Customs House History


The growth of the 18th and 19th century free trade touched the lives of practically everyone. The trade was driven by desperation amongst the poor and a sense of resentment from other classes. High taxation imposed by a succession of governments across almost every aspect of everyday life was seen as punitive but necessary in order to pay for costly wars in Europe. In cartoons John Bull does his patriotic best but not without some resentment. Taxes fell into two categories:

  • Customs duties where the English Crown claimed a portion of all cargoes coming into the country and, Excise Duty levied as a war tax.
  • Excise was a tax on domestic consumption and during the late 18th and 19th century, it was applied to most materials and goods.

The distinction between the two was of little concern to most people. All they knew was that there were more and more taxes to pay. As the 18th century progressed, the slice taken by the Exchequer increased. For example the tax on tea was nearly 70% of its initial cost, and the double burden of customs and excise duties was widely resented by a rural population often close to starvation.

Collecting customs duties was often haphazard and cumbersome. It relied on using customs houses at ports and a structure dating back to the 13th century.

Over the centuries, the customs hierarchy had become corrupt. The system was not designed to combat the resourcefulness of the free traders and the support given to them from many people who objected to the exorbitant taxes.

With high rates of taxation and the cumbersome processes involved in importing goods, the Custom House auction became an attractive proposition amongst merchants and resellers. They could purchase with confidence, prove their merchandise was legal, and look forward to good profit margins.

For private buyers, the auctions were an opportunity to pick up some bargains.

How Customs managed contraband.

After the Customs Services had seized goods, these were usually held at a customs house. The merchandise would then be used by the Crown for its own purposes or advertised for sale.

Depending on the classification of the goods, merchandise could be purchased by authorised resellers and trades, or bought by the public for private consumption.

In his will of 1812, William Baldock mentions two victuallers who could have played a part in William’s distribution of smuggled goods, but they might also have acted as agents at Custom House auctions. The usual practice was to provide a ‘viewing’ on the Sale day or the day before. Viewing days often involved tastings and successful bidders were expected to pay in full or provide a 25 per cent deposit with final settlement, later.

Local newssheets and newspapers announced these auctions and advertisements carried details of the items for sale, amounts, the auction date, and location. From these advertised auctions, we can trace the sorts of goods that were in demand at the time and what was being smuggled.

The auction notices also give some indication of the size and scale of smuggling that took place in different areas and the zeal with which individual customs officials pursued the free faversham 1810

Those Customs Houses that offered remarkably small amounts at auction may also be pointing to something else. Certain customs officials had strong connections to smuggling networks. Seizures were stage-managed to satisfy authorities who might become suspect. As long as the customs officers were seen to be doing their job, there was little suspicion that they might be working with the smuggling dover 1810

Large amounts at auction might also indicate the scale and importance of the customs house at a particular time. For instance, Faversham and Whitstable were often linked in their history but any contraband seized was usually accounted for at Faversham even if it was held elsewhere. (This complicated system might explain the lack of reports concerning seized goods in the Seasalter and Whitstable areas.)

The complex nature of North Kent Customs Houses

In Archaeologia Cantiana Vol. 69 1955, J.H. Andrews writes about the complex nature of customs houses along the Kent coast dating back to the 1650’s. He explores their roles, responsibilities and relationships with each other:

‘The Customs port of Faversham, as delimited by an Exchequer Commission of 1676, included a considerable portion of the Kentish coast, stretching from Milton in the west to the North Foreland in the east, but not all this coast was covered by the Faversham port books. The trade of Margate was always recorded in the Sandwich books and the Commissioners were almost certainly mistaken in extending the limits of Faversham as far east as the Foreland. Meanwhile, Milton, which seems to have been an independent Customs port until 1670, kept a separate set of port books well into the 1700s. In these books they recorded not only their own trade but also that of Conyer, Upchurch, Rainham and Otterham.

Four places remained within the limits of the port of Faversham—Reculver, Herne, Whitstable and Faversham itself. Of these the last two were well-known landing places of some importance, but the status of the others is uncertain.’

Hasted’s description of Herne in 1772 as the centre of a flourishing coastwise trade echoes earlier times. Ships belonging to Herne were frequently recorded in the Faversham port books and in 1702 its farmers, hoymen and fishermen considered their bay important enough to need guns for protection against the French.

After considering the complex inter-relationships of the port customs houses, Andrews describes the nature of exports for the port of Faversham, alone.

Here we start to touch on the links with the Whitstable oystermen, the hoys and their connections to mainland Europe:

‘… Perhaps the most striking feature (of the Faversham trade statistics) was the negligible volume of foreign commerce. Faversham was a fully-fledged Customs port, with two legal quays for the unloading of foreign merchandise, but almost all its small foreign trade was contributed by the local oyster fishery. Kentish oysters were reported in 1709 to be produced in an area twenty miles long and seven miles wide, stretching from the North Foreland to Sheerness, but most of the fishing was done among the creeks west of Faversham in a region quite distinct from the modern oyster beds at Whitstable.

‘The oyster trade was measured in terms of the “wash,” which seems to have been equivalent to twenty bushels. Exports from Faversham increased rapidly from less than two hundred wash per year in the mid 17th century to nearly a thousand in the 18th. Throughout this period Holland, and especially the port of Zieriksee, was the chief destination, taking more than four-fifths of the total, although a small trade to the North Sea ports of Germany developed after 1700.

Apart from the export of oysters, Faversham’s foreign trade was small. Whatever farm produce from North Kent found its way overseas did so via London.

Although the capital drained away most of Faversham’s foreign trade, its coasting trade was stimulated by the proximity to the metropolitan market. In the second half of the 17th century about three hundred coasters left the port each year, and of these usually less than ten were bound for ports other than London.

By the late 18th century and into the 19th century, we see ports like Dover offering large amounts of seized goods for auction. This seems to point to the shift from agricultural and fishing to the militaristic significance of a port such as Dover. It would certainly explain why Faversham starts to take on a minor role in the late 1700s and early 1800s. A port with a strong military presence could more easily guard against attacks on local customs houses by large gangs of smugglers who were keen to retake their forfeited goods.

With less interest in areas such as Seasalter and Faversham, smuggling networks like the Seasalter Company were left alone to move their goods along the tracks and roads leading to London and Canterbury.