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Last Chance To Save The Custom House

October 17, 2021
by the gentle author

I am delighted to report that we have successfully raised the £5000 needed to employ a lawyer to investigate Tower Hamlets’ dodgy decision-making over the Truman Brewery Shopping Mall and seek grounds for a Judicial Review to overturn the decision.

Now I need your help to save the eighteenth century Custom House on the riverfront in the City of London. An application has been submitted to turn it into a luxury hotel, trashing much of the historic interior including the magnificent long room overlooking the Thames.

It is obvious that this handsome building should be restored and given over to cultural use with public access, just as they have done at Somerset House in the Strand.

Please write a letter of objection before the decision meeting on Tuesday 26th October. You will find instructions for how to do this at the foot of the article below.

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

I walked down from Spitalfields to 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.

Afterwards, 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. The Long Room should be returned as a space for Londoners and south-facing quayside opened for permanent public access with riverside cafes, restaurants and bars, like a square in Venice.

The obvious precedents of Somerset House and Tate Modern demonstrate how the Custom House could be put successfully to public use again.

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

PROPOSED REDEVELOPMENT OF THE CUSTOMS HOUSE

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.

HOW TO OBJECT

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 PLNComments@cityoflondon.gov.uk and copy it to Alastair.Moss@cityoflondon.gov.uk (Chair of Planning & Transportation Committee)

Or by post to:

The Department of the Built Environment,
City of London,
PO Box 270,
Guildhall,
London,
EC2P 2EJ

21 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    October 17, 2021

    Done!

    And great news that the Brick Lane fundraising has gone so well (and so quickly!) It just shows that people are willing to put their money where there mouth is…

  2. Eve permalink
    October 17, 2021

    Yes, also sending my objection to this ! Thanks for your vigilant concern that London’s history isn’t sold off commercially, but preserved for posterity..

  3. Adele Lester permalink
    October 17, 2021

    Will certainly object to this. I wonder if my immigrant ancestors came through this building?
    This article has encouraged me to do some more genealogical research.

  4. Saba permalink
    October 17, 2021

    Thank you for this article, and I shall write to have the custom house preserved.
    I have thought so much about the many connections between my own area, the Hudson River valley in New York State, and seventeenth- through nineteenth-century London. This article adds a new chapter as I think about goods flowing to and from the small ports along the Hudson to this nexus of world shipping.

  5. paul loften permalink
    October 17, 2021

    London has replaced its history with luxury hotels .

  6. J Woolf permalink
    October 17, 2021

    Is this company Mapeley House, based in Bermuda? The Sunday Times named it in an investigation it did in 2016, and so perhaps you could say if the present developers is or has links with Mapeley. If so, surely the Sunday Times piece has some bearing on objections to this application? ( The paper does specifically mention Mapeley in connection with the government supposedly cracking down on tax evasion). In the light of the Pandora Papers revelations, there is a great deal of public awareness of the undesirability of certain types of property deal. I don’t know if Westminster is aware of this. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/tax-haven-firm-owns-hmrc-london-office-36hd39jl9?

  7. Lizebeth permalink
    October 17, 2021

    Is it just me? My cc to Mr. Moss was blocked.

    I agree — we are definitely replacing history with hotels, shopping malls, hideous, indistinguishable, and cheap new developments. What kind of legacy are we leaving for future generations? They will not see our heritage, they won’t even know it was there, so the ravages will continue.

    How sad. But thank you so much for alerting us to these outrages and trying to prevent them whilst we still can.

  8. Bernard Small permalink
    October 17, 2021

    I object to the current proposals to convert the London Custom House into an hotel. In my opinion this building is second only in terms of representing this country’s cultural identity to the parliament buildings. We need to preserve the monuments to where we come from.

  9. John Cunningham permalink
    October 17, 2021

    It’s a pity that the UK government decided to lease this publicly owned building to an offshore investment company. One wonders why…

  10. John Cunningham permalink
    October 17, 2021

    Is it possible to put forward an objection if one lives outside the UK? As an expat living in the EU who knows and loves London I would like to make my concerns heard

  11. Richard Crowley permalink
    October 17, 2021

    Such a vital part of London’s built heritage deserves to be preserved intact, or as near to intact as is possible, therefore a public usage project, perhaps as an arts/cultural/museum-oriented venue, for The Customs House is the preferred outcome here.

    Any approved adaptive reuse of major architectural & historic buildings needs to be carried out with great & respectful sympathy for their original features.

    Gutting of all interiors & replacing with a 100% modern interior design is generally not appropriate for truly significant historical structures, especially ones like The Customs Hosue.

    All design plans for any such projects should include retention of as many original features as possible/practical & be subject to strict official review & oversight of the work before & as it’s carried out.

  12. October 17, 2021

    Strong objection just submitted.
    Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  13. the gentle author permalink*
    October 17, 2021

    Yes, anyone can object from anywhere in the world as long as you give your postal address.

  14. Philip Roy permalink
    October 18, 2021

    It is the same company, Mapeley STEPS, yes. But for this purpose they’ve set up a new company, Cannon Capital.

    https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/tax-haven-firm-owns-hmrc-london-office-36hd39jl9

    And…

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2021/03/28/custom-house-hotel-makeover-reignite-deal-controversy/

    It is unclear whether the Government will reap the rewards of any tax free uplift… despite requests under FOI, the Gov has only released a redacted version of the original PFI argreement with Mapeley.

    https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/how_much_hmrc_office_space_is_le

    Interestingly when asked in Parliment why the Government kept certain freehold interests, including the London Custom House, the answer was because of the “hitoric interest” of those properties….

  15. Sue Smith permalink
    October 18, 2021

    More awful and crass alteration of our heritage, with little regard for what these places might mean to the wider public.

    London is soon to just become one big hotel, with nothing for ordinary Londoners. Looks like the same old rubbish we have seen a million times before which is very exclusive, in the interests of just the few who can afford it. So much more of a shame given the location on the River and the fascinating social story here.

  16. Lesley permalink
    October 18, 2021

    My great, great grandfather, George Jones was a clerk at The Customs House in the 1860s and 70s.

  17. Jennifer bruno permalink
    October 18, 2021

    Save our Customs House!!!!

  18. October 18, 2021

    Thank you for sharing this, and yes, will definitely voice my objection. My despair grows daily relating to planning applications!

  19. October 18, 2021

    A superb article – thank you. I have just written expressing my objection to the project. Another case of a quick buck being made at the expense of our heritage and history.

  20. David Eade permalink
    October 19, 2021

    I wrote an objection to the planning applications for the Customs House and emailed it to the addresses noted in your column. I assume the objection mailed to the Committee was accepted as I have heard nothing to the contrary..yet!

  21. October 26, 2021

    This has to be saved in tact for the nation. Enough generic hotels and mafia councils.

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