If ever one building could tell the story of a town, it is the Custom House at King’s Lynn.

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Why is it so special?

It is a monument and symbol of the town, and reflects the thing which created Lynn in the first place international sea-borne trade. For hundreds of years mariners have been sailing in and out of Lynn, the wealth they generated helping shape the history of East Anglia and Britain. People had been trading out of Lynn since the town emerged in the early 12th century and it is likely that governments sought to make money out of traders from the earliest days. It was the merchants of the European Hanseatic League who dominated the economy in medieval times, but by the 17th century a homegrown elite was calling the tune.

Where did the money come from?

Kings Lynns 17th century merchant families grew rich on four staples; wine, corn, coal from Newcastle and timber, the earlier wool trade having ebbed away. Fishing, including Greenland whaling, and allied trades was another mainstay. Sir John Turner, by turns alderman and mayor of Lynn, as well as MP for the town, paid for and initially owned the Custom House and it was he who put up the cash to build it as a merchant exchange in 1683. Along with the Bagge and Hogge families, the Turners had power, wealth and influence. Yet as the rich grew richer, the gap between them and the poor grew wider. They could only watch in envy as the merchant princes constructed monuments to trading glory. But the town prospered through trade with the Low Countries and elsewhere, boosting the economy of both the town and its rural hinterland. Its position gave it access to inland waterways, and as a port it was second only to London in size and importance. In the early 1700s Daniel Defoe praised Lynn as a beautiful, well built and well situated town.

Who built the Custom House?

He was a local man. Henry Bell was born in 1647, the son of a wealthy merchant. Something of a gentleman who built as a hobby, he was nevertheless a skilled architect. He was praised by Robert Hooke, a contemporary and rival of Samuel Pepys, as one Bell an ingenious architect and wit. Bell also built the Dukes Head Inn in Lynns Tuesday Market Place, the towns market cross in 1707 as well as North Runcton Church and Stanhoe Hall. Having enjoyed his Grand Tour of Europe as a young man, this gifted amateur came home brimming with ideas and created classical works that stood the test of time.

Any special features?

In Henry Bells words, near the river and middle of the town stands a fair structure of free stone of two orders and columns... Constructed on reclaimed land at Purfleet Quay, this distinctive Dutchstyle building is considered a gem of Restoration architecture. It has recently been restored, making it look clean and grand. Look out for an imposing statue of King Charles II, the then reigning monarch, above the entrance. Statues of Bacchus, god of wine, and Ceres, goddess of fertility and the harvest, look down from keystones, representing two of Lynns important trade goods. The house was bought by the Crown in 1717 for 800, and occupied by HM Customs and Excise until their move to a central office at Ipswich in 1989.

What did the Customs men do?

Apart from collecting revenue from trade goods, they had to look out for plague aboard ships and act as receivers of wrecks. Bizarrely, as whales were fishes royal and belonged to the Crown should they stray into territorial waters, they had to keep an eye out for them too. The staff consisted of a Collector, the top official, who was responsible for sending the money collected to the Exchequer in London; below him was a Controller, who acted as an accountant and a Searcher, who examined goods and assembled duty. Landing Waiters supervised unloading, Coast Waiters checked coastal shipping and Tide Waiters boarding incoming ships. There were also clerks and warehousemen.

A steady job with prospects?

Violent clashes with smugglers avoiding paying what were generally regarded as exorbitant levels of duty were frequent. Customs officers were never popular with the public, who often sided openly or secretly with smugglers. Between 1723 and 1736, 250 Revenue men were recorded as beaten, wounded and abused and six actually murdered. For example, 37-year-old William Green was killed by smugglers in 1784 in the course of his duty. In 1718 Revenue officers fought a pitched battle at a house in Lynn where smugglers had stored contraband brandy; the militia were called in to help. Not that all the officers were of the best calibre. A Tide Waiter called Bernhard Rudkin was sacked in 1716 for getting drunk on brandy he had purloined from a ship he had boarded.

Any famous names?

The explorer George Vancouvers statue stands on the quay outside the Custom House. His father John worked there as an assistant collector of customs during the early 18th century. Royal Navy skipper Vancouver charted much of the north-west American coast in the 1780s and 1790s. Vancouver, Canada, is named after him. You can imagine generations of seafaring men traipsing through the elegant rooms over the centuries.

Today visitors can see the Surveyors Room the office of the Controller and the Long Room where clerks would have worked.

The Custom House is today the Kings Lynn Tourist and Information Office, with a display of Lynns maritime history on the first floor.

It is open all year round at Purfleet Quay, Kings Lynn. Tel: 01553 763044.

Website: www.west-norfolk.gov.uk/

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