Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
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LOWER THAMES STREET.
Septem Cameræ—A Legend about Billingsgate—Hogarth visits it—Henry Mayhew's Description of it—Billingsgate Dock in King Ethelred's Time—The Price of Fish as regulated by Edward I.—Billingsgate constituted a Free and Open Market by Act of Parliament—Fish Monopolists and their Evil Practices—The Habitual Frequenters of Billingsgate—The Market at its Height—Oyster Street—Fishing in the Thames a Long Time ago—A Sad Falling-off—A Curious Billingsgate Custom—A Thieves' College—The Coal Exchange—Discovery of Roman Remains on its Site—The Waterman's Hall—Thames Watermen and Wherrymen—Fellowship Porters' Hall—The Custom House—Growth of the Revenue—The New Building—Customs Officials—Curious Stories of the Customs—Cowper and his Intended Suicided—The System of Business in the Custom House—Custom House Sales—"Passing" Baggage.
In St. Mary-at-Hill Lane, Thames Street, is the fair parish church of St. Mary, called "on the Hill," because of the ascent from Billingsgate. "In this parish there was a place," says Stow, "called 'Septem Cameræ' which was either one house, or else so many rooms or chambers, which formerly belonged to some chantry, the rent wherof went towards the maintaining of a priest to pray superstitiously for the soul of the deceased, who left those septem cameræ for that use."
Stow has preserved the following epitaph from
a tomb in the chancel of St. Mary's:—
"Here lyeth a knight, in London borne,
Sir Thomas Blanke by name,
Of honest birth, of merchant's trade,
A man of worthy fame.
Religious was his life to God,
To men his dealing just;
The poor and hospitals can tell
That wealth was not his trust.
With gentle heart, and spirit milde,
And nature full of pitie,
Both sheriffe, lord maior, and alderman,
He ruled in this citie.
The 'Good Knight' was his common name,
So called of many men;
He lived long, and dyed of yeeres
Twice seven, and six times ten."
Billingsgate, though a rough and unromantic place at the present day, has an ancient legend of its own, that associates it with royal names and venerable folk. Geoffrey of Monmouth deposeth that about 400 years before Christ's nativity, Belin, a king of the Britons, built this gate and gave it its name, and that when he was dead the royal body was burnt, and the ashes set over the gate in a vessel of brass, upon a high pinnacle of stone. Stow, more prosaic, on the other hand, is quite satisfied that one Biling once owned the wharf, and troubles himself no further.
In Hogarth's memorable tour (1732) he stopped
at Billingsgate for the purpose of sketching. His
poetical chronicler says—
"Our march we with a song begin.
Our hearts were light, our breeches thin.
We meet with nothing of adventure
Till Billingsgate's dark house we enter;
Where we diverted were, while baiting,
With ribaldry not worth relating
(Quite suited to the dirty place);
But what most pleased us was his Grace
Of Puddle Dock, a porter grim,
Whose portrait Hogarth, in a whim,
Presented him, in caricature,
He pasted on the cellar door."
The introduction of steamboats has much altered the aspect of Billingsgate. Formerly, passengers embarked here for Gravesend and other places down the river, and a great many sailors mingled with the salesmen and fishermen. The boats sailed only when the tide served, and the necessity of being ready at the strangest hours rendered many taverns necessary for the accommodation of travellers. "The market formerly opened two hours earlier than at present," says Mr. Platt, writing in 1842, "and the result was demoralising and exhausting. Drink led to ribald language and fighting, but the refreshment now taken is chiefly coffee, and the general language and behaviour has improved." The fish-fags of Ned Ward's time have disappeared, and the business is done smarter and quicker. As late as 1842 coaches would sometimes arrive at Billingsgate from Dover or Hastings, and so affect the market. The old circle from which dealers in their carts attended the market, included Windsor, St. Albans, Hertford, Romford, and other places within twenty-five miles. Railways have now enlarged the area of purchasers to an indefinite degree. In the Dutch auction system used at Billingsgate, the prices asked sink till they reach the level of the purchaser. The cheap fishsellers practise many tricks, blowing the cod-fish larger with pipes, and mixing dead eels with live ones. Railways have made fish a main article of food with the London poor, so that, according to Mr. Mayhew, the London costermongers sell onethird of the entire quantity of fish sent to Billings gate. The salesmen divide all fish into two classes, "red" and "white." The "red" fish is salmon, all other descriptions are known as "white."
To see this market in its busiest costermonger time, says Mr. Mayhew, the visitor should be there about seven o'clock on a Friday morning. The market opens at four, but for the first two or three hours it is attended solely by the regular fishmongers and "bummarees," who have the pick of the best there. As soon as these are gone the costers' sale begins. Many of the costers that usually deal in vegetables buy a little fish on the Friday. It is the fast-day of the Irish, and the mechanics' wives run short of money at the end of the week, and so make up their dinners with fish: for this reason the attendance of costers' barrows at Billingsgate on a Friday morning is always very great. As soon as you reach the Monument you see a line of them, with one or two tall fishmongers' carts breaking the uniformity, and the din of the cries and commotion of the distant market begin to break on the ear like the buzzing of a hornet's nest. The whole neighbourhood is covered with hand-barrows, some laden with baskets, others with sacks. The air is filled with a kind of sea-weedy odour, reminding one of the sea-shore; and on entering the market, the smell of whelks, red herrings, sprats, and a hundred other sorts of fish, is almost overpowering. The wooden barn-looking square where the fish is sold is, soon after six o'clock, crowded with shiny cord jackets and greasy caps. Everybody comes to Billingsgate in his worst clothes; and no one knows the length of time a coat can be worn until they have been to a fish-sale. Through the bright opening at the end are seen the tangled rigging of the oyster-boats, and the red-worsted caps of the sailors. Over the hum of voices is heard the shouts of the salesmen, who, with their white aprons, peering above the heads of the mob, stand on their tables roaring out their prices. All are bawling together—salesmen and hucksters of provisions, capes, hardware, and newspapers—till the place is a perfect Babel of competition.
"Ha-a-andsome cod! the best in the market! All alive! alive! alive, oh!"—"Ye-o-o! ye-o-o! Here's your fine Yarmouth bloaters! Who's the buyer?"—"Here you are, governor; splendid whiting ! some of the right sort!"—"Turbot ! turbot! All alive, turbot!"—"Glass of nice peppermint, this cold morning ? Halfpenny a glass !"—"Here you are, at your own price ! Fine soles, oh!"—"Oy! oy! oy! Now's your time! Fine grizzling sprats ! all large, and no small!"—"Hullo! hullo, here! Beautiful lobsters! good and cheap. Fine cock crabs, all alive, oh !"—"Five brill and one turbot—have that lot for a pound! Come and look at em, governor; you won't see a better lot in the market."—"Here! this way; this way, for splendid skate! Skate, oh! skate, oh!"—"Had-had-had-had-haddock! All fresh and good!"—"Currant and meat puddings ! a ha'penny each !"—"Now, you mussel-buyers, come along ! come along! come along! Now's your time for fine fat mussels!"—"Here's food for the belly, and clothes for the back; but I sell food for the mind !" shouts the newsvendor.—"Here's smelt, oh!"—"Here ye are, fine Finney haddick!"—"Hot soup! nice pea-soup! a-all hot! hot!"—"Ahoy! ahoy, here! Live plaice! all alive, oh!"—" Now or never! Whelk! whelk! whelk! "—"Who'll buy brill, oh! brill, oh?"—"Capes! waterproof capes! Sure to keep the wet out! A shilling apiece!"—"Eels, oh! eels, oh! Alive, oh! alive, oh!"—"Fine flounders, a shilling a lot! Who'll have this prime lot of flounders ?"—"Shrimps! shrimps! fine shrimps!"—"Wink! wink! wink!"—"Hi! hi-i! here you are; just eight eels left—only eight!"—"O ho! O ho! this way—this way—this way ! Fish alive ! alive ! alive, oh !"
