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The Custom House Is Saved

July 1, 2022
by the gentle author

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

I am delighted to report that, further to the Public Inquiry into the future of the Custom House in the City of London, the Planning Inspector has refused permission for conversion to a boutique hotel. Significantly, this verdict contradicts Historic England’s disappointing approval of the hotel scheme.

The Planning Inspector’s decision paves the way for this magnificent building and the waterfront to become public spaces for cultural use in the manner of Somerset House. Thank you to all the readers to who wrote to the Planning Inspectorate in January urging the rejection of the boutique hotel and contributing to this happy outcome.

Meanwhile, the Judicial Review into Tower Hamlets Council’s approval of the Truman Brewery Shopping Mall took place at the High Court this week. We will publish the verdict here as soon as it is given.

One day, 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. Their rejected planning application was for an unsympathetic conversion to a luxury hotel that was destructive to the fabric of the grade I listed building, erasing its meaning and significance.

Meanwhile, SAVE Britain’s Heritage and The Georgian Group 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

24 Responses leave one →
  1. Milo permalink
    July 1, 2022

    Brilliant news. Just goes to show we ‘little people’ can make a difference. I look forward to wandering around it one day.

  2. Lizebeth permalink
    July 1, 2022

    Amazing: a public official who actually has the interests of the public at heart.

    Tower Hamlets and Capco take note.

    Well done, and thank you, to all who wrote in along with me, to save this magnificent building.
    And to the Gentle Author for continuing to bring situations like this to our attention.

  3. July 1, 2022

    Wonderful news for London!
    Thanks go to you GA for giving us all the chance to object and thanks to the Planning Inspectorate for considering those objections ….and making the right decision.
    We need a right decision now about Truman’s Brewery.

  4. July 1, 2022

    Congratulations!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  5. July 1, 2022

    BRAVO!

  6. July 1, 2022

    Fantastic news and hopefully, surely, the scheme you mention will be agreed and opens the riverside walk, now constrained between 2 fences. Even though I’d actually get rid of the fence, leaving the lamps would be great!

  7. Millie permalink
    July 1, 2022

    Great news as long as we create a space to revisit our history and share the stories of all those impacted by Empire. Time to atone and apologise rather than just continue the celebration.

  8. philip morrison permalink
    July 1, 2022

    Marvellous news and glad to know in a small way that my objection has contributed to saving the Customs House.
    I worked for a wine shipper in the City in the early sixties and often had to visit this splendid building.
    I sincerely hope that the building can be used in such a way for Londoners to be proud.Well done everyone.

  9. July 1, 2022

    GA, you are on the right side of history.
    Thanks for your advocacy!
    Onward and upward.

  10. Linda Granfield permalink
    July 1, 2022

    Cries of jubilation from Canada!
    Thanks to all who supported this campaign to bring new life to this magnificent building.
    And, as always, thank you to you, GA, for keeping us ‘in the loop’ when history and beauty are threatened.

  11. Helen Breen permalink
    July 1, 2022

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, so glad to learn that the London Custom House will be saved for future public use. I have often admired the building from across the way on the South Side. Magnificent. Your detailed account of its predecessors and of its commercial importance in the history of Britain was much appreciated.

  12. Magster56 permalink
    July 1, 2022

    I would like to see it used for Community or even local government area initiatives not more cafes and restaurants bars. London east and central are flooded with them. Using this impressive building for cultural events or other civil or social events or gatherings would be a much better choice and keep it interesting and help retain and maintain its glory.

  13. Josephine Eglin permalink
    July 1, 2022

    Hurrah.

  14. Gee Farrow permalink
    July 1, 2022

    So happy at this news

  15. Andy permalink
    July 1, 2022

    Happiness remains.

  16. Peter Smith permalink
    July 1, 2022

    Wonderful news. Thank you to all who wrote in objecting and thank you GA for your good work!

  17. Ann V permalink
    July 1, 2022

    Brilliant news!

  18. Lee permalink
    July 1, 2022

    Excellent news. I worked in this building in the late 1980’s. Part of my duties were showing the electric and gas guys where the meters were, reporting and escorting repair contractors and general office services. I’ve been in some hidden basement rooms and almost every bit of the building….Great memories.

  19. mlaiuppa permalink
    July 1, 2022

    I’m so pleased it’s saved. Why does London need so many boutique hotels. Eventually you’ll have nothing but hotels and nothing left for tourist to see but more hotels.

    What is going on with the bell foundry and the mulberry tree?

  20. Marcia Howard permalink
    July 1, 2022

    Good news indeed!!! Despite it’s history and the people in contact with it almost showing it to have been jinxed, the result is wonderful. Well done on highlighting this to all your followers.

  21. Stephen Baisden permalink
    July 2, 2022

    Congratulations and good luck from someone from Boston and Florida, USA. Love this Blog. My ancestors came from Kent and London centuries ago, but I’ve always loved the UK.

  22. Valery permalink
    July 4, 2022

    Congratulations! You did it!

  23. July 4, 2022

    Well done. Another victory for the conservation of historical London. You should be very proud of what you have achieved in this campaign.

  24. Chas Mansour permalink
    July 4, 2022

    Great News! Started in the department in the Custom House, Lower Thames Street on 2nd October 1962 as a Clerical Assistant so many happy memories. It’s nice to know it’ll hopefully be preserved

    Chas Mansour

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