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A New Future For The Custom House

January 13, 2022
by the gentle author

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The Custom House by Augustus Pugin & Thomas Rowlandson, 1805

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You will recall that last year a planning application was submitted to the City of London to convert the Custom House into a boutique hotel and destroy much of the historic interior. I am delighted to report that – thanks in no small part to letters of objection submitted you, the readers of Spitalfields Life – this plan was rejected.

After receiving around one hundred letters of objection, the committee responded by rejecting the hotel scheme unanimously. How different from Tower Hamlets Council, where over 7000 objections to the Truman Brewery shopping mall were casually brushed aside.

The future of the Custom House is now to be decided by Public Inquiry in February at which The Georgian Group will put forward their scheme which proposes restoring the building and opening the major spaces including the Long Room for cultural use with full public access.

The offices, which comprise the largest surviving suites of Georgian offices in existence, would be restored and employed for start-ups and small enterprises as part of the City of London’s inclusivity and diversity programme. In this way, the building can be where the City’s future is created, by opening the door to those who have previously been excluded. When you consider that the Custom House was where all the loot came into this country for centuries, such a repurposing is an appropriate step towards a just outcome.

Click on The Georgian Group’s scheme below to enlarge and read more.

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Click on this to enlarge

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Click on this to enlarge

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HELP SAVE THE CUSTOM HOUSE FOR LONDONERS

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To save the Custom House as a public building, we need you to write to the Inspector who is holding the Public Inquiry.

Send your email as soon as possible to Alison.Dyson@planninginspectorate.gov.uk

Quote reference APP/K5030/W/21/3281630

Make it clear that you object to the proposed hotel plan and explain in your own words why you support The Georgian Group’s scheme.

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

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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, the Custom House was 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 explains why a building of such central significance has become relatively unnoticed, yet it is publicly-owned. 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)

 

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

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At The Georgian Group

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Steve Shinners permalink
    January 13, 2022

    Fabulous news for the customs house. Can you imagine losing all that Georgian interior. Developers would certainly have shed no tears. The reuse proposals sound exciting.

  2. Rob Cassels permalink
    January 13, 2022

    Well done Gentle Author!! So grateful.

  3. Annie Green permalink
    January 13, 2022

    It would be a fabulous place to have an outpost of the Maritime Museum. I hope somebody looks way beyond hotel, restaurant, corporate bean-feast space and uses this magnificent building with grace and imagination.

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 13, 2022

    Brilliant news! So glad the hotel plan has been rejected…

    And as you say – what a difference to the Tower Hamlets planning department!

  5. Eve permalink
    January 13, 2022

    great result! & well done all..

  6. Ann V permalink
    January 13, 2022

    Excellent news Gentle Author. Simply brilliant!

  7. January 13, 2022

    Huzzah!! After the crushing disappointments of the Truman Brewery and the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, I didn’t hold out much hope. How delightful to be wrong, in this case!

    I know that there is still a long way to go, but this is a wonderful development!

  8. Ken Powell permalink
    January 13, 2022

    Congratulations to the City for rejecting a highly inappropriate use for this great public building. Somerset House shows the way forward. Let’s hope the government rejects the appeal and opens the way for a new use/uses of public benefit.

  9. Anne-Marie Marriott permalink
    January 13, 2022

    Congratulations! This is fantastic news.

  10. January 13, 2022

    God (and the Gentle Author…….) is in the details. Naturally, I applauded the good news imparted in this post — but I got stuck on the vintage image of the hubbub inside the building and could easily imagine the nattering chatter, the whispered asides, the bragging exclamations and boasts, the rumors, jokes, and collegial gaiety. Dare I say, the acoustics in such a vast space would double/triple the volume. But most of all, I love the artist’s depiction of the light streaming into the space — almost like a celestial omen that some good news would befall this amazing building, in the auspicious year of (gulp) 2022. This building seems to be “one for the ages”, and thank goodness it is being treated with regard.

    Thanks for this hopeful news today, GA. I needed that.

  11. January 13, 2022

    I visited its library once, must have been about 1970. I wonder what became of it.

  12. Chris Ashby permalink
    January 13, 2022

    Great news. I’ve just sent my objection. Thanks for letting us know.
    Best Wishes,
    Chris Ashby.

  13. Cherub permalink
    January 13, 2022

    Glad this is not going to be a hotel. Buildings like this can have so much valuable public use. As an example there is a fine old 19th century barracks here in Basel, it houses restaurants, a music and theatre space and space is rented out as studios to local artists and sculptors who sell their work there. Youth theatre thrives there. Part is being redeveloped into a museum and library, plus some affordable flats and offices. Before the pandemic the courtyard hosted an annual military tattoo, the precursor to Edinburgh Castle. It’s a vibrant place where locals can meet and enjoy life.

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