Billingsgate Dock is mentioned as an important quay in Brompton's Chronicle (Edward III.), under the date 976, when King Ethelred, being then at Wantage, in Berkshire, made laws for regulating the customs on ships at Blynesgate, or Billingsgate, then the only wharf in London. 1. Small vessels were to pay one halfpenny; 2. Larger ones, with sails, one penny; 3. Keeles, or hulks, still larger, fourpence. 4. Ships laden with wood, one piece for toll. 5. Boats with fish, according to size, a halfpenny and a penny; 6. Men of Rouen, who came with wine or peas, and men of Flanders and Liege, were to pay toll before they began to sell, but the Emperor's men (Germans of the Steel Yard) paid an annual toll. 7. Bread was tolled three times a week, cattle were paid for in kind, and butter and cheese were paid more for before Christmas than after.
By King Stephen's time, according to Becket's friend and biographer, Fitzstephen, the different foreign merchants had drafted off to their respective quays—Germans and Dutch to the Steel Yard, in Upper Thames Street; the French wine merchants to the Vintry. In the reign of Edward I., a great regulator of the price of provisions, the price of fish was fixed at the following scale:—Seal, sturgeon, ling, and dolphin were also eaten.
Edward III. fixed the Billingsgate dues at 2d. for large ships, 1d. for smaller, and one halfpenny for boats or battles. For corn one farthing was paid for two quarters; one farthing for two measured quarters of sea-coal. Every tun of ale exported was taxed at 4d.; and every 1,000 herrings, one farthing.
In May, 1699, an Act of Parliament constituted Billingsgate a free and open market for the sale of fish six days in the week, and on Sundays (before Divine service) for mackerel; and any fishmonger who bought, except for his own sale, was to be sentenced to a fine of £20 for every offence. Several fishery-laws were passed in 1710, to restrain abuses, and the selfish greediness of fishermen. Eel-spears were forbidden, and it was made unlawful to use a flue, trammel, hooped net, or double-walled net, or to destroy the fry of fish. No draw-nets were to be shot before sunrise or after sunset. No fisherman was to try for flounders between London Bridge and Westminster more than two casts at low and two at high water. No flounders were to be taken under the size of six inches. No one was to angle within the limits of London Bridge with more than two hooks upon his line; no one was to drag for salmon in the Thames with nets under six inches in the mesh; and all unlawful nets were to be destroyed.
An Act of the 33rd year of George II. was passed, to regulate the sale of fish at Billingsgate, and prevent a monopoly of the market. It was found that the London fishmongers bought up the fishing-boats, and kept the fish down at Gravesend, supplying the market with only boatloads at a time, so as to keep up the price. An attempt had been made, in the year 1749, to establish a fish-market at Westminster, and fishing-boats were bought by subscription; but the fishmongers prevented any supply of fish reaching the new depot. The Act of Parliament above referred to (33 Geo. II.) was intended to remedy these evils. The master of every fishing-vessel arriving at the Nore with fish had to report the time of his arrival, and the cargo he brought, to the clerk of the coastoffice, under penalty of £20; and for any marketable fish he destroyed he was to be sentenced to not less than one month's hard labour. No fish was to be placed in well-boats or store-boats, unless to go straight to Billingsgate, under a penalty of £20. No one by the same Act was allowed to sell fishspawn, or unsizable fish, or any smelt less than five inches long from nose to tail.
Stow (Elizabeth) describes Billingsgate as a port or harborough for ships and boats bringing fish, fresh and salt, shell-fish, oranges, onions, fruit, roots, wheat, rye, and other grain. It had become more frequented after the decline of Queenhithe. Steam-vessels, of late years, have superseded the old hoys and sailing-boats that once visited Billingsgate stairs. Steamers are not, of course, dependent on the state of the tide, and the old summons for their departure (under penalty) at the ringing of the bell, which announced high water at London Bridge, is no longer an observance.
Addison, who glanced at nearly every kind of London life, with his quiet kindly philosophy, and large toleration for folly, did not forget to visit Billingsgate, and refers, in his delightful way, to the debates which frequently arose among "the ladies of the British fishery." Tom Brown gives a ribald sketch of the fish-fag; and coarse-tongued Ned Ward, that observant publican of Defoe's time, painted a gross Dutch picture of the shrill-voiced, bloated Moll Flagons of the Dark House, scolding and chattering among their heaps of fish, ready enough to knock down the auctioneer who did not knock down a lot to them.
In Bailey's English Dictionary (1736) a Billingsgate is described as meaning "a scolding, impudent slut," and Munden, incomparable as Sir Abel Handy, in Morton's excellent comedy of Speed the Plough, when asked about the temper and manners of his wife, replies, in the true Socratic mode, by the query, "Were you ever at Billingsgate in the sprat season?"
Mr. Henry Mayhew, writing in 1861, calculates that every year in Billingsgate there are sold 406,000 salmon, 400,000 live cod, 97,520,000 soles, 17,920,000 whiting, 2,470,000 haddocks, 23,520,000 mackerel, 4,000,000 lbs. of sprats, 1,050,000,000 fresh herrings, in bulk, 9,797,760 eels, 147,000,000 bloaters, 19,500,000 dried haddocks, 495,896,000 oysters, 1,200,000 lobsters, 600,000 crabs, and 498,428,648 shrimps. Of this vast salvage from the seas the 4,000 London fish costermongers sell 263,281,000 pounds' weight. Mr. Mayhew calculated that the sprat costermongers sell 3,000,000 pounds' weight annually, and realise £12,000.
The forestallers or middlemen at Billingsgate are called "bummarees" (probably a word of Dutch origin). They buy residues, and sell again in lots, at a considerable profit, to the fishmongers and costermongers. They are said to derive their name from the bumboat-men, who used to purchase of the wind-bound smacks at Gravesend or the Nore, and send the fish rapidly up to market in light carts.
The costermongers are important people at Billingsgate market. Sprat-selling in the streets generally commences about the 9th of November (Lord Mayor's Day), which is accordingly by costermongers sometimes called "Sprat Day." Sprats continue in about ten weeks. They are sold at Billingsgate by the "toss" or "chuck," which is about half a bushel, and weighs from forty to fifty pounds. The price varies from 1s. to 5s. A street sprat-seller can make from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. a day, and often more. About 1,000 "tosses" of sprats are sold daily in London streets during the season. The real costermonger thinks sprat-selling infra dig. A street shell-fish-seller will make his 15s. a week, chiefly by periwinkles and mussels. The London costermongers, in Mr. Mayhew's time, sold about 770,000 pints of shrimps annually, which, at 2d. a pint, a low calculation, amounts to £6,400 yearly. The costermongers sell about 124,000,000 oysters a year, which, at four a penny, the price some years ago, would realise £129,650. The periwinkles sold in London Mr. Mayhew calculated from good data to be 3,600,000 pints, which, at a penny a pint, gives the large sum of £15,000. The sellers of "Wink, wink, winketty, wink, wink," make, on an average, 12s. a week clear profit in the summer season. Taking fresh, salt, and shell-fish together, Mr. Mayhew calculated that £1,460,850 was spent annually on fish by London street purchasers.
