Custom House and Circular Quay 1845 by GE Peacock, courtesy Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW (DG 35)

Custom House and Circular Quay 1845 by GE Peacock, courtesy Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW (DG 35)

The City of Sydney have just announced that they have acquired Customs House from the Commonwealth Government, so today I thought we’d take a look back at the history of the building and its role in maritime Sydney. 

Listen to the whole conversation with Lisa and Tess on 2SER here 

Customs House down in Circular Quay is an important public building that symbolised, when it was built in 1845, Sydney’s growing status as a trading port, British maritime power and the rule of order.

Look up at the outside today and you can see cartouches, or shields, with names of some of the other ports with which we traded.

It’s sited on reclaimed land, at what was once the edge of Sydney Cove and it was the hub for shipping and all the goods and people coming into the harbour. Customs House was where shipping was cleared and goods passing through the port were taxed and cleared for sale or export.

When the port was busy, so was the Customs House. It could be crowded and noisy, the scene of raised tempers over delays and disputed dealings. Around Customs House clustered shipping companies, warehouses and bond stores, customs agents, ships providores, and, of course, pubs.

Customs House has always had a dual role of revenue raising through taxing trade, and protecting society from banned and socially unacceptable goods, products, ideas and diseases. The staff connected with the Customs House included customs collectors, warehouse keepers, boat crews, messengers, and (my favourites) tide waiters and landing waiters. The tide waiters went on board ships in port to tally cargoes and intercept smuggling, and the landing waiters, watched over the wharves.

In Sydney’s early days as a commercial port, smugglers were active not only in relation to banned goods, but to any good which attracted a significant tariff. Opium, for instance, was legal until well into the twentieth century, but attracted a high tax, so it was at the centre of many smuggling scandals. Today, of course, opium is illegal.

Inevitably with this type of activity, stories emerged of men on the make and men on the take. The historian of the Customs Service, David Day, relates the histories of a succession of officers whose administration came under official scrutiny:
It was not that Customs officers were more prone to corruption than other officials. It was simply that the nature of their work left them more exposed to the temptation.
(David Day, Smugglers and Sailors: The Customs History of Australia, AGPS Press, Canberra, 1992, p.442)

Customs officials and Customs Agents, who represented importers and exporters, often drank at the same Quayside pubs. They had ample opportunity to do ‘deals’, while the lengthy time which it often took to clear goods at the House gave opportunity for the public to remove goods from the wharves. Raconteurs from all the local communities which lived in proximity to the city’s wharves (Woolloomooloo, Pyrmont, Miller’s Point) tell tales of constant petty pilfering by local kids, as well as more serious scams.

Contraband at Customs House, 11 July 1939, courtesy Mitchell Library & ACP Magazines Ltd, State Library of NSW (ON 388/Box 028/Item 143)

Contraband at Customs House, 11 July 1939, courtesy Mitchell Library & ACP Magazines Ltd, State Library of NSW (ON 388/Box 028/Item 143)

The importance of the Customs House and its revenue raising becomes apparent when you tally up the duties that they collected.

The federal government first introduced income tax during World War One. Prior to this, customs income was the chief source of government revenue.

As late as 1924, customs tax still contributed more than 70% of the nation’s revenue. So Customs Houses around the country played a key role in bank-rolling Australia’s development as a nation.

The Customs House closed in 1990 and the City of Sydney took on a lease for the building in 1994. Since then, they have transformed the building into a cultural venue, with library and exhibition space.

Now, the City is taking it on permanently, having just announced this week that it has acquired the Customs House from the Commonwealth Government. So this is one building that will stay in public hands (unlike so many other government buildings that get sold off).

Sydney’s Customs House has a rich history worth preserving. You can read more about the architectural history of the buildingin Laila Ellmoos’s entry on the Dictionary here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/customs_house

 

Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa!  You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio

Listen to Lisa & Tess here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney. 

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