On the Waterfront: Counter smuggling and duty

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WITH origins dating back to the 13th Century, the UK’s Customs service initially existed to collect duties at sea ports.

Since then, however, this organisation has undergone radical change, taking on many additional roles, including counter-smuggling responsibilities.

Today, besides controlling migration, the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) is responsible for customs detection work on behalf of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

In days gone by, Bishopwearmouth Green was the site of Wearside’s first custom house, although this was relocated to the township of Sunderland during the 1640s.

As a burgeoning centre for maritime trade and commerce, the East End was an obvious place to base customs officials, with several custom houses being situated there in subsequent years.

The original custom house was between Low Street and High Street, near the site of Dunn’s Passage.

In 1748, this was replaced by another in the area of Bank Street, above what became Hardcastle’s Quay.

The third was formerly a large three-storey house at the east end of Fitter’s Row, erected as a private residence 1727 and used for customs purposes from 1813.

Records from 1827 reveal that the Collector was then Sir Cuthbert Sharp, with various other officials holding titles largely peculiar to the Customs service assisting in the collection and protection of the revenue.

Among these were the Comptroller, Landing and Tide Surveyor, Gauger, Riding Officer and clerks, together with landing waiters and searchers.

At that time the Coast Guard came under Customs jurisdiction and was represented by Inspecting Commander, Charles Steel, along with ten tide waiters and four boatmen.

Increased trade led to local merchants and ship owners calling on the Board of Customs to provide more suitable premises. Eventually, a new three-storied custom house on the north side of High Street, opposite the foot of Vine Street, opened for business on October 5, 1837.

Although facing the river, the building was initially in the shadow of the Durham and Sunderland Railway Company’s coal drops, which had been erected on Low Quay.

The upper storey was level with High Street and contained the “Long Room,” which ran the full length of the building.

Access to the lower offices was via a flight of stairs and passageways, which terminated just above the Low Street level, where the outside officers were based.

Nearby were the Customs warehouses, with gates opening onto Low Street.

In 1907, a new custom house opened in West Sunniside, two years before amalgamation of Customs and Excise functions. These premises closed down during the early 1990s. Later, we’ll look at the Waterguard (a specialist branch of HM Customs, dedicated to rummaging for contraband between 1891 and 1972) and its connection with the Wear.