The Customs House of Lancaster is now the home of the Maritime Museum, packed with fascinating exhibits from the town’s time as a port and a centre of the fishing industry. The building itself has a host of original features from the period when it was a purpose-built Customs House. The role it played on Lancaster’s busy Georgian quayside is an interesting one.
St George’s Quay, as we see it today, was developed after Lancaster merchants petitioned for improved port facilities. In 1749, an Act of Parliament set up a Port Commission for Lancaster. This had the authority to improve the navigation of the River Lune and construct a better quay. The new quayside wall gave a firm, straight side for ships to moor up alongside and unload their cargo. Looking across the river today to the other shore, the muddy banks show how unsuitable this section would have been prior to the construction. The existing custom house was seen as cramped and dilapidated, unfit for a prosperous port, so the commission gave instructions for the one we see today to be built.
A new Customs House is built
Richard Gillow, of the famous cabinet-making firm, was commissioned to be the architect of the new Customs House. He chose a Palladian architectural style featuring large columns supporting a porch over the central front entrance. Richard Fisher was the mason responsible for the impressive columns cut from a single piece of stone from the nearby quarry at Ellel. The building was completed in 1764.
The most important official appointed was Robert Foxcroft and, as the chief customs officer, he was given the title of ‘Collector’. He had a substantial staff to work with, including searchers, clerical officers, landing and coast waiters, a surveyor and a weighing porter. The Port Commission also had its offices at the Customs House.
The Interior of the Customs House
The lower entrance on Elm Street led into a room called the Watch House. This was used by boatmen whose job it was to take the custom officials to ships arriving in the Lune. It was also the base of watchmen who looked after the quayside.
The Weigh Room was where goods were measured and checked by customs officials. These could include tobacco, spices, sugar, rum, madeira, port and exotic woods such as mahogany. What is not mentioned on this list are slaves, which were part of the shipping trade but were never brought directly to Lancaster. The ships that berthed in the town often would have transported slaves on part of their voyages, as will be discussed below.
Upstairs was the Long Room. This was where merchants, ship owners, ship masters and customs officials would meet and the relevant documents would be examined. The ship masters would supply details of where the vessel had been built, who its owner was, the port it had been loaded in, its current cargo and number of crew. From all this information the dues could then be assessed and paid.
Rooms off to the sides of the Long Room were used by the customs staff. Today there is a reconstruction of the Collector’s Office as it would have appeared in the 1800s.
Georgian Warehouses on St George’s Quay
The Port Commission sold off plots of land for warehouse construction on the quayside between the 1750s to 1780s, and some of these buildings still stand. Each plot was 20 feet wide, but some warehouses straddled two or three plots. The buildings were mostly three or four storeys tall, with loading doors on each floor. Some still have their hoists in place. Goods would be unloaded and stored in warehouses straight from the boats on St George’s Quay.
The top floor of the warehouse next to the Customs House is now part of the Maritime Museum and has a reconstruction of how the floor would have appeared. The original Georgian beam and pulley system is still in situ.
A snapshot of the businesses on the quay in 1810 is illuminating. There was an anchor smith, tallow chandler, barrel maker, pottery merchant, two sailmakers, a cotton spinning firm and the head offices of a ship builder. Between the Customs House and the warehouse next to it was an inn called the Customs House Tavern owned by a William Mc Cold, one of three public houses on the street.
The Customs House becomes the Maritime Museum
Lancaster Customs House continued in use until 1882. By then the town had declined in its importance as a port and all the administration was moved to Barrow in Furness. The building found a new use two years later when it was taken over by a ventilator manufacturer. It remained the property of the Port Commission until 1964 when Lancaster Corporation took it over. In 1984, it became Lancaster’s Maritime Museum.
Today, the Weigh Room houses a shipbuilding display including a Whammel Boat from 1910 used for salmon netting on the River Lune. The Waiting Room now has displays on cockling, musseling, and shrimping. The Long Room houses information about Georgian Lancaster and the trades that made it such a wealthy town. The museum also has two rare Medieval open canoe-style boats, displays on the Lancaster Canal and information about the famous sand route across Morecambe Bay and the extraction of Irish Sea Gas. There is also a room devoted to the transatlantic slave trade.
Lancaster’s Slave Trade
In 1770, Lancaster was the fourth largest port in England and an active participant in the slave trade. Between 1736 and 1807, Lancaster’s merchants transported 29,000 African people who were used as slaves. Goods from England would be traded for slaves, who were then taken to the West Indies and North American plantations. There they were sold and the ships would then return to England carrying sugar, tobacco or spirits. The process was then repeated, and became known as the Triangular Slave Trade, because of the three distinct phases to a voyage.
Prominent Lancaster businessmen were involved. Richard Gillow, the architect of the Customs House, had a part share in slave trader vessels. He also designed the building that still stands on 1-3 Cable Street for the slave traders Captain Henry Fell and Samuel Smith in 1759. One of the mayors of Lancaster, Thomas Hinde, was also involved in slavery.
In 1779, an act of Parliament was passed that only allowed Liverpool, Bristol and London to operate vessels in the slave trade. This signalled an end to it for many of the ship owners in Lancaster, but some transferred their business to Liverpool.
Abolition of the slave trade occurred in Britain in 1807. This meant that slaves could not be traded for goods and the transatlantic trade triangle ceased. However, ownership of slaves was still legal and for another generation slaves still worked on plantations. It was not until 1833 that an act to outlaw the ownership of slaves was passed. The British government paid compensation of £20 million pounds to the 46,000 British slave owners. That figure is equivalent to £16 billion pounds today, and our government only just finished paying off this debt in 2015. Unlike their former owners, no slave ever received a penny in compensation.
Access and Opening Times
The Customs House and Warehouse stands on St Georges’ Quay and the outside can be viewed at any time. There are numerous converted Georgian warehouses still standing on the quay.
The Maritime Museum opens every day:
10am-4pm April to October and 12- 4pm November to March
Lancaster Maritime Museum website click here
Nearby, just a short walk away
Lancaster’s Maritime Heritage: A Souvenir Guide of Lancaster Maritime Museum, April Whincop and Andrew White (1986) Lancaster City Council: Lancaster City Museums
Lancaster Maritime Museum leaflet (in print as of 2018) Lancaster City Council
A Maritime Trail in Lancaster, Nigel Dalziel and April Whincop (1989) Lancaster City Council
Discovering Historic Lancaster: A Visitor’s Guide, Colum Giles (2012) Lancaster City Council and English Heritage
Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service, Lubaina Himid / One Tenth, Sue Flowers (2007) double sided booklet as part of Abolished? Lancashire Museums marking 200 years of the abolition of the slave trade