric of the grade I listed building, erasing its meaning and significance. In particular, suites of Georgian offices which are a unique survival will be destroyed and two light-box bars added to the roof, compromising the river frontage.

Meanwhile, SAVE Britain’s Heritage have prepared an imaginative alternative scheme which takes advantage of its spectacular location and the potential of returning the Long Room as a public space for Londoners. The obvious riverside precedents of Somerset House and Tate Modern demonstrate how the Custom House could be put successfully to public use again.

Readers are encouraged to write to the City of London, objecting to the current planning application to convert the Custom House to a luxury hotel. Below you will find instructions for how to object effectively.

Christopher Wren’s Custom House

“The Custom House, in the uppermost of which is a magnificent room running the whole length of the building. On this spot is a busy concourse of nations who pay their tribute towards the support of Great Britain. In front of this building, ships of three hundred and fifty tons burthen can lie and discharge their cargoes.” From The Microcosm of London by Augustus Pugin & Thomas Rowlandson 1805 (Image courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

Thomas Ripley’s Custom House from The Microcosm of London by Augustus Pugin & Thomas Rowlandson, 1805

David Laing’s Custom House, 1817

Plan of Laing’s Custom House

“Between London Bridge and the Tower, and – separating it from the Thames – a broad quay that was for long almost the only riverside walk in London open to the public, is the Custom House. Five earlier buildings on the same site were destroyed by fire, and the present structure was erected in 1814-17, the fine facade being designed by Sir R. Smirke. Some 2,000 officials are employed at the Custom House, and in its famous Long Room alone -190 ft by 66 ft – eighty clerks are habitually engaged. This is not surprising, for the trade of the Port of London is by far the greatest of any port in the world. The building, which is entered from Lower Thames St, contains an interesting Smuggling Museum.”

From The Queen’s London: a Pictorial & Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks & Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896

Custom House c. 1910 (Image courtesy LAMAS Collection, Bishopsgate Institute)

Boundaries of the parishes of All Hallows by the Tower and St Dunstan in the East, marked on the river wall which was designed by John Rennie, 1819

The Lower Thames St frontage with the main entrance

The Custom House as it appeared before the Great Fire by Wenceslas Hollar, 1647


The offshore leaseholders of the Custom House want to undertake an unsympathetic and destructive conversion of this listed Grade I historic building into a luxury hotel when it should be put back to public use for all Londoners.

  • The exclusivity of the luxury hotel development contradicts the City of London’s policy as outlined in the City Plan 2036, which gives preference to ‘office-led cultural use,’ as part of the City’s ambition to open heritage spaces to attract a wider cultural demographic. 
  • The hotel development will destroy suites of Georgian offices that are a unique survival.
  • The hotel development will add two light box pavilions as bars on the roof which will compromise the principal frontage.


Lodge an objection to the redevelopment by writing a personal letter to the City of London Corporation as soon as possible.

Please write in your own words and head it OBJECTION.

Quote Planning Applications 20/00632/LBC and 20/00631/FULMAJ

Anyone can object wherever they live. Members of one household can each write separately. You must include your postal address.

Email your objection to and copy it to (Chair of Planning & Transportation Committee)

Or by post to:

The Department of the Built Environment,
City of London,
PO Box 270,

17 Responses leave one →
  1. February 14, 2021

    Thank you so much for highlighting this issue. I walk past Custom House once a week at least and often wonder why on earth it isn’t being used. Now I know what is planned, by the often destructive and very secretive City of London Corporation. Letter of objection emailed…

  2. Glenn permalink
    February 14, 2021

    Thank you for this information about the Custom House. My daily walk is often along this section of the river. I will definitely object. Once again, GA, you hold this community together.

  3. Ron Bunting permalink
    February 14, 2021

    My Great great Grandfather Joseph Benson Bunting worked there as a Customs officer in the mid 1800’s.

  4. Peter Smith permalink
    February 14, 2021

    Thank you for drawing this application to our attention. I have often passed the buiding and wondered why it was not in use. I have written objecting to the planning application.

  5. Fred permalink
    February 14, 2021

    “For decades, the Custom House has been inaccessible to the public which is why a building of such central significance has become relatively unnoticed, yet it is a publicly-owned building. Now Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs has vacated it and it has been leased to an offshore property developer based in the Bermuda tax haven”.

    The freehold of most of the HMRC estate has been owned by a Bermudan company, Mapeley, for the last 20-odd years. HMRC merely leased the buildings. Was that the case with CH ?

  6. the gentle author permalink*
    February 14, 2021

    Mapeley are only the leaseholders, the freehold is public ownership.

  7. Cherub permalink
    February 14, 2021

    Does London really need another luxury hotel? I live in a city full of them and there is a long standing campaign for tourists to have the choice of budget to mid price hotels.

