I hadn’t planned on visiting Custom House for Open House London but as I’d been wandering taking photos nearby anyway I thought I’d pop in to see what it was all about. It doesn’t look like a very impressive building from this side – it’s the southern part of the building that looks out to the river and therefore the approaching ships which is more ornate.
A custom house has been present in the area since the 13th century and it is now the offices of HM Revenue and Customs. An English Customs Service has existed since around 742AD and Custom Houses were their headquarters, built at major ports to monitor goods arriving and departing by water.
The first recorded Custom House here was built in 1275, but was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Sir Christopher Wren designed its replacement in 1671 but this too burned down in 1715 – an occupational hazard since custom houses often stored confiscated material like gunpowder.
The present building was designed by David Laing, the customs surveyor for buildings, and opened in 1817. However in 1824 the ceiling of the Long Room (pictured below) collapsed and this was followed by the collapse of the floor. This became known at the “Custom House Scandal” and Laing was judged responsible, destroying his career. Robert Smirke, architect from the Office of Works, did the repairs in 1825. The East Wing was rebuilt in 1962-66.
The Long Room had actually been Christopher’s Wren’s addition – it is 190 feet long, 63 feet wide and 54 feet high. It was in this room that most business would have been done with clerks dealing with ship’s captains and brokers. It is certainly impressive, and is still used as an office today.
The tour was self-guided but there were lots of staff on hand to answer questions and give demonstrations. Some of the other highlights included the Main Hall which was the public entrance to the building and where you could find the original scales used in the Custom House Queen’s warehouse to weigh gold that had been seized.
An unexpectedly interesting building to explore, you can find more photos here.