In the days before railways, when the coaches were stopped by snow, or the river by ice, fish used sometimes to command great prices at Billingsgate. In March, 1802, a cod-fish of eight pounds was sold to a Bond Street fishmonger for £1 8s. In February, 1809, a salmon of nineteen pounds went for a guinea a pound. In March, 1824, three lobsters sold for a guinea each; and Mr. Timbs mentions two epicures dividing the only lobster in the market for sauce, and paying two guineas each for the luxury. On the other hand, the prolific sea furnishes sometimes great gluts of fish. Sixty tons of periwinkles at a time have been sent from Glasgow; and in two days from ninety to a hundred tons of plaice, soles, and sprats have been landed at Billingsgate. Perhaps we may live to see the time when the better sorts of fish will grow scarce as oysters, and cod-fish will have to be bred at the Dogger Bank, and encouraged in its reproduction.
All fish is sold at Billingsgate by tale, except salmon, which go by weight, and sprats, oysters, and shell-fish, which are sold by measure. In Knight's "London" (1842), the number of boxes of salmon sent to Billingsgate is said to begin in February at about thirty boxes a day, and to increase in July to 1,000 boxes a day. In 1842 probably not less than 2,500 tons of salmon reached Billingsgate. In 1770 salmon was sent to London in panniers on horseback; after that, it was packed in straw in light carts. After April it was impossible to send the fish to market. About the year 1785, Mr. Alexander Dalrymple, a servant of the East India Company, told a Mr. George Dempster, at the East India House, the Chinese fishermen's mode of conveying fresh fish great distances packed up in snow. Dempster instantly wrote off to a Scotch friend, who had already tried the plan of sending salmon, packed in ice, to London from Aberdeen and Inverness. In 1852 there were about sixty fish-salesmen in London, and fifty of these had stalls in Billingsgate.
The old water-gate of Beling, the friend of Brennus the Gaul, was long ago a mere collection of dirty pent-houses, scaly sheds, and ill-savoured benches, with flaring oil-lamps in winter, daybreak disclosing a screaming, fighting, and rather tipsy crowd; but since the extension of the market in 1849, and the disappearance of the fishermen, there is less drinking, and more sober and strenuous business.
Mr. Henry Mayhew has painted a minute yet vivid picture of this great market. "In the darkness of the shed," he says, "the white bellies of the turbots, strung up bow-fashion, shine like mother-of-pearl, while the lobsters, lying upon them, look intensely scarlet from the contrast. Brown baskets piled upon one another, and with the herring-scales glittering like spangles all over them, block up the narrow paths. Men in coarse canvas jackets, and bending under huge hampers, push past, shouting, 'Move on! move on, there!' and women, with the long limp tails of cod-fish dangling from their aprons, elbow their way through the crowd. Round the auction-tables stand groups of men, turning over the piles of soles, and throwing them down till they slide about in their slime; some are smelling them, while others are counting the lots. 'There, that lot of soles are worth your money,' cries the salesman to one of the crowd, as he moves on leisurely; 'none better in the market. You shall have 'em for a pound and half-a-crown.' 'Oh!' shouts another salesman, 'it's no use to bother him; he's no go.' Presently a tall porter, with a black oyster-bag, staggers past, trembling under the weight of his load, his back and shoulders wet with the drippings from the sack. 'Shove on one side,' he mutters from between his clenched teeth, as he forces his way through the mob. Here is a tray of reddish-brown shrimps piled up high, and the owner busy shifting his little fish into another stand, while a doubtful customer stands in front, tasting the flavour of the stock, and consulting with his companion in speculation. Little girls carrying matting-bags, that they have brought from Spitalfields, come up, and ask you in a begging voice to buy their baskets; and women, with bundles of twigs for stringing herrings, cry out, 'Halfpenny a bunch!' from all sides. Then there are blue-black piles of small live lobsters, moving about their bound-up claws and long 'feelers,' one of them occasionally being taken up by a looker-on, and dashed down again like a stone. Everywhere every one is asking, 'What's the price, master?' while shouts of laughter, from round the stalls of the salesmen, bantering each other, burst out occasionally over the murmuring noise of the crowd. The transparent smelts on the marble slabs, and the bright herrings, with the lump of transparent ice magnifying their eyes like a lens, are seldom looked at until the market is over, though the hampers and piles of huge maids, dropping slime from the counter, are eagerly examined and bartered for.
"The costermongers have nicknamed the long row of oyster-boats moored close alongside the wharf 'Oyster Street.' On looking down the line of tangled ropes and masts, it seems as though the little boats would sink with the crowds of men and women thronged together on their decks. It is as busy a scene as one can well behold. Each boat has its black sign-board, and salesman in his white apron walking up and down 'his shop,' and on each deck is a bright pewter pot and tin-covered plate, the remains of the salesman's breakfast. 'Who's for Baker's?' 'Who's for Archer's?' 'Who'll have Alston's?' shout the oyster-merchants; and the red cap of the man in the hold bobs up and down as he rattles the shells about with his spade. These holds are filled with oysters—a grey mass of sand and shell—on which is a bushel-measure well piled up in the centre, while some of them have a blue muddy heap of mussels divided off from the 'natives.' The sailors, in their striped guernseys, sit on the boat-sides smoking their morning's pipe, allowing themselves to be tempted by the Jew boys with cloth caps, old shoes, and silk handkerchiefs."
Mr. Mayhew has also sketched, with curious photographic realism, the Dutch eel-boats, with their bulging polished oak sides, half hidden in the river mist. They are surrounded by skiffs full of traders from the Surrey and Middlesex shores. You see wooden sabots and china pipes on the ledges of the boats, and the men wear tall fur caps, red shirts, and canvas kilts. The holds of the vessels are tanks, and floating at the stern are coffin-shaped barges pierced with holes, with eelbaskets hanging over the sides. In the centre of the boats stand the scales, tall and heavy, with, on one side, the conical net-bag for the eels; on the other, the weights and pieces of stone to make up for the water that clings to the fish. The captain, when purchasers arrive, lays down his constant friend, his black pipe, and dives into the tank a long-handled landing-net, and scoops from the tank a writhing knot of eels. Some of the purchasers wear blue serge aprons; others are ragged women, with their straw pads on their crushed bonnets. They are busy sorting their purchases, or sanding them till they are yellow.
In old times the Thames fish half supplied London. Old Stow says of the Thames in his day, "What should I speak of the fat and sweet salmons daily taken in this stream, and that in such plenty (after the time of the smelt is past) as no river in Europe is able to exceed it ? But what store also of barbels, trouts, chevens, perches, smelts, breams, roaches, daces, gudgeons, flounders, shrimps, eels, &c., are commonly to be had therein, I refer me to them that know by experience better than I, by reason of their daily trade of fishing in the same. And albeit it seemeth from time to time to be, as it were, defrauded in sundry wise of these, her large commodities, by the insatiable avarice of fishermen; yet this famous river complaineth commonly of no want, but the more it loseth at one time it gaineth at another."
