The Custom House
Maritime Trust model
'The Old Custom House'
The Older Custom House
Above: The Old Custom House and Crane on Common Quay, as they were in
the 18th century (scale model by the late Ben Bendall). It is believed
that the Old Custom House stood here
for 500 years before it was demolished in 1843 to make way for the
Custom House which we see today. The colonnade was known as the
Sailor's Walk since it was where the mariners used to promenade or sit
when in port. The ornately carved timbers were preserved by the Ipswich
Museum when the Old Custom House was demolished. The Crane built in the
early 1700s was probably treadmill operated; an example has been
restored at Harwich. So, The Old Custom House was replaced by a new
Custom House which, as the plaques illustrated below rather
show, is now called by some/many 'The Old Custom House'.
The engraving above is from
Russel and Wat Hargreen's Picturesque
Antiquities of Ipswich (published in Ipswich, 1845).
High Water marker
For many a
long day we thought that this building,
attractive and of interest though it is, was lettering-free. In October
2012 we noticed a piece of carved lettering on the stone foot of one of
the brick pillars on the west side of The Custom House. (We can
remember as late as the early 1980s that this arcade had a gentlemen's
toilet within, presumably for the use of dockers and porters.)
is inscribed, with a
horizontal line marker below, close to the protective corner stone pad
and features an iron plate projecting from the pavement. This marker
presumably indicates one foot above High Water. The water level of the
Wet Dock, protected by its
lock gates, would surely have been stable so
why would the 'High Water' level need to be shown? Perhaps the
stone predates the opening of the Wet Dock (1842), to be incorporated
in the Custom House (built 1844).
John Norman writes: "The water level in the dock is a
product of the last time the gates were opened, usually approaching
high water on the previous tide (ie the opportunity is taken to refill
the dock when the water in the river is rising - by opening the lock
gates, allowing the tide to flood in, and then closing the gates as the
Inevitably water is lost with the passage of boats from the Wet Dock
into the open river but this is almost insignificant compared with the
volume of water in the Dock - although it can show on a warm Sunday in
the summer when there is a high volume of movement through the lock.
It is important that the water level in the Dock does not get too low -
to a certain extent the water supports the Dock walls (and in
particular the ground water behind the walls) thus even at low tide the
dock is never empty.
The protection afforded by the lock gates is to prevent extra high
spring tides entering the Dock and overspilling the dock walls.
The Lock Gates (and eventually the new [anti- flood] barrier) can
retain water at a higher level than the water in the dock - i.e. the '1
Ft' line should never need to be tested.
Thus I suggest that the '1 Ft' line is advisory (probably installed by
the Harbour Master) so that all who built Wharfs, Quayside warehouses,
Maltings and Manufacturing plant understood how high the tide could
rise – when the sun and moon are in alignment."
image courtesy The Ipswich Society
Above: this photograph from The Ipswich Society's 's Image Archive (see Links) is
dated 1982 – the year of the Ipswich Maritime Festival. The fabric of
the building still bears the filth of the industrial revolution and the
metal attachment, while unreadable, is an oval. The rusted plate in the
modern photograph seems taller with a pointed top and has clearly been
paved around since 1982. It would be really interesting to know what,
if anything, was incribed on the plate and what its purpose was.
It has been suggested that this 'High Water' marker is
a datum used
by surveyors to locate other landmarks and positions. However, the
Custom House already has an example of an Ordnance Survey benchmark datum on the clock tower, a few inches
above the pavement (as always – see below). O.S. Benchmarks are
regular features of a town like ours occurring every 100 yards or so,
on solid and permanent buildings – usually on the corner where they can
be seen from a number of different directions. They are marked on
1:1250 scale O.S. maps and a separate list gives their value – which
changes as the building moves (sinks).
image courtesy John Norman
An fuller explanation of O.S. benchmarks is
found on the MapTools website (http://www.maptools.com):-
"A datum describes the model that was used to match the location of
features on the ground to coordinates and locations on the map. Maps
all start with some form of survey. Early maps and surveys were carried
out by teams of surveyors on the ground using transits and distance
measuring "chains". Surveyors start with a handful of locations in
"known" positions and use them to locate other features. These methods
did not span continents well. Frequently they also did not cross
political borders either. The "known points" and their positions are
the information that the map datum is based. As space based surveying
came into use, a standardized datum based on the centre of the earth
In the U.K an Ordnance Datum is a datum used by the
Ordnance Survey as the basis for deriving altitudes on maps. In Great
Britain, Ordnance Datum for the Ordnance Survey is ODN (Ordnance Datum
Newlyn), defined as the Mean Sea Level at Newlyn in Cornwall between
1915 and 1921. For another example of an Ordnance Survey Bench Mark,
see Christchurch Street.