    As for this majestic building, it would be fantastic if it was used for the greater good of the local and wider community. A library, education classes, perhaps an arts centre and cafés as well for people to come together in and enjoy. People will need all these things post coronavirus. I know I’m finding no access to language lessons in a classroom setting, plus not being able to visit museums and galleries very difficult during this third lockdown.

  8. robert silverman permalink
    February 14, 2021

    worth writing about british efforts to stamp out slave trade in 1850s or so when it was rampant in africa – and your articles should be collected into hardbound volumes where for example the contents could be viewed easily in written (hardbound) text (where the subjects for 50-100 topics could be scanned in 10-20 seconds) – by a boston, USA resident not yet to London

  9. Jane Manley permalink
    February 14, 2021

    I went for a job interview here in the early 1980s for a pretty lowly job as a typist. I remember being grilled by a selection panel who asked all manner of things including what newspaper I read. My fate was sealed when a lady asked ‘Has it always been your ambition to become a civil servant. Perhaps my answer was not what they wanted. Suffice to say I didn’t get the job

  10. Linda Hird permalink
    February 14, 2021

    Once again GA thank you for bringing this to our attention. I had no idea of the plans for this stunning building. Surely not another hotel? I will object at once!

  11. Dick Mathews permalink
    February 14, 2021

    I worked for HM Customs and Excise from 1969 until I retired in 2004, by which date it had merged with the Board of Inland Revenue to form HM Revenue and Customs. And I was employed in the Custom House for several years at the start of my time in the Department in a room at the western end of the building on the first floor, with a wonderful view of the river. Getting into work in the morning involved dodging between the fish-laden barrows to get across the then-cobbled and much narrower Lower Thames St, entering through the main doors at what is of course actually the back of the building which were guarded by two top-hatted uniformed staff whose official title was ‘beadle’, and ascending in a tiny lift (with an operator).
    The building was badly damaged in an air raid in December 1940 and the East Wing when I worked there had been rebuilt internally with an extra floor, although the exterior matched the western end.
    From the House of Commons – Treasury – Fifth Special Report [] you’ll see that the department was heavily criticised for the way in which it disposed of its estate to an offshore property company. There was an extensive investigation by the journalist Paul Foot in Private Eye. From that article I quote “On 9 March 2001 the Inland Revenue and Customs jointly issued a press release announcing the signature of a contract to sell its buildings and those of Customs on 2 April ‘Under the terms of the STEPS contract the ownership and management of the estate transfers to Mapeley Ltd who are required to provide the departments with serviced accommodation over twenty years’.” (I have a photocopy of the late Paul Foot’s 11 page investigation – I doubt it’s online anywhere.) It must be significant that this planning application comes at the end of that 20 year period – so what makes you so sure that the freehold is in public ownership?

  12. February 14, 2021

    There are plenty of hotels in London and only one custom house. There is a lot of history attached with this building that contains the first and greatest long room in HM Customs. 

    There is no customs museum and this would be a far better use for the building

  13. melissa delano permalink
    February 14, 2021

    I sent my objection… stating that many cities are facing this very same issue. Would it not be a better alternative to create spaces that would include locals and visitors alike…work/live/classrooms, small museums, etc. Why not include the whole community? Here in Santa Fe New Mexico the old Saint Vincent Sanitorium/hospital was converted into a Drury Hotel that we now refer to as the “Dreary”…honestly, aside from providing some low wage jobs this enterprise in no way benefits us. Instead of thinking short term hows about creating something that benefits everyone for generations to come? Dang!!! Wouldn’t it be great for a change if life were about more than the almighty buck???

  14. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 15, 2021

    I will write a letter of objection today and suggest a few more imaginative uses for the Customs House which has so much potential to be a real community asset. As you rightly say it is much too important a building to be converted into yet another unwanted luxury hotel, especially as it will destroy some unique architecture in the process.

    It will make a change lodging objections to the Corporation of London rather than Tower Hamlets. But judging by the excrescences which they have allowed to by built in the City in the last few years (the Walkie Talkie building must be the worst!), I have a horrible feeling that financial gain is even more of a driving force for the Corporation than in TH.


  15. Sue Mayer permalink
    February 16, 2021

    GA thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    I have fired off an email.

    I am depressed as nobody seems to think that historical buildings are worth saving in a sensible way. We are hell bent on destruction and a few people making lots of money in the process.

    I love anything Georgian so even more depressed.

  16. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    February 16, 2021

    Objection sent.

    The crassness of commercial developers knows no bounds. I do hope that the City planners take a good look at the SAVE Britain’s Heritage proposal. That is a conversion that I could get behind.

  17. James Emerson permalink
    February 17, 2021

    The best way to object is on the City of London planning portal – see

    – there were only 12 Public Comments there on Wed 17 feb at 10.20

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