Stow also tells us that, before 1569, the City ditch, without the wall of the City, which then lay open, "contained great store of very good fish, of divers sorts, as many yet living know, who have taken and tasted them, can well witness, but now (he says) no such matter." Sir John Hawkins, in his edition of Walton's "Angler" (1760), mentions that, about thirty years before, the City anglers were accustomed to enjoy their sport by the starlings of old London Bridge. "In the memory of a person not long since living, a waterman that plied at Essex Stairs, his name John Reeves, got a comfortable living by attending anglers with his boat. His method was to watch when the shoals of roach came down from the country, and, when he had found them, to go round to his customers and give them notice. Sometimes they (the fish) settled opposite the Temple; at others, at Blackfriars or Queenhithe; but most frequently about the chalk hills (the deposit of chalk rubble) near London Bridge. His hire was two shillings a tide. A certain number of persons who were accustomed thus to employ him raised a sum sufficient to buy him a waterman's coat and silver badge, the impress whereof was 'Himself, with an angler in his boat;' and he had annually a new coat to the time of his death, which might be about the year 1730." Mr. Goldham, the clerk or yeoman of Billingsgate Market, stated before a Parliamentary Committee that, in 1798, 400 fishermen, each of whom was the owner of a boat, and employed a boy, obtained a good livelihood by the exercise of their craft between Deptford and London, above and below bridge, taking roach, plaice, smelts, flounders, salmon, shad, eels, gudgeon, dace, dabs, &c. Mr. Goldham said that about 1810 he had known instances of as many as ten salmon and 3,000 smelts being taken at one haul up the river towards Wandsworth, and 50,000 smelts were brought daily to Billingsgate, and not fewer than 3,000 Thames salmon in the season. Some of the boats earned £6 a week, and salmon was sold at 3s. and 45. a pound. The fishery was nearly destroyed at the time when this evidence was given, in 1828. The masters of the Dutch eel-ships stated before the same committee that, a few years before, they could bring their live eels in "wells" as far as Gallion's Reach, below Woolwich; but now (1828) they were obliged to stop at Erith, and they had sustained serious losses from the deleterious quality of the water, which killed the fish. The increase of gas-works and of manufactories of various kinds, and of filth disgorged by the sewers, will sufficiently account for this circumstance. The number of Dutch eel-vessels which bring supplies to Billings gate varied, in 1842, from sixty to eighty annually. They brought about fifteen hundred weight of fish each, and paid a duty of £13. Mr. Butcher, an agent for Dutch fishermen, stated before the committee above mentioned that, in 1827, eight Dutch vessels arrived with full cargoes of healthy eels, about 14,000 pounds each, and the average loss was 4,000 pounds. Twelve years before, when the Thames was purer, the loss was only thirty pounds of eels a night; and the witness deposed that an hour after high water he had had 3,000 pounds of eels die in an hour. (How singularly this accounts for the cheap eel-pie!) The river had been getting worse yearly. Fish were often seen trying to save themselves on floating pieces of wood, and flounders would climb up bundles of weeds for a moment's fresh air.
Bagford, the old antiquary, mentions a curious custom that once prevailed at Billingsgate. "This," he says, speaking of an old custom referred to in "Hudibras," "brings to my mind another ancient custom that hath been omitted of late years. It seems that in former times the porters that plyd at Billingsgate used civilly to entreat and desire every man that passed that way to salute a post that stood there in a vacant place. If he refused to do this, they forthwith laid hold of him, and by main force bouped him against the post; but if he quietly submitted to kiss the same, and paid down sixpence, they gave him a name, and chose some one of the gang for a godfather. I believe this was done in memory of some old image that formerly stood there, perhaps of Belus or Belin."
Adjoining Billingsgate, on the east side, stood Smart's Quay or Wharf, which we find noticed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth as containing an ingenious seminary for the instruction of young thieves. The following extract of a letter, addressed to Lord Burleigh, in July, 1585, by Fleetwood, the Recorder of London, evinces that the "art and mystery" of picking pockets was brought to considerable perfection in the sixteenth century:—
"Amongst our travels this one matter tumbled out by the way. One Wotton, a gentleman born, and some time a merchant of good credit, having fallen by time into decay, kept an ale-house at Smart's Key, near Billingsgate; and after, for some misdemeanour, being put down, he reared up a new trade of life, and in the same house he procured all the cut-purses about this city to repair to his said house. There was a school-house set up to learn young boys to cut purses. There were hung up two devices; the one was a pocket, the other was a purse. The pocket had in it certain counters, and was hung about with hawks' bells and over the top did hang a little scaring-bell; and he that could take out a counter without any noise, was allowed to be a public hoyster; and he that could take a piece of silver out of the purse without the noise of any of the bells, he was adjudged a judicial nipper. N. B.—That a hoyster is a pick pocket, and a nipper is termed a pick-purse, or a cut-purse."
The Coal Exchange faces the site of Smart's Quay, Billingsgate. English coal is first mentioned in the reign of Henry III., who granted a charter to the people of Newcastle, empowering them to dig it. Soon afterwards, dyers, brewers, &c., began to use coal in their trade, and the nobles and gentry complaining of the smoke, a severe proclamation was passed against the use of sea-coal, though wood was yearly growing scarcer and dearer. Edward I. also issued a proclamation against the use of coal. Nevertheless, a charter of Edward II. shows Derbyshire coal to have been then used in London. In 1590 (Elizabeth) the owners of the Newcastle coal-pits, combining, raised the price of coals from 4s. to 9s. per chaldron; and the following year the Lord High Admiral claimed the coal metage in the port of London. The mayor and citizens disputed and overthrew this claim, and, by the influence of Lord Treasurer Burleigh, obtained the Queen's confirmation of the City's right to the office. At one period in Elizabeth's reign it was prohibited to burn stone-coal during the session of Parliament for fear the health of the members (country gentlemen accustomed to their wood-fires) should be injured. Shakespeare speaks in a cozy way "of the latter end of a sea-coal fire;" but others of the dramatists abuse coals; and the sea-coal smoke was supposed to have much injured the stone of old St. Paul's. In 1655 (Commonwealth) the price of coal in London was usually above 20s. a chaldron; and there were 320 "keels" at Newcastle, each of which carried 800 chaldrons, Newcastle measure; and 136 of these made 217 chaldrons, London measure. A duty of only 1s. a chaldron was paid on coals in London, yet the great Protector generously granted the Corporation a licence to import 400 chaldrons every year for the 'poor citizens, duty free. The coal-carts numbered 420, and were placed under the regulation of the President and Governors of Christ's Hospital; and all coal-sacks and measures were illegal unless sealed at Guildhall. It was also at this same period generously provided that the City companies should lay up stores of coal in summer (from 675 chaldrons to three, according to their ability), to be retailed in the winter in small quantities. To prevent extortion, conspiracy, and monopoly, retail dealers, by the same Act, were prohibited under penalties from contracting for coals, or meeting the coal-vessels before they arrived in the port of London.
By statute 16 and 17 Charles II., all sea-coal brought into the river Thames was to be sold by the chaldron, containing thirty-six bushels; and all other coals sold by weight were to be sold after the proportion of 112 pounds to the hundred avoirdupois. By the 12th Queen Anne, the coal measure was ordered to be made round, and to contain one Winchester bushel and one quart of water; the sack to hold three such bushels; the bushel to be sealed or stamped at the Exchequer Office or the Guildhall, under penalty of £50.
In 1713 the master-meters of the Coal Office were only allowed to employ or dismiss the deputies sanctioned by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen. An Act of George II. required the ancient custom to be kept up of giving one chaldron in addition to every score purchased on board ship, under penalty of £100. This bonus was called ingrain, and constituted good Pool measure. By a later Act any lighterman receiving any gratuity from owners or fitters for preference in the quality in lading ships was fined £500. All bargains for coals at Billingsgate had to be entered on the factor's book, signed by buyer and seller, and witnessed by the factor, who gave a copy of the contract to each. Masters of ships were fined for delaying their cargoes at Gravesend.
