Customs House

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.

Faversham Creek

Anyone who thinks that Faversham Creek is small and insignificant, and can’t understand what all the fuss is about, would do well to read this concise account of its long and distinguished history, written by Arthur Percival and published here with his permission.

Without its Creek, Faversham would not exist.

Without it, it would not have taken the form it has.

Without it, it would never have become an autonomous town and port within the Cinque Ports Confederation; and it wouldn’t have the Mayor and Town Council it has today, nor its priceless original copy of Magna Carta.

Without it, it wouldn’t have the highly-prized market we all enjoy today. This is the oldest in Kent, going back to before 1066.

Much of what we see in and around the town is the legacy of the Creek.

Geography, weather and climate have dictated Faversham’s shape and destiny

Its site was settled in prehistoric times. Successive waves of immigrants arrived by sea, and the Creek, from continental Europe.

Predecessors of the Romans were the Belgi. They recognised the importance of what we now know as Standard Quay for imports and exports and had a farm next door at what we now know as Abbey Farm.

The Romans replaced this with improved facilities, and after the Abbey was founded in 1148 it followed suit, building among other things the two fine barns we see today. At Standard Quay, picture vessels both loading cargoes of local produce for London and nearby ports in Belgium and France and unloading imports of wines and luxury goods.

The great Abbey Church was faced with stone shipped up the Creek from Caen in Normandy. When it was demolished much of it was shipped back to France to strengthen the defences of the pale of Calais, but some can still be seen in buildings like Arden’s House.

The Creek also saw stone imported for landmark buildings like Faversham Church and Davington Priory, only a few hundred yards from its present head.

The Creek made possible the establishment of a renowned oyster fishery, to which the town owed much of its prosperity. Witness to this are many of its fine medieval houses, the homes of dredgers, in Abbey Street in particular.

In the late 15th century flourishing Creek trade encouraged the Borough Council to build a town warehouse to provide transit storage for merchants who could not afford their own facilities. The building remains in existence as the T S Hasard, one of the few surviving examples of its kind in the UK.

The Creek bred fine seamen, good enough before the days of a Royal Navy to join with other ports (the Cinque Ports Confederation) in the south-east to provide a fleet for the defence of the nation. Without that fleet and the input from Creek seamen the nation’s history would have been very different.

One of the most successful admirals of the fleet was Faversham’s Henry Pay, whose early C15 grave can be seen in Faversham Church. He tormented both the French and the Spanish.

In the 16th century more wool was exported through the Creek than any other English port. This was the nation’s most valuable export and without it the nation’s history would have been very different. England’s economy would have been much poorer, and therefore also its people and its built fabric. It would have been a very backward offshore island.

Pioneering imports of hops were arriving in the Creek from at least as early as 1535. It was the use of hops that made possible the brewing of beer, as opposed to ale. Beer kept better, had better flavour, and was cheaper to produce

Thomas Arden was comptroller of Customs in Faversham when be was murdered in his own home at his wife’s instigation in 1551. He can be pictured striding down to Standard Quay and other town quays to check that his staff were doing their jobs properly. His own home, Arden’s House, can still be seen and the crime was immortalised in the play Arden of Faversham which remains in the repertory and is currently in repertory at the RSC Theatre.

The nation’s private-sector gunpowder industry may have been pioneered in Faversham. It was in existence by 1573. The product was exported through the Creek. The industry grew to large and eventually huge dimensions, and lasted till 1934. Without the product the nation’s history would have been vastly different. It made possible the growth of the British Empire and also the defeat of Napoleon. The growth of the Empire made possible the emergence of English as a world language.

The gunpowder industry was also one of the main engines of the Industrial Revolution, providing explosives for the blasting of routes for canals and (later) railways. Its physical remains in Faversham include Ordnance Wharf, at the head of the Creek, Stonebridge Pond, Chart Gunpowder Mills, Oare Gunpowder Works, Saltpetre Store on Oare Creek and the central complex of the Marsh Gunpowder Works.

Exported through the Creek to London in the 17th century were more cargoes of wheat than from any other English port. Without these the growth of London could not have been sustained.

When more transit storage space was needed in the 1650s the owners of Standard Quay dismantled the old Abbey refectory and used the salvaged timbers to create a big warehouse there – the building now known as the Monks’ Granary.

Close to some of Kent’s finest hop gardens, Faversham was a main supplier of the crop to London breweries at a period, from the later 18th century, when they were rapidly expanding. The large and commanding Creek-side building now known as Oyster Bay House was built as a hop store in mid-Victorian times.

Cement, a building mortar which would set under water, making the construction of docks and bridges much easier, was one of the great innovations of the Industrial Revolution. Without it the UK’s economy would never have forged ahead in the 19th century. One of the pioneer cement factories was established alongside the Creek in 1812 by Samuel Shepherd, of the local brewing family. In 1900 it amalgamated with others to form Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers (APCM, alias Blue Circle). It closed in 1917.

Shipbuilding on the Creek was an important local industry from at least the 18th century. Several yards were established, and many vessels built, including scores of sailing barges, without which London’s economy could not have survived. The most important came to be the yard at the far end of Standard Quay run by John Matthew Goldfinch. His sailing barges were some of the finest of their kind. He lived on site at the late Georgian Standard House (sometimes known as the Goldfinch House).

The exponential growth of Victorian London would have been impossible without the billions of so-called ‘London’ stock bricks which were made in brickfields on either side of the Creek and delivered from wharves alongside it to builders in the metropolis. Cooksditch – the stream – was diverted and widened to serve the Abbey brickfield and was originally known as Wythes’ Canal after the field owner: today it’s known as Chambers’ Dock.

The building of concrete sailing coasters and the use of Bolinder oil engines from Sweden were both pioneered in the UK by the Pollock shipyard opened alongside the Creek in 1917.

There can be few short tidal waterways which have contributed so much to Britain’s standing in the world and where that contribution is still reflected in its character, appearance and structures.

The historical development of the Port of Faversham, Kent 1580-1780

“Faversham; a fair and flourishing sea-port town, giving title to an extensive hundred in the Lathe of Scray, in the county of Kent, is situated on a navigable arm of the Swale, in a fruitfull part of the county, nine miles from Canterbury, and forty-seven from London” (Edward Jacob, 1774, A History of Faversham).

To read the full story of Faversham Creek, download the complete historical document here

Reproduced with permission from The Kent Archaeological Field School

Click the images below for more historical detail.

Customs House

Faversham Creek

Historical Development