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The Custom House

Page updated 2 July 2008

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This handsome building, situated on the quay, dates from 1680-81. It was built next to the Watergate, placing it well for controlling the importing of goods and assessing them before they were transported into the city. Designed by North Devon builder, Richard Allen, it is thought to be the oldest, large brick building still surviving in Exeter. H M Customs and Excise used it until 1989, to monitor goods imported to the quay for customs duty.

Originally, the arches at the front were open, allowing goods to be stored out of the rain.

On the ground floor, to the rear of the front storage area, was installed a Kings Stove, said to be used to burn contraband goods. There is a fireplace with cast iron door and flue in a rear room, but the archaeologists are not certain if it is the actual stove

The building has three fine interior plaster ceilings produced by North Devonian, John Abbot (1639-1727). He was paid £35 for three ceilings which are some of the finest of their type in the country. One, in the surveyors room, has an octagonal centre piece surrounded by plaster flowers and ribbons and a variety of outer panels. The largest in the main hall on the first floor is adorned with intricate masks and four serpents with rather strange eyes. The third over the stairwell, is the simplest, and in some ways, the most elegant of the three. Another John Abbot ceiling can be found at Downs, Crediton, the former home of General Sir Redvers Buller.

Celia Fiennes described the Custom House thus:

".... just by this key is the Custom House, an open space below with rows of pillars which they lay in goods just as its unladen out of the ships in case of wet, just by are several little rooms for Land-waiters, etc., then you ascend up a handsome pair of stairs into a large room full of desks and little partitions for the writers and accountants, its was full of books and files of paper, by it are two other rooms which are used in the same way when there is a great deal of business;"

The Custom House had a real job to do, and occasionally things could get very busy if there were a change in the rate of duty. In April 1854, the duty on tea was reduced by 4d per pound, and the Custom House records show that on the day after the reduction, £4,630 was collected in duty on tea cleared through the port; it is rare that such a run occurs because of a reduction in duty. A little over 20 years later in April 1877, the Custom House officials collected £6,207 in the four day period April 9 to 12, before there was a rise in duty by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The breakdown of goods cleared from the bonded warehouses was 7,500 gallons of spirits comprising brandy £2,200, whiskey £1,031, and rum £612, wine £108, and tea and tobacco £2,274. There were so many traders trying to take their goods out of bond that many could not clear in the time due to the pressure on the customs officials.

The cannon when it was on the QuayIn the front of the building, are two cannon originally thought to have been used at the battle of Waterloo - however, they were two of a batch that had been sold to Russia in 1789 to arm their fleet, at Archangel. They were returned to England after Napoleon was defeated, as they were then obsolete, with a view to using four on the Wellington Memorial, in Somerset. Fifteen were shipped to Exeter Quay in 1819. The committee overseeing the memorial, discovered that they had not been used at Waterloo and refused to take them. After five years of storage, the City Council decided to sell them to pay for their storage. They were not sold - four were used as bollards at the quay and the rest buried.

In the early 20th century the cannons were excavated and four mounted at the Wellington Memorial. During the Second World War these cannon were melted for scrap, leaving the Exeter cannon the only ones to survive, on the Quay. Eventually, the cannon were removed, one given to the Wellington Memorial and two mounted and placed in the front of the Custom House.

Custom House The Custom House on the Quay. Custom House Main Hall ceiling The ceiling, complete with serpents in the main Customs Hall. Custom House cannon One of the cannons.

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