The old Coal Exchange, erected in 1805, for the use of the black-diamond merchants, was a quaint and picturesque building, with a receding portico, supported by small Doric pillars, and with some stone steps, that led into a quadrangle. The narrow windows lit the upper storeys. The present Coal Exchange was opened by Prince Albert in 1849, and Mr. J. B. Bunning was the architect. The design was thought original yet simple. The fronts in Thames Street and St. Mary-at-Hill are 112 feet wide and 61 feet high. The entrance vestibule is in a circular tower 109 feet high. The lowest storey is Roman-Doric; the first storey Ionic. The inner rotunda is crowned by a dome 74 feet high, which rests on eight piers. About 300 tons of iron were used in the building. The Raphaelesque decorations were designed by Mr. Sang. Above emblematical figures of the collier rivers are figures of the Virtues, and over these are groups of shells, snakes, and lizards. In some of the arabesques the leading features are views of the Wallsend, Percy, Pitt Main, and other celebrated collieries, adorned with groups of flowers and fossil plants.
While digging for the foundation of the new building, on the site of the old "Dog" tavern, the workmen came on a Roman sweating-bath, with tiled floors and several rooms. This hypocaust is still shown.
The floor of the rotunda is composed of inlaid woods, disposed in form of a mariner's compass, within a border of Greek fret. The flooring consists of upwards of 4,000 pieces of wood, of various kinds. The varieties of wood employed comprise black ebony, black oak, common and red English oak, wainscot, white holly, mahogany, American elm, red and white walnut, and mulberry. The appearance of this floor is beautiful in the extreme. The whole of these materials were prepared by Messrs. Davison and Symington's patent process of seasoning woods. The same desiccating process has been applied to the wood-work throughout the building. The black oak introduced is part of an old tree which was discovered in the river Tyne, where it had unquestionably lain between four and five centuries. The mulberry-wood, of which the blade of the dagger in the shield of the City Arms is composed, is a piece of a tree planted by Peter the Great, when he worked as a shipwright in Deptford Dockyard.
"The coloured decorations of this Exchange have been most admirably imagined and successfully carried out. They are extremely characteristic, and on this point deserve praise. The entrance vestibule is peculiarly rich and picturesque in its embellishments; terminal figures, vases with fruit, arabesque foliage, &c., all of the richest and most glowing colours, fill up the vault of the ceiling; and, looking up through an opening in the ceiling, a figure of Plenty scattering riches, and surrounded by figurini, is seen painted in the ceiling of the lantern. Over the entrance doorway, within a sunk panel, is painted the City Arms."
The Hall of the Watermen's Company was originally situated at Coldharbour, near the "Three Cranes," in the Vintry, and is referred to in the statute of 1 James I., 1603. It was burnt, with many of the Company's old records, in the Great Fire of 1666, but was again rebuilt in the old place. It was rebuilt once more in 1722, and in 1776 the Company removed to St. Mary-at-Hill, Billingsgate, where it now remains, Calvert's brewery occupying the old site. In 1555 an Act was passed, directing that the Court should consist of eight watermen, to be called overseers and rulers, to be annually appointed by the Court of Lord Mayor and Aldermen. In 1641 an order was made by the Court of Lord Mayor, that fifty-five persons at the different stairs should select twenty of their number to choose the eight rulers to carry out the laws. These fifty-five persons assumed the title of "assistants."
In 1700 the lightermen of the City were incorporated with the watermen (called Watermen and Lightermen's Company). Three lightermen were to be appointed as additional overseers and rulers, and a court of forty assistants. In 1729 an Act was passed which reduced the number of assistants to thirty. In 1827 a new Act was passed, re-incorporating the Company, to consist of a master, four wardens, and twenty-one assistants. In case of vacancy in court, the court were to select three qualified persons, for the Court of Lord Mayor, &c., to choose one to fill the vacancy. In 1859 an Act was passed, by which the court were empowered to fill up vacancies, without reference to the Court of Lord Mayor, &c.
The various Acts passed from the time of Henry VIII. gave power to the Company to hold general courts, courts of binding, and courts for hearing and determining complaints, and to punish offenders by fine and imprisonment; power to license passenger-boats, register craft, and to appoint Sunday ferries, the rent of which has always been applied to the relief of the poor of the Company, and to make bye-laws for the regulation of boats, barges, and steam-boats on the river, and the men navigating the same. There are about 350 apprentices bound annually, and about 250 complaints are investigated during the year. The introduction of steam greatly reduced the watermen, but the lightermen and barges have been annually increasing. There are now about 6,000 freemen of the Company, and 2,000 apprentices. The court distribute about £1,600 per annum, out of their ferry-rents, in pensions to 400 poor freemen and widows. Forty almshouses have been established at Penge, supported by the voluntary contributions of the public.
The fares of the Thames watermen and wherrymen were regulated by Henry VIII. in 1514. Taylor, the water-poet, temp. Elizabeth, states the watermen between Windsor and Gravesend at 40,000. A third statute regulates the dimensions of the boats and wherries, then dangerously "shallow and tickle;" the Lord Mayor and Aldermen to limit the watermen's fares, if confirmed by the Privy Council. Strype was told by one of the Company that there were 40,000 watermen upon their rolls; that they could furnish 20,000 men for the fleet, and that 8,000 were then in the service. Taylor, the water-poet, with his fellow-watermen, violently opposed the introduction of coaches as trade-spoilers. The Company (says Mr. Timbs) condemned the building of Westminster and Blackfriars bridges, as an injury to the ferries between Vauxhall and the Temple, the profits of which were given to the poor, aged, decayed, and maimed watermen and their widows; and in both cases the Company were compensated for their losses. The substitution of steam-boats for wherries has, however, been as fatal to the watermen as railways to stage-coachmen.
The Lord High Admiral, or the Commissioners of the Admiralty, used to have power to demand a certain number of watermen to serve in the Royal Navy, by an Act of William and Mary; and in 1796 nearly 4,000 watermen were thus enrolled. The ribald banter of the Thames watermen was formerly proverbial, and is mentioned by Ned Ward, and nearly all the essayists. Dr. Johnson, Boswell says, was particularly proud of having silenced some watermen who tried to ridicule him. By an order of the Company in 1761, this foul kind of extemporaneous satire was forbidden by the rulers and auditors of the Company; and any waterman or apprentice convicted of using indecent language was fined 2s. 6d. for each offence; the fines to go to the use of the "poor, aged, decayed, and maimed members of the Company, their widows and children."
All wherries were formerly required to be 12½ feet long and 4½ broad in the midships, under pain of forfeiture; and all wherries and boats were to be entered and numbered. Extortion and abuse was punishable by fine and imprisonment. A statute (34 George III.) placed the watermen more immediately under the mayor's jurisdiction; and the highest penalty was fixed at £3.
Before the time of steamboats, a bell used to ring at Gravesend at high water, as a warning to hurry off the London watermen. A report of the Dock Committee in 1796 shows that there were then 12,283 watermen, 8,283 freemen, 2,000 non-freemen, and 2,000 apprentices; the annual number of apprentices being from 200 to 300. In 1828 there were above 3,000 wherries on the Thames.
When the opening of Blackfriars Bridge destroyed the landing ferry there, established for the benefit of the Waterman's Poor Fund, the bridge committee gave £13,650 Consolidated Three per Cents to the rulers of the Company, as a recompense, and the interest is now appropriated to the same purpose as the ferry-fund used to be.
Close to Waterman's Hall is the Fellowship Porters' Hall. This brotherhood was incorporated as early as 1155 (Henry II.), and re-incorporated in 1613 (James I.). The business of the Fellowship Porters, which is now less strictly defined than in old times, is to carry or house corn, salt, coals, fish, and fruit of all descriptions. There were formerly about 3,000 Fellowship Porters; there are now about 1,500. The Ticket Porters and Tackle Porters have no hall. The fraternity of Fellowship Porters had the power, by an Act of Council of 1646, to choose twelve rulers, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen reserving the right to appoint one of the number. There are now six rulers. The governor, deputy-governor, and deputy of the ward act as superintendents of the Company. The Company has no livery or arms, and ranks the nineteenth in the order of precedence.