Illustrating the stretch of the northern quays including St Mary at the Quay Church, the small
Albion Wharf and most of Common Quay, this map detail shows the Custom
House, centre. The building was orientated to follow the curve of the
dock at this point; it labels a 'Police Station' at the central
entrance at the rear of the Custom House, facing Key Street. The legend
'Malthouse' is very much in evidence on this map, indicating the
importance of this trade to Ipswich.
1844 by Ipswich Architect John Medland Clark, this classical building
has been fully restored in
recent years. Bob Malster tells us that it was originally called 'The
Commerce House' and the Customs authority had only one room in it. The
Custom House, now the offices of Ipswich
Authority, was opened
in 1845. The Wet Dock, when it was opened in 1842, was the largest area
of enclosed water of its kind in England.
The front of the building carries a number of lettered
plates giving information:-
IPSWICH WET DOCK
See our plaques
page for the full set of ten Ipswich Society Maritime
Ipswich 1982 plaques.
Rather confusingly the
original Custom House was a
wooden-framed structure which had stood for four or five hundred years:
"a low, ill-shaped, isolated building, supported, on the south, next to
the water by a numerous range of pillars, reaching the whole length of
the front, which is about a hundred and twenty feet, forming a
colonnade, under which the masters of vessels and other seafaring
people delight to perambulate, excursion as being, we suppose, more
similar to the agreeably-varied amusement of walking the deck" (G.R. Clarke
with a plethora of commas!). Once this 'Old Custom House' was
demolished it was follwed by the Custom House built in 1844,
which stands today. In the way of these things, at some point in the
20th century this started to be called 'The Old Custom House'.
'MARITIME IPSWICH 1982
OLD CUSTOM HOUSE
ARCHITECT JM CLARK
SOCIETY TRAIL CAST BY
(The final line
attributing the casting of the plates is poignant in 2012 when the
large engineering works of Crane Ltd which
once stood opposite Ipswich
Airport on Nacton Road have been demolished and John Lewis and Waitrose
stores built on part of the site.)
“What was so novel … with the Custom House, was the marrying of the
polychromy technique with an essentially Classical or Neo-Classical
style. Hitherto, such buildings in East Anglia, as in London, had been
built in 'white' brick, used, strictly speaking, as a substitute for
the more expensive white stone. Red brick was considered unsuitable and
even 'common' for such styles. But here we have, quite early in its
conception, the technique of using red brick, executed in an extremely
pleasing and decorative way. The first building in London (Christ
Church, Streatham) to employ such polychromy was built only in 1841. In
fact, Clark's plans for the Custom House really date from this same
year, if not actually 1840, so that he seems to have been in the
vanguard of the development and use of this particular technique.
Although submitted in the competition in 1843, these plans had actually
been prepared at the request of P.B. Long in his mayoral year, 1840-41;
they had been accepted by the Estate Committee, inspected by the
public, and universally approved. They had then 'lain on the table' of
the Borough Council until March 1843, when the Estate Committee finally
decided to go ahead with a new Hall of Commerce (the name officially
given to the new Custom House). It was only because of the acrimony
over the Wet Dock plans of 1837, which had been decided upon behind
closed doors, that the Corporation decided, reluctantly, that they
would have to declare a competition, though as Alderman Bullen
forthrightly stated; 'he did not hold the slightest doubt that Mr Clark
would be the successful competitor' (25 Mar. 1843). The following May
the Suffolk Chronicle
supported this view: 'the result of the
competition ... displayed the superiority of Mr Clark's design which
might not have been evident without the competition (27 May 1843).”
Medland Clark 1813-1849 'Sometime Architect of Ipswich' by Ruth
Serjeant, The Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History reserch
paper. Volume XXXVII, part 3 (1991)]
See our Warwick Road page under the
section headed 'The Casino' (once Rhynwick Lodge) for photographs of
the house built for
himself by architect
John Medland Clark on the corner of Woodbridge Road and Palmerston Road.
OLD CUSTOM HOUSE
WAS PROVIDED BY
IPSWICH BOROUGH COUNCIL
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF
JOHN L. EVELYN
EXECUTIVE TO IPSWICH PORT AUTHORITY 1976-1989
DOROTHY EVELYN APRIL 1991'
'IPSWICH PORT AUTHORITY
OLD CUSTOM HOUSE'
HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN
WAS LAID BY [EEDA*]
THE MAYOR OF IPSWICH
TO CELEBRATE OPENING OF THE
NORTHERN QUAYS PAVING SCHEME'
[*East of England Development
Compare with similar plaques outside the former
Martin & Newby in Fore Street and
Above: an engraving of the Custom House by Henry Davy in 1845, a
year after it opened.
