Custom House Records: Introduction

Pages 363-367

Cardiff Records: Volume 2. Originally published by Cardiff Records Committee, Cardiff, 1900.

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Custom House Records.

SIDE by side with her importance as a municipal borough, Cardiff's position as a port of commerce has advanced and increased; and her harbour was for ages the headquarters of maritime jurisdiction on a coastline extending from the mouth of the Wye to Wormshead Point. All the harbours along this line (including Newport and Swansea) were then but creeks in the Port of Cardiff. Swansea and Newport had each the privilege of a public quay, for the shipment and unloading of goods; but it was not until the year 1685 that Swansea was raised from being a mere "Creek in the Port of Cardiff" to the position of a "Member of the Head Port of Cardiff." This promotion made Swansea practically independent of the mother port, and gave her jurisdiction over the Creeks of Newton, Neath and South Burry; but the very instrument which conferred upon her this liberty, re-asserted the nominal supremacy (at least) of the county town, in matters maritime. Early in the 19th century the port of Cardiff was placed under that of Bristol, so far as concerned pilotage; but later in the century Cardiff's independence in this respect was secured. In 1847 the Treasury Commissioners declared the limits of the Port of Cardiff to extend from Redwick Pill, east of Newport, in Monmouthshire, westward to Nash Point, near Llantwit Major, in Glamorgan; thus excluding Chepstow on the east, as well as Neath etc. on the west.

The old Customs muniments of Cardiff were kept in a loft over the Custom House, which stands on the Canal bank near Saint Mary Street. (fn. 1) I made these extracts from them in 1897, working in the loft for about three weeks. My desk was a seaman's chest, my seat a roll of canvas. There was not room to stand up, and the services of a tallow candle were employed to give the required light. The books were covered with the dust of at least a score of years, and in many cases had suffered severely from damp. Yet I never spent a more enjoyable three weeks of record-searching. The contents of these long-forgotten tomes of musty manuscript proved to be replete with information of the greatest possible interest and importance, bearing upon local history. While, in the spacious rooms beneath me, a large staff of officials were dealing in their ledgers with the huge exports of modern Cardiff, I was going page by page through the records of a period when the trade of this port was represented by a score or so of coasting vessels; when the purchase of a new writing desk for the office was a matter to agitate the mind of the Collector of Customs; when the Searchers were almost daily in conflict with armed smugglers; and when the authorities were officially informed that no coal was exported from Cardiff, nor ever would be. The busy roar from the streets of the Welsh metropolis died away in my dusty retreat, and all that I heard was the plashing of the sea on the pebbles of Penarth, the grinding keel of the King's boat as she ran ashore under the Kymin, and the stealthy footsteps of a little party on their way to look for a secret store of rum and lace in the cellars of the inn by the beach.

The old manuscript records of the Cardiff Custom House consist of Order Books, containing formal instructions and directions signed by the chief officials of Trinity House; Letter Books, with copies of letters sent to the London authorities from the officers at Cardiff;

Books of Record of Vessels entering and leaving the port, with particulars of their cargoes, destination, &c.; Account Books.

The local Customs officers and servants were the following:—
Weigher and Meter
Tide Waiters

In 1689 the Lords of the Treasury order that Exchequer and Revenue officers are not to refuse cracked money in payment of their salaries.

In the same year an embargo on the West Coast ports, from Saint Ives, in Cornwall, to Carlisle, was re-imposed after being temporarily raised in consideration of Bristol fair.

In 1690 special orders were issued for preventing the escape of Jacobite fugitives.

In 1710 similarly stringent directions were given the Customs officers to look out for priests, Irish officers and Papists generally, who were coming over from the Continent in the interests of the "Pretender," Prince James Edward Stuart.

In 1714 the Commissioners of Customs send a copy of the document whereby the Court of Exchequer in 1685 had defined the limits of the Ports of Cardiff and Swansea. It is interesting to note that the Commissioners of the Exchequer, in defining those limits, speak of the Quay of Cardiff as "of right belonging to the said town," while Swansea Quay is spoken of as "of right belonging to His Grace Henry, Lord Duke of Beaufort."

In 1730 an extra allowance was made to the Collector, to enable him to keep a horse. He is to "ride the coast" from Redwick Pill to Nash Point—exactly the limits assigned to the Port of Cardiff in 1847. It appears that the coast-line between those two points was the district subject to the personal supervision of the Collector of Cardiff, and that this was what Trinity House meant when, in 1718, they wrote of Redwick Pill and Nash Point as being the "extents" of Cardiff Port.

In 1728 the Trinity Brethren insist that Swansea had been appointed "a distinct port from Cardiff," although it remained "a member of Cardiff." Consequently, coals shipped from Swansea to Cardiff must pay duty at the latter place.

In 1729 mention is made of goods carried coastwise from Caerleon. The ancient capital of Siluria still possesses a couple of deserted wharves and ruinous warehouses, but it is probably many years since a sea-going vessel hailed from that creek.

The Letter Books contain frequent reports as to the smugglers who swarmed in the Bristol Channel, and show that the Cardiff Customs officers found great difficulty in impressing upon their superiors in London the necessity for reinforcing the preventive strength of the Coast Guard—for such the Customs Officers were at this period.

In 1737 the Cardiff officials write to Trinity House that the country people "are not so desperate" as to attempt anything in the way of forcible wrecking or smuggling; but later in the same year they have to report the wholesale pillaging of a wrecked vessel at Nash Point.

In this same year we have an entry shewing that the trade of Newport was by law strictly confined to coasting, all carriage of goods to or from foreign parts being the exclusive privilege of the Head Port of Cardiff.

The Jacobite rising of 1745 occasioned the sending out of circular instructions from Trinity House, calling upon the Customs officers to be zealous in discovering and reporting any designs of disaffected persons. This the officers promise with apparent enthusiasm, and further send a cheerful report to the effect that there are no Papists or Nonjurors in Glamorgan, except a few "of the meaner sort." They call attention, however, to the defenceless state of the South West coast of Wales.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the boldness and activity of the smugglers are very surprising; the Revenue Officers were almost powerless against them. A desperado of the name of Knight fortified himself on Barry Island and defied the authorities for a considerable time.

A few words must here be said as to the Book of Entrances and Clearances, 1686 to 1767. This is undoubtedly the oldest record in existence relative to the business of the Port of Cardiff. It commences at a time when the official entries of shipments were still written in Latin; and the inconsiderable nature of the trade of the port during the period named may be gauged by the fact that the whole of the entries are contained within a few pages written at the beginning and end of the volume, which is otherwise blank. The first part consists of entries outwards from Cardiff. Only four vessels sailed hence in the year 1727, and seven in 1728. There are only three entries for 1730, each being of the "Charming Sally," of Dublin; and up to this date the only export is oak bark. At the other end of the volume are some entries inwards, the first being of the year 1686. I have thought it best, in view of the importance of this, the earliest document of Cardiff's commerce, to print the volume practically in full. It deserves to be perpetuated in its entirety.

There are probably few readers who will not enjoy these wordpictures of the days when our mighty seaport was a drowsy county town, with a few coasting vessels to nestle in the mud of the river's mouth, waiting their turn to creep up to the quay near the Market Cross.


  • 1. They are now stored in the Book Room of the new Custom House at the Docks, as I am informed by the present Collector, M. J. Harte, Esq.