In accordance with a pretty old custom, every Sunday before Midsummer Day a sermon is preached to the Fellowship Porters in the church of St. Maryat-Hill. They overnight furnish the merchants and families above Billingsgate with nosegays, and in the morning proceed from the hall to the church, two and two, carrying nosegays. They walk up the middle aisle to the communion-table, and each places an offering in one of the two basins on the communion-rails, for the relief of the Company's poor; and after they have prayed, the deputy, the merchants, their wives, children, and servants walk in order from their seats, and perform the same solemnity. The annual cost of the nosegays amounts to nearly £20.
And now we come to that great Government toll-bar, the Customs House. The first building of this kind in London was rebuilt by John Churchman, Sheriff of London, in 1385 (Richard II.), and it stood on the site of the present buildings. Another and larger edifice, erected in the reign of Elizabeth, was destroyed by the Great Fire. A new Custom House, built by Wren, was destroyed by fire in 1715, and its successor, the design by Ripley, was burnt down February 12,1814.
In Elizabeth's time, the farmers of the Customs made immense fortunes. A chronicler of her reign says: "About this time (1590) the commodity of the Custom House amounted to an unexpected value; for the Queen, being made acquainted, by means of a subtle fellow, named Caerwardine, with the mystery of their gains, so enhanced the rate, that Sir Thomas Smith, Master of the Custom House, who heretofore farmed it of the Queen for £14,000 yearly, was now augmented to £42,000, and afterwards to £50,000, which, notwithstanding, was valued but as an ordinary sum for such oppressing gaine. The Lord Treasurer, the Earls of Leicester and Walsingham, much opposed themselves against this Caerwardine, denying him entrance into the Privy Chamber, insomuch that, expostulating with the Queen they traduced her harkening to such a fellow's information, to the disparagement of the judgment of her Council, and the discredit of their case. But the Queen answered them, that all princes ought to be, if not as favourable, yet as just, to the lowest as the highest, deciding that they who falsely accuse her Privy Council of sloth or indiscretion should be severely punished; but that they who justly accused them should be heard. That she was Queen as well to the poorest as to the proudest, and that, therefore, she would never be deaf to their just complaints. Likewise, that she would not suffer that those toll-takers, like horseleeches, should glut themselves with the riches of the realm, and starve her exchequer; which, as she will not bear it to be docked, so hateth she to enrich it with the poverty of the people."
The revenue has grown like the green bay-tree of the Psalmist. In the first year of Elizabeth, the Customs realised £73,846; in her fifth year, £57,436; in her tenth, £74,875. The average of sixteen years, before the Restoration, was £316,402. In Elizabeth's time the Custom House establishment consisted of eight principal officers, each of whom had from two to six men under him; but the principal waiter had as many as sixteen subordinates. From 1671 to 1688, says D'Avenant, the first inspector-general of imports and exports, the revenue derived from the English Customs averaged £555,752 a year. From 1700 to 1714, the Customs averaged £1,352,764. At the close of the century they exceeded £6,000,000. They now exceed £20,000,000.
The Custom House built after the Great Fire was said to have cost £10,000. The new Custom House of 1718 had better-arranged apartments and accommodation for a greater number of clerks. The new building was 189 feet long, and the centre 29 feet deep. It was built of brick and stone, and the wings had a passage colonnade of the Tuscan order, towards the river, the upper storey being relieved by Ionic pilasters and pediments. The great feature of the building was the "Long Room," which, extending the whole length of the centre, was 127 feet long, 29 wide, and 24 high. Here several commissioners superintended personally the numerous officers and clerks of various departments.
This building, already too small for the evergrowing commerce of London, was destroyed, as before mentioned, in 1814, by a fire, which also destroyed ten houses on the north side of Thames Street. Cellars and warehouses full of valuable property, and stores of documents and records, were also lost. But, several years before this catastrophe, the enlargement of the Custom House had been planned. It had been at first proposed to build an additional wing, but on a survey the old building was found too much decayed and dilapidated to warrant much expenditure on its renovation. The Lords of the Treasury selected Mr. Laing's design. Between the old Custom House and Billingsgate there had been eight quays, equal to 479 feet; but the site now selected was immediately east of Billingsgate, with only a landingstair between. It had been suggested to place the Custom House on the north side of Thames Street, so as to save the expense of embankment; but this would have necessitated the widening of many narrow and crooked streets, and the formation of two docks, one east and one west of the quay. The estimate for the new building was £165,000, exclusive of the formation of the foundation-ground and some other contingencies. The owners of private property claimed £84,478, and were paid £41,700. The materials of the old building were sold for £12,400. The first necessity was to test the substratum. The soil was bored with huge augers that screwed down eighteen to twenty feet. A substratum of close gravel, at first promising well, proved to be artificial. The whole ground, from the level of the river to the south side of Thames Street, proved to have once been part of the bed of the river. Rushes were found mixed with mussel-shells and the chrysalids of water insects. The workmen also came on three distinct lines of wooden embankments at the distances of 58, 86, and 103 feet within the range of the existing wharves; and about fifty from the campshot, or under edge of the wharf wall, a wall built of chalk and rubble, and faced with Purbeck stone, was discovered, running east and west. This was, no doubt, the river rampart of London, mentioned by Fitzstephen. It was so strongly built that it could scarcely be broken even by iron wedges. Many coins and other Roman antiquities were found. Rows of piles, twenty-eight and thirty feet long, were then sunk, and on these were placed sleepers of beech fitted in with brickwork.
The first stone of the new building was laid in 1813, by Lord Liverpool, then First Lord of the Treasury, and was opened for business, May 12, 1817. The north side, fronting Thames Street, was plain, but on the south front, towards the river, the central compartment projected, and the wings had a hexastyle detached Ionic colonnade. The central attic, comprising the exterior of the celebrated Long Room, was decorated with alto and basso relievos, representing in allegorical groups the Arts, Sciences, Commerce, Industry, and types of the nations who are our principal commercial allies. The dial-plate, nine feet in diameter, was supported by colossal figures of Industry and Plenty, while the royal arms were sustained by figures of Ocean and Commerce. The Long Room was 196 feet by 66.
Unfortunately, however, the work was done too cheaply or too quickly, and the foundation gave way. This was bitterly complained of in a Parliamentary Committee of 1828, when it was stated that this failure had led to a charge of nearly £180,000, in addition to the original expenditure of £225,000. The Long Room eventually had to be taken down by Mr. Laing, the architect, the foundations relaid, and the allegorical figures removed.
The quay is too narrow to afford a good view, but there is a simple grandeur about the design, when seen from the bridge or river. The water front, says Mr. Platt, is 488 feet, 90 feet longer than the old Post Office, and 30 feet longer than the National Gallery.
The number of officers and clerks in this great public office is over 600, out and in. The out-door employés are about 300. The inspectors-general superintend the tide-surveyors, tide-waiters, and watermen, and appoint them their daily duty, each inspector attending in rotation at Gravesend. The tide-surveyors visit ships reported inwards or out wards, to see that the tide-waiters put on board discharge their duty properly. The tide-waiters, if the vessel is coming in, remain on board, unless the vessel be in the docks, like men in possession, till the cargo is discharged. The landing-officers, under the superintendence of the surveyors, attend the quays and docks, and take a note of goods as they are craned on shore, and on the receipt of warrants showing that the duties are paid, permit the delivery of goods for home consumption. The officers of the coast department attend to vessels arriving and departing between London and the outports, and give permits for landing their cargoes, and take bonds for the delivery at their destination of goods sent coastwise. They appoint the coastwaiters, who attend the shipping, and discharge all coastwise goods. The searchers see to all goods shipped for abroad, the entries of which, after passing the Long Room, are placed in their hands, and they examine the packages, to see that they duly correspond. As the amount of work fluctuates, and when a special wind blows, flocks of vessels arrive together, the number of supernumeraries employed at the Custom House is very large. There are sometimes, says a good authority, as many as 2,000 persons a day working at Custom House business between Gravesend and London Bridge.
