The New Custom House
"The Old Custom House"
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Custom House modelIpswich Maritime Trust model
The Old Custom House
Above: The Old Custom House and Crane on Common Quay, as they were in the 18th century. It is believed that the Old Custom House stood here for 500 years before it was demolished in 1843 to make way for The New 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 most probably treadmill operated; an example has been restored at Harwich. So, The Old Custom House was replaced by The New Custom House. Which, as the plaques illustrated below rather confusingly show, is now called by some/many "The Old Custom House". Hence the rather pedantic title on this page.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Custom House engraving
The engraving above is from Frederick 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 New 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.)
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'1 FT. ABOVE H.W.'
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 inscribed stone predates the opening of the Wet Dock (1842), to be incorporated in the New Custom House (built 1844).
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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 tide turns.

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."

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).
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House benchmark2016 image courtesy John Norman
An fuller explanation of O.S. benchmarks is found on the MapTools website (
"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 was developed."

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.

Built in 1844 by J.M. 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 New Custom House, now the offices of Ipswich Port 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 Historic Lettering: Custom House 8   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 9   
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 New 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'. We here insist on its original name.
(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).”
[Source: John 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' for photographs of the house built for himself by architect John Medland Clark on the corner of Woodbridge Road and Palmerston Road.

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Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 11
17th JULY 2002'

Close to the quayside in front of the Custom House is the following plaque:
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Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 1845
Above: an engraving of the Custom House by Henry Davy in 1845, a year after it opened.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 1934
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 vault
The Custom House does have some rather fine features, which it would be churlish not to include here.
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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".
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House stepThe patina on the stone threshold

A bonded warehouse
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House periodPhotograph 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:
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.

Water fountain
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 7a
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.

Architectural features
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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.
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These cushion-like red brick structures stand near the semi-circular doors at each side.
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   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 19
Below: views of and from the Custom House steps  on the gathering of Dunkirk vessels on the marina on the Island site, May 2018.
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2018 images
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Ipswich coat of arms
The classical style of the building is particularly 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.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 15b2016 image
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 Historic Lettering: Custom House 15eCourtesy The Ipswich Society

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 page. See our Paul's malting page for the story of the company and its importance to Ipswich.
See also our Lettered castings index page.

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2004 Copyright throughout the Ipswich Historic Lettering site: Borin Van Loon
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