THE HISTORY OF COWES CUSTOMS
Prior to 1750
This version is the first draft only
Cowes was originally part of the port of Southampton. The first reference to customs ‘tax’ being collected at that Port was the yield of the tax from July 1203 until November 1205 (in the reign of King John) which amounted to £712 3s 8d.
The earliest instance of smuggling found on the Island (although undoubtedly not the first!), was in February 1395 when the Rector of Freshwater, Thomas Symonde received a writ of summons on a charge of smuggling wool into France, which is confirmed in Wykehams Register. There is a poem (allegedly contemporary, although this is extremely doubtful) relating to the incident:
Ye Rector of Freshwater (sad to relate),
Was dogg'd and collared at Ye Redde Lionne Inne,
A matter of conflicte betwixte Churche and State,
He was snuggled in smuggled woolle nexte Ye Skinne.
He attended Ye Courte at Tenne of Ye Clocke,
And began to intone a Piece of Liturgie,
This time it was not for Ye Sake of Ye Flocke,
But that he might claim benefitte of Clergie.
"Onlie wool-gathering" he said to Ye Warders,
And then, pulling woole o'er Ye Justices' eyes,
"This holie suit doth not suit Holie Orders;
Respecte for Ye Clothe is a word to Ye wise"
At that time Clergy had certain privileges in law, and it appears no direct action was taken against him.
At that time Customs were farmed, that is not directly collected by the Crown, but rather by franchisees, who bid for the right to do so, and it is stated in 1368 that goods ‘came ashore in the franchises of the Earl of Bedford and the Earl of Salisbury on the Isle of Wight’. This farming continued until about 1590, and also occurred between 1662 and 1671.
The first reference to a Customs presence on the Isle of Wight is found in the reply to a Petition to the King in 1432 by merchants of Lymington and Newport complaining of difficulties of discharging goods as no Customer was present. Part of the reply stated:
“Considering the causes contained in this petition and other matters stated in parliament, it was granted and ordered that the customer of the king in the port of Southampton appoint deputies in the ports of Lymington and Newport, and in Portsmouth for the customs, subsidies and other moneys of the king which ought to be received for the goods and merchandises…”
The Customer, who was in charge of the Port was appointed under ‘Letters Patent’ by Crown, as were various other officers including the Comptroller & Searcher (known as Patent Officers). These positions received little or no salary and were funded by fees received.
In 1560 Sir Richard Worsley, Captain of the Island, was appointed Comptroller of the port and town of Southampton, although this role was actually carried out by a Deputy, appointed and paid by him. This method of appointment continued until the late eighteenth century, although after the setting up of the Board of Customs in 1671 the role of Patent Officers reduced and the Board appointed their own staff to most of the important positions, although that of Comptroller (controller of the Collectors finance) appears, at least at Cowes, to remain a important position, and to have continued as a salaried post after the abolition of other Patent Officers.
The origin of Customs House at Cowes in not clear, according to Arnold (At War With the Smugglers) the Custom House was originally built at East Cowes in 1575, but it seems unlikely that a permanent Custom House was built at that time, although it is likely that there was a presence on the Island. It seems more likely that the original Custom Houses were actually the residence of the then Customer / Collector.
In October 1580 Sir Edward Horsey, captain of the Isle of Wight, who was said to be the Customer at Cowes were instructed to appraise two pirate ships.
The first direct reference found to a Customs office at Cowes is in the Calendar of Treasury Books March 1664, which states:
‘Order [by Treasurer, Southampton] for the issue of several separate commissions under the seal of the Exchequer Court for ….. and for making West Cowes, in the Isle of Wight, a member of the port of Southampton, and erecting a Custom House and officers to attend there.’.
This ties in with an entry in the Hearth Tax (a tax levied on Hearths and Chimneys) Returns of 1664, which stated that ‘The Custome House’ at West Cowes was taxed on two hearths. Unfortunately no other location was given. It is likely that this Custome house was actually the residence of the Collector.
Customs, as a Department of government, was set up in 1671, few records are available, although we are fortunate that the Customs Establishment records and snippets from Treasury Records have survived. The first Collector was David Horton, with Robert Murray as the Waiter and Searcher with two Boatmen, William Dawtry and Aaron Levandello. It is interesting to note the David Horton was said to be Collector in 1670, prior to the actual setting up of the Customs Department, when Customs was farmed, so it may well be that existing Collectors (and other staff) were appointed by the Board when it was set up.