The Long Room is the department where most of the documents required by the Customs' Laws are received by officials. The first thing necessary upon the arrival of a vessel from a foreign country is the report of the ship, that is, the master must, within twenty-four hours of entering the port, deliver at the Report Office in the Long Room an account of her cargo. Then, before any goods are delivered out of charge by the officers of the out-door department, who board and watch vessels on their arrival, entries of the goods passed also in the Long Room must have reached the officers. These entries are documents giving particulars of the goods in greater detail than is required in the master's report, and are delivered in the Long Room by the consignees of the cargo, or by their representatives. A single entry may suffice for an entire cargo, if it be all of one kind of goods and be the property of one person, or any number of entries may be necessary if the cargo be varied in nature. The report and the entries—that is, the account of the cargo rendered by the master and that supplied by the consignees—are compared, and delivery of goods not mentioned in the report, though correctly entered, is refused until the omission has been satisfactorily explained. In the case of goods liable to duty, the entries are not suffered to leave the Long Room until it is ascertained that the payment has been made. The entry for such goods, when signed by the Long Room officers, in testimony of its having been passed by them, vouches for the payment of the duty, and constitutes the warrant authorising the officers at the waterside to deliver the goods. Such is the general course of routine applicable to vessels arriving from foreign ports. The officers of the Long Room sit at their desks along the four sides. The visitors are chiefly weather-beaten sea-captains, shipowners, and shipowners' clerks, who come and report arrivals or obtain clearances, and wholesale merchants, who have goods to import or export, or goods to place in bond.
A correct account is also required of the cargoes of vessels sailing from this country, and the documents by which this is obtained are presented in the Searcher's Office in the Long Room either by the shippers of the goods or by the master of the vessel. The operation performed in the Long Room by the master of an outward-bound ship, which corresponds to the reporting of an arriving vessel, is termed "clearing" or "obtaining clearance."
From the particulars obtained by the various papers thus delivered in the Long Room, are prepared the monthly returns of trade and navigation, published by the Board of Trade, and the collection and arrangement of the information so obtained occupies a large staff of clerks in the Statistical Department of the Custom House.
The establishment of docks surrounded by high walls, from which goods can be removed only through gateways easily guarded, has made it possible to provide for the security of the duties upon importations with a far less numerous staff of officers than would be necessary if every vessel discharged in the river or at open quays. And the gradual reduction which has taken place in the number of articles in the tariff liable to duty during the last thirty years renders a less rigid examination of goods necessary than was previously requisite. These and other causes enable the present reduced staff to deal efficiently with an amount of business to which under former circumstances it would have been wholly inadequate.
The warehousing system, which consisted in permitting the payment of duties upon goods deposited under Crown locks in warehouses duly approved for the purpose by the Board of Customs, to be deferred until the goods are wanted for consumption, offers great facilities to trade, and is largely availed of. This system involves the keeping of very elaborate accounts, which form the duty of the warehousing departments.
Of the 170 or so distinct apartments in the Custom House, all classified and combined to unite order and contiguity, the king is the Long Room, 190 feet long, 66 wide, and between 40 and 50 feet high. The eye cannot take in at once its breadth and its length, but it is not so handsome as the room that fell in, to the dismay of Mr. Peto. The floor is plank. The cellars in the basement form a groined fireproof crypt.
The rooms are perfectly plain, all but the Board Room, which is slightly decorated, and contains portraits of George III. and George IV., the latter by Sir Thomas Lawrence. The Queen's Warehouse is on the ground floor. The entrance to the Custom House is on the north front. On the southern side there is an entrance from the quay and river.
Nearly one-half of the Customs of the United Kingdom, says a writer on the subject, are collected in the port of London. In 1840, while the London Customs were £11,116,685, the total of the United Kingdom were only £23,341,813. In the same year the only place approaching London was Liverpool, where the Customs amounted to £4,607,326. In 1849 the London Customs were £11,070,176. The same year the declared value of the exports from Liverpool amounted to no less than £33,341,918, or nearly three times the value of the exports from London, for in foreign trade London is surpassed by Liverpool. Mr. M'Culloch estimates, including the home and foreign markets, the total value of produce conveyed into and from London annually at £65,000,000 sterling.
The number of foreign vessels that entered the port of London in the year 1841 was estimated at 8,167, and the number of coasters at 21,122. The expense of collecting the Customs in Great Britain alone is calculated at over a million sterling. The Board of Commissioners, that sits at the Custom House, has all the outports of the United Kingdom under its superintendence. It receives reports from them, and issues instructions from the central Board. The recording of the business of the great national firm, now performed by the Statistical Office in the Custom House, was attempted in the reign of Charles II., and urged on the Commissioners of Customs by the bewildered Privy Council for Trade; but it was declared, after many trials, to be impossible. It was first really begun in the business-like reign of William III., when the broad arrow was first used to check thefts of Government property, and when the office of Inspector-General of Imports and Exports was established, and the Custom House ledger, to record their value, first started. The Act of 1694 required all goods exported and imported to be entered in the Custom House books, with the prices affixed. Cotton, therefore, was taxed at this the official value, till 1798. In this year the Government imposed a convoy duty of four per cent., ad valorem, upon all exports; and to do this equitably, every shipper of goods was compelled to make a declaration of their then actual value. This was what is called "the declared or real value." A daily publication, called the "Bill of Entry," is issued at the Custom House, to report the imports and exports and the arrival and clearance of vessels.
Prior to the year 1825, says a writer in Knight's "London," the statutes relating to the Customs had accumulated, from the reign of Edward I., to 1,500, and were naturally as confusing and entangled as they were contradictory. Mr. Huskisson, Mr. J. D. Hume, and eventually the slow-moving Board of Trade, at last revised the statutes, and consolidated them into eleven acts. They were still further simplified in 1833, and again consolidated in 1853. One of the Acts passed in 1833 enumerates not fewer than 1,150 different rates of duty chargeable on imported articles, while the main source of revenue is derived from a very small number of articles. "For example," says a writer on the subject, "the duty on seventeen articles produced, in 1839, about 94½ per cent. of the total revenue of Customs, the duties on other articles being not only comparatively unproductive, but vexatious and a hindrance to the merchants, shipowners, and others. In the above year, fortysix articles were productive of 982/3 per cent. of the total Customs' revenue.
"The occasional importation of articles which are not enumerated in the tariff of duties is often productive of amusing perplexity. Mr. Huskisson mentioned a case of this nature when he brought forward the plans of consolidation already mentioned. A gentleman had imported a mummy from Egypt, and the officers of Customs were not a little puzzled by this non-enumerated article. These remains of mortality, muscles and sinews, pickled and preserved three thousand years ago, could not be deemed a raw material, and therefore, upon deliberation, it was determined to tax them as a manufactured article. The importer, anxious that his mummy should not be seized, stated its value at £400; and the declaration cost him £200, being at the rate of £50 per cent. on the manufactured merchandise which he was about to import. Mr. Huskisson reduced the duties on non-enumerated manufactured articles from £50 to £20 per cent., and of non-enumerated unmanufactured articles from £20 to £10 per cent." A somewhat similar case, relating to an importation of ice from Norway, was mentioned in a debate in the House of Lords in 1842. A doubt was started what duty it ought to pay, and the point was referred from the Custom House to the Treasury, and from the Treasury to the Board of Trade; and it was ultimately decided that the ice might be introduced on the payment of the duty on dry goods; but as one of the speakers remarked, "The ice was dissolved before the question was solved."