How splendid the Custom House looks in 1934 and how dominated it
became by the Paul's silo later (see the first image on our Pauls' and Burtons page).
The Custom House does have some rather fine features,
which it would be churlish not to include here.
The quarter-sphere formed by the stonework entrance (to
a secure door – see below) at the centre of the frontage at ground
level is very
fine (if a little spoiled by the red plastic lifebelt box). Richard
Watkinson of the Ipswich Maritime Trust (see Links)
demonstrated the practical usage of this architectural feature, which
you can test for yourself. Stand with your back to the blue door and
talking in a normal voice walk slowly until you are under the keystone.
Your voice will, at the point of the focus of this concave structure be
amplified. It would be nice to think that this architectural
loud-hailer was designed for customs
officers to call to vessels on the Wet Dock: 'Come in number 4'.
The patina on the stone threshold
A bonded warehouse
courtesy Ipswich Society
Above is the scene in earlier times; the date is unknown, but we would
guess 1960s or 1970s. There is a remarkable lack of clutter and
obstruction compared to the 21st century dock where the motor car is
king. The lifebelt is in a rather more pleasing pentagonal casing with
the letters 'DC...I' on it: presumably 'Ipswich Dock Commission'
(people park their bicycles behind it). The central door has a flood
barrier in place, but the inscription on it is even more interesting:
'COBBOLD & CO LTD
BONDING VAULT NO 7
A bonded warehouse is a building or other secured area
in which dutiable goods may be stored, manipulated, or undergo
manufacturing operations without payment of duty. It may be managed by
the state or by private enterprise. In the latter case a customs bond must be posted with the
government. This system exists in all developed countries of the world.
Upon entry of goods into the warehouse, the importer and warehouse
proprietor incur liability under a bond. While the goods are in the
bonded warehouse, they may, under supervision by the customs authority,
be manipulated by cleaning, sorting, repacking, or otherwise changing
their condition by processes that do not amount to manufacturing. After
manipulation, and within the warehousing period, the goods may be
exported without the payment of duty, or they may be withdrawn for
consumption upon payment of duty at the rate applicable to the goods in
their manipulated condition at the time of withdrawal. Robert Walpole
proposed in his "excise scheme" of 1733, the system of warehousing for
tobacco and wine. The proposal was unpopular, and it was not till 1803
that the system was actually adopted in England. That year, imported
goods were to be placed in warehouses approved by the customs
authorities, and importers were to give bonds for payment of duties
when the goods were removed. It is interesting that the local brewer Cobbolds hired the vault space from the dock
authorities for this purpose.
The drinking fountain which stands to the right
of the vault entrance is in
reasonable condition, although not plumbed in. The waste pipe appears
above ground level as shown above within very eroded stonework.
Left: on the Key Street elevation of the
building is the Italianate clock tower. This also appears on our page
of Public clocks in Ipswich. Right: at the
front the skewed,
square-section pillars are very pleasing.
These cushion-like red brick structures stand
near the semi-circular doors at each side.
[UPDATE 8.3.2022: 'I was
having a look at your page on The Old Customs House, and half way down
you have a couple of photos of 'cushion-like red brick structures', on
I wondered if they could be Victorian urine deflectors? To discourage
the obvious activity. There are plenty of similar looking examples in
London, and a number of websites dedicated to the subject... This is a
fascinating if unsavoury subject! Apparently public toilets were quite
unusual until the 1890s and we know The Old Custom House was built in
the 1840s. I think I've spotted another one on the side of The Town
Hall in Lion Street, The more you look,
the more you see! Best Regards, Evelyn Hewing.' Thanks to Eve for writing in – and we
thought they were to strengthen the walls of a bonded waterhouse.]
Below: views of and from the Custom House steps on
the gathering of Dunkirk vessels on the marina on the Island site, May
Ipswich coat of arms
The classical style of the building is
impressive from the dockside, with its four columned portico bearing
a large projecting pediment, with an equally large, three-dimensional
version of the Ipswich coat of arms of
lion rampant and the stern of three ships
supported by sea-horses, a reminder of the town's maritime heritage.
The Public sculpture of Norfolk and
Suffolk website tells us that:
'The facade of the Old Custom House facing the docks is strikingly
classical with four columns supporting a deep pediment decorated with
the Borough of Ipswich's coat of arms - a rampant lion with the sterns
of three galleons at sea are set within an elaborate cartouche held by
two wyverns.' We think that the use of the word 'wyvern' is debatable:
a wyvern is a legendary creature with a dragon's head (which may be
said to breathe fire or possess a venomous bite) and wings, a reptilian
body, two legs (sometimes none) and a barbed tail. A sea-dwelling
variant, dubbed the sea-wyvern, has a fish tail in place of a barbed
dragon's tail. Surely they are Neptune's Horses?
Ipswich Dock Commission
('The Gateway To East Anglia')
their offices in the Custom House at the time of this advertisement in
The text of the advertisement reads: 'PORT OF IPSWICH: The Gateway To East Anglia.
The Dock. 261/4
acres. Deep water quays. Vessel drawing 17ft. 3in. can enter the Lock.
Largest vessel. s.s. "Sheik," 2,828 n.r.t.
Cliff Quay. 1,200 feet
in length. Vessels drawing 23 ft. 2 in. have berthed at Cliff Quay (28
ft. alongside at L.W.O.S.T.).
Largest Vessel, s.s. "Cordelia," 4,178 n.r.t.
Butterman's Bay. 5
miles from Harwich Harbour. Deep water berths for vessels drawing up to
28 ft. Largest vessel, s.s. "Wisconsin," 469 ft. long, 4,691 n.r.t.
The Channel of the River Orwell has a minimum depth of 19 ft. L.W.O.S.T. from Harwich Harbour to the Dock.
Rise of tide (springs), 13 feet. The channel is lighted at night.
Electric and steam cranes for discharging and loading cargoes.
Warehouses, bonded and free.
The Dock Commission have land to let for suitable businesses at the
back of Cliff Quay.
Address all enquiries to:– The Clerk, Ipswich Cock Commission, Old
Custom House, Ipswich. Telephone 3193.'
[N.B.: 'L.W.O.S.T.' stands for
Water of Ordinary Spring Tides; 'n.r.t'.: Net register tonnage.]
The above British Railways 'East
Coast Havens, Suffolk' poster painted by Frank Mason in 1948 depicts
ships on the Orwell' in Butterman's Bay showing steam and sail cargo
vessels being lightered up to the Wet Dock by a sailing barge.
By 1870 a new Wet Dock plan had been drawn up not only because of the
position of the lock gates but because of the advent of the steam ship.
It promised even greater revenues for the River Commissioners, although
they were concerned that the bigger ships would take trade from their
own small ships that could easily manoeuvre into the lock.
They planned to put the new lock at the south end of the wet dock
directly into the estuary rather than the narrow river channel of the
New Cut and increase the length of the dock from 140ft to 300ft. It was
opened in 1881. The use of this lock by the large ships was again
short-lived because the ships kept getting bigger and they still found
the Orwell difficult to navigate. In 1898 the Commission planned a
deepwater berth at West Bank Terminal just south of the Wet Dock.
Other meanders on the river were cut through and by 1900 the berths at
Butterman's Bay were deepened and enlarged so that the ships could
unload their cargo onto sailing barges without entering the Wet Dock.
A swing bridge was installed over the lock in 1903 to allow the tramway
to circuit the docks. It was replaced by one engineered by Ransomes
& Rapier in 1949 (as shown on our Island site
page). By 1915 the river was straighter and wider and the meanders had
broken down into inlets.
‘The first full length of the river was excavated between 1947 and
1951, and more improvements were made on some of the bends and the
width became 300 feet at the narrowest part with a depth of 19 feet. A
volume of 2,500,000 cubic yards (1,912,500 cubic metres) of material
was removed,’ wrote Malster and Jones in A Victorian vision (see Reading list).
Outward facing lock gates were fitted to the lock of the Wet Dock in
1976 as part of a flood prevention scheme.
For a view of the Custom House, as it used to be, dominated by the
concrete R&W Paul Ltd. maltings see our Burton's
See also our Paul's malting page for
story of the company and its importance to Ipswich.
The Question Mark
Burton Son & Sanders / Pauls'
Ground-level dockside furniture
island', the northern quays
John Good and Sons
New Cut East
R&W Paul malting company
A chance to
Wet Dock 1970s with 2004
Wet Dock maps
illustration of the laying of the Wet Dock lock foundation stone,
the Wet Dock
Maritime Ipswich '82 festival
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and contributions by clicking here.
throughout the Ipswich
Historic Lettering site: Borin Van Loon
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