In 1672 it is stated that the Tidesmen at Cowes were to be paid £10 per annum, and 18d a day when employed. One of these was Robert Barrow, who was dismissed in January 1673 on the grounds that he “did offer to sell the same post” and he was replaced by John Leeth. In the March of same year John Downe was appointed Waiter and Searcher replacing Robert Lock who was said to have ‘deserted his employment’.
In December 1674 John Cole was employed as Surveyor, Waiter and Search in the place of Robert Murray, who was stated to have been dismissed, although he appears never to have taken up the post being replaced by Walton Neale in May 1675. Confusingly, Robert Murray still appeared in the Establishment Record for the Midsummer (June) quarter of that year. This shows three Tydesmen and Boatmen, and also a Waiter and Searcher at Yarmouth (Henry Townley) and Newport (Robert Mills). The Collector was said to earn £12 – 10, and the total salary cost was £45, these figures being for a quarter.
Treasury Papers of 1676 confirm that there had been problems with the conduct of Officers around this time, a letter from Sir Robert Dillington (seemingly a Member of Parliament for the Island living at Newchurch) to Williamson (presumably a Treasury Official) states:
‘It has been the misfortune of this poor island to be severely censured, though unjustly, for defrauding the Customs, so that, when lately there were complaints about the Patent Officers about the exorbitancy of fees and delays, the inhabitants could obtain but little redress, which with other inconveniences will so discourage them that the isle, which is a frontier, and necessarily to be full of people for its defence, is already greatly lessened in its inhabitants, and in a few years will be much depopulated. But I am given to understand that the officers themselves, who should detect the frauds, are the greatest criminals, and that Mr Horton, a Customer of Cowes, by his diligence has newly discovered several false certificates given out by the Patent Officers or their deputies and that the business is or will be before you in Council or the Treasury Chambers.’
The Board appear to have had problems with the Collector, David Horton. Concerns, unspecified, were first raised in March 1674, and by March 1676 it was stated that he had delayed sending his accounts to them, and concern was expressed that he owned more than his Security (£400) and he was asked to produce further Security of £400 within the next three weeks. Things seem to come to a head in 1678 when he was suspended “being indebted about £600” and in June 1679 he was deemed “unfit to be trusted” and dismissed. He was replaced as Collector by John Pocock, Collector at Portsmouth who retained his salary of £60 per annum. The Collector Southampton was to manage the Collection at Portsmouth (where it was said there seemed to be very little trade) and as the result £50 would be saved for the King! Despite calling in the Bonds from his Sureties, the full amount he owed does not appear to have been recovered and the outstanding £197 19s 0¾d was finally written off in 1709.
An alternative source (Richard Thorold, Customs Surveyor, in 1747) gives Joseph Dawson as Pocock’s predecessor and gives a location for the Custom House, stating that he “kept his office in the house late at West Cowes the left handside going to the Castle between St Christopher stable and the house of Matthew White & Thomas Parkman fishermen”. It is possible, although not confirmed, that Dawson was appointed to the post on a temporary basis. John Pocock’s Custom House Room was said to be “In the House where Rich Thorold Surveyor lives (being at the right hand side of the lane or street to the Chapel) for which forty shillings was charged per quarter in accommodation for the same”, although it has not been possible to identify the exact location.
It appears from a petition in 1675 from inhabitants of the Island made complaint about the Officers of the Port of Southampton placing restrictions on trade from the Island, which appears to have been resolved in 1677 by an agreement that:
“that all the goods of the breed, growth, product or manufacture of the island (except wool, fullers' earth, tobacco pipe clay and leather) shall be freely shipped and transported under such regulation [for securing the Customs] as was proposed viz., that a convenient number of the passage boats carrying goods between the island and the main be under security to deliver such goods as above at some member or creek of Southampton port, they first obtaining a warrant from said officers for lading such goods ; and so to be at liberty to carry said goods to any of the markets of the neighbouring towns within the districts of said port without cocquet, certificate or other warrant whatsoever …… and Mr. de Cardonel, Customer of Southampton, has agreed, that for the goods excepted as above that where the said goods shall not exceed £10 in value only 12d. fee should be paid for the cocquet, the bond and the certificate of landing, and 3s. for same when the goods exceed £10, provided the said inhabitants shall not ship any of the last mentioned goods elsewhere than at Cowes, Newport and Yarmouth, and land them at Lymington, Portsmouth and Southampton and not elsewhere. I have not thought fit to allow the permission of shipping the said [prohibited] commodities at Ryde. The King's Graver is to provide seals for the Customer and Comptroller at Yarmouth and Newport, and the officers at Southampton are to keep deputies there, but said deputies are not to make use of said seals for any other purpose than for despatch of coast cocquets and returns for goods carried as above between the isle and the main.
In June 1676 William Dawtry, was dismissed, being disabled by age, and the Collector was instructed to give him £10 as a reward for his 13 years’ honest behaviour (which indicates he was employed by the Farmers of Duty, prior to the setting up of the Board of Customs.) This contrast with the activities of Edward Rawlins, seemingly Deputy Customer at Cowes, who issued false certificates, it was believed that he kept blanks at his house sealed with the Custom House seal and issued them to Island residents who were dissatisfied with Customs requirements of the Officers at Southampton (see above). A warrant was issued for his arrest, but the outcome is not known.
Unfortunately, little is known about the activities of the Officers at this time, in early 1676, a ship Hope of Guernsey, was seized for carrying 150 weight of Wool (valued at £2 16s 3d), a petition was received for its release, but the result is not known. In December 1778 a ship Star of Portsmouth was seized for importing 200 Deals of Timber, but it appears that prosecution was declined by the Treasury.
Some time prior to September 1679, a Customs Smack was stationed at Cowes, this had a crew of 4, Christopher Ungle, Master (salary £35 per annum), a Mate (salary £18 per annum) and four Men (each with a salary of £14 per annum), although the names of the latter are not known. A victualling allowance of 7½d per day for each man was also made. In 1683 there were said to be 9 other Smacks in Customs service, at Gravesend, Margate, Queenborough, Deal, Harwich, Yarmouth, Rye, Poole & Plymouth.
1679 saw the death of Robert Miller (Waiter and Searcher, Newport) and it was stated that he was to be paid until the time of his death. 23 August 1679, he was replaced by Stephen March and in May 1680 Henry Townley (Waiter and Searcher, Yarmouth) was stated to “decline the same” (presumably resigned) to be replaced with Thomas Goodman.
Thomas Cole was appointed Collector by September 1681, and was stated by Thorold to previously have been Collector at Southampton, and to have “Lived in the house where William Stephens do”, which again cannot be identified.
In July 1684 Thomas Williamson, a Waiter and Searcher at Cowes was dismissed (for reasons unknown) and replaced by Thomas Butler. The Master of the Smack, Christopher Ungle, was appointed Tidesurveyor at Weymouth, and replaced by John Pierce (This was an indirect result of the introduction of a Customs Vessel at Hamble river).
August 1684 also saw an inspection of the Port by Sir Richard Temple, which resulted in a number of changes to staffing and organisation at Cowes:
John Cox was appointed as Riding Surveyor at a salary of £40 per annum.
Each Landwaiter had £10 added to their salary of £30.
John Leech was dismissed as a Tidewaiter and replaced by Nicholas Jordan
Aaron Levandello was dismissed as a Tidewaiter and replaced by Stephen Summers
James Kirton and James Townly were appointed as additional Tidesmen at Cowes
The staffing at Michaelmas (September) 1685 was detailed in the Establishment Record as (salaries are per quarter):
In April 1690 the King
sent papers from the French ambassador to the Lords of the Treasury seeking
the release of a Dunkirk sloop which was seized for smuggling at Cowes, this
was refused “giving their opinion that the collector at
had good cause to detain the sloop” and that “my Lords are of opinion
that this matter be left to law, there being an apparent ground for a
The staff list for Lady Day (March) 1691 showed the inclusion of two Officers who acted for the Patent Officer at Southampton (the Customer or the Searcher), who had not previously been shown. As already stated, the Patent Searcher was appointed by the Crown, not the Board, and appointed ‘deputies’ is other Ports. They normally did not receive payment from the Department, but rather an allowance from the Patent Officer (normally part of the Fees Collected on their behalf) or payment from the Crown. Those at Cowes, and the entries in, the Establishment Register were:
George Harvey - To act for Customer & Comptroller Southampton and to have £30 per annum out of their Fees at this port
Francis Rumny - Waiter and Searcher to act for the Patent Searchers Fee Southampton and £20 from the King, (he also received £5 from the Board)
No Riding Officer is mentioned, neither is the Smack is, but there is a position of chief Boatman at St Ellens, although nobody is shown as occupying the post, but there are two Boatmen (William Lysle and Richard Young). In addition, Boatman are shown at Hurst (John Platt and John Turnpenny) and Bewley (William Gird and William