In the time of Charles I. the Customs were farmed, and we find Garrard writing to Lord Stafford, January 11th, 1634, mentioning that the farmers of the Customs (rejoicing over their good bargains, no doubt), had been unusually liberal in their new year's gifts to the king, having sent him, besides the usual 2,000 pieces, £5,000 in pieces, and an unset diamond that had cost them £5,000. Yet what a small affair the Customs must have been compared to now, when sugar, tea, tobacco, wine, and brandy produce each of them more than a million a year!
Defoe says, "In the Long Room it's a pretty pleasure to see the multitude of payments that are made there in a morning. I heard Count Tallard say that nothing gave him so true and great an idea of the richness and grandeur of this nation as this, when he saw it after the Peace of Ryswick."
Mr. Platt's account of the working of the Custom House system of thirty years ago shows a remarkable contrast with that of the present day. Writing in the year 1853, he says, "The progress of an article of foreign merchandise through the Customs to the warehouse or shop of the dealer is as follows:—First, on the arrival of the ship at Gravesend, tide-waiters are put on board and remain until she reaches the appointed landingplace. The goods are reported and entered at the Custom House, and a warrant is transmitted to the landing-waiters, who superintend the unloading of the cargo. A landing-waiter is specially appointed to each ship; officers under him, some of whom are gaugers, examine, weigh, and ascertain the contents of the several packages, and enter an account of them. These operations are subject to the daily inspection of superior officers. When warehoused, the goods are in charge of a locker, who is under the warehouse-keeper. When goods are delivered for home consumption, the locker receives a warrant from the Custom House certifying that the goods had been paid; he then looks out the goods, and the warehouse-keeper signs the warrant. When foreign or colonial goods are exported, the process is more complicated. The warehouse-keeper makes out a 're-weighing slip;' a landing-waiter examines the goods, which continue in the charge of the locker, and a cocket, with a certificate from the proper officers at the Custom House, as his authority for their delivery. The warehouse-keeper signs this document, and a counterpart of the cocket, called a 'shipping bill,' is prepared by the exporting merchant. The goods pass from the warehouse-keeper into the hands of the searcher, who directs a tidewaiter to receive them at the water-side and to attend their shipment, taking an account of the articles; and he remains on board until the vessel reaches Gravesend, when she is visited by a searcher stationed there; the tide-waiter is discharged, and the vessel proceeds. But before her final clearance the master delivers to the searcher a document called 'a content,' being a list of the goods on board, and which is compared with the cocket. It is then only that the cargo can be fairly said to be out of the hands of the Custom House officers."
It will be seen that the amount of Customs receipts collected in London in each of the years 1870 and 1871 was more than that of all the other ports of Great Britain taken together, and five times that of the whole of Ireland. Besides London and Liverpool, there is only one port in England, Bristol, the Customs receipts of which average a million a year, and one more, Hull, where they are above a quarter of a million. It is to be observed that there has been a great reduction of Customs duties of late years. During the sixteen years from 1857 to 1872 the actual diminution of Customs has been no less than £14,255,855.
The annual summary as to trade in the port of London for the year 1872 shows a steady increase in the number of vessels arriving, and a trifling decrease in the departures. A total of 11,518 vessels arrived during the year, 7,054 of which were sailing and 4,464 steam-ships, thus indicating a total increase of 113 as compared with the previous year. The vessels which cleared outwards were 8,730, both kinds, 6,041 of which were with cargo, and 2,689 in ballast, or a total decrease of 339 as compared with the departures in 1871. A considerable increase arose in London in the total number of seizures of tobacco, cigars, and spirits, as compared with the year 1871, 293 cases having occurred in 1872. The total quantity of tobacco and cigars seized in London was 2,369 lbs., being an increase of 947 lbs. as compared with that seized in 1871, while the total quantity of spirits seized was 63 gallons only, being a decrease of 66 gallons.
The Custom House Quay fronts the Thames. Here Cowper, the poet, came, intending to make away with himself. "Not knowing," he says, "where to poison myself, I resolved upon drowning. For that purpose I took a coach, and ordered the man to drive to Tower Wharf, intending to throw myself into the river from the Custom House Quay. I left the coach upon the Tower Wharf, intending never to return to it; but upon coming to the quay I found the water low, and a porter seated upon some goods there, as if on purpose to prevent me. This passage to the bottomless pit being mercifully shut against me, I returned back to the coach."
A modern essayist has drawn a living picture of the Custom House sales:—"The Queen's Warehouse is situated on the ground-floor of the Custom House. The Queen's Warehouse is not an imposing apartment, either in its decorations or extent; it is simply a large, square room, lighted by an average number of windows, and consisting of four bare walls, upon which there is not the most distant approach to decoration. Counters are placed in different directions, with no regard to order of effect. Here and there masses of drapery for sale are hung suspended from cords, or to all appearance nailed against the wall. Across one corner of the room, in the immediate vicinity of a very handsome inlaid cabinet, two rows of dilapidated Bath chaps are slung upon a rope. Close under these delicacies stands a rosewood piano, on which a foreign lady, supported by a foreign gentleman, is playing a showy fantasia. . . .
"Eighty-nine opera-glasses; three dozen 'companions'—more numerous than select, perhaps; forty dozen black brooches—ornamental mourning, sent over probably by some foreign manufacturer, relying in the helplessness of our Woods-andForest-ridden Board of Health, and in the deathdealing fogs and stinks of our metropolis; seventeen dozen daguerreotype plates, to receive as many pretty and happy faces; eighty dozen brooches; nineteen dozen pairs of ear-rings; forty-two dozen finger-rings; twenty-one dozen pairs of bracelets. The quantities and varieties are bewildering, and the ladies cluster about in a state of breathless excitement, or give way to regrets that the authorities will not sell less than ten dozen tiaras, or halfa-dozen clocks. The French popular notion, that every Englishman has an exhaustless store of riches, seems to hold as firmly as ever; for here we find about three hundred dozen portemonnaies, and countless purses, evidently of French manufacture. Presently we are shown what Mr. Carlyle would call ' a gigantic system of shams,' in five hundred and thirty-eight gross of imitation turquoises. . .
"On the particular occasion to which we have been all along referring three hundred gross of lucifer-matches figured in the bazaar, besides several acres of East India matting, forty-nine gallons of Chutney sauce; eighteen gallons of curry-paste; thirty millions of splints; seventy-seven hundredweight of slate-pencils, sixty-eight gallons of rosewater, one package of visiting cards, one ship's long-boat, and 'four pounds' of books in the English language."
One of Mr. Dickens's staff has bitterly described the delay in passing baggage through the Custom House. "A fine view of the river," he says, "seen through one of the open windows, was being calmly enjoyed by a portly person, evidently of considerable official pretensions. A clerk, writing the reverse of a running hand, sat at a desk; another (who seemed, by the jaunty style in which he wore his hat, to be a dropper-in from some other department of the Customs) leaned lazily against the desk, enjoying the proceedings of the baftled, heated ladies and gentlemen who had escaped from the crowd, and who were anxiously threading the confused maze of passengers' effects strewed on the floor, to find their own. The scene was made complete by two or three porters, whose deliberate mode of opening carpet-bags, boxes, and trunks, showed that it was not their fate to be hurried, in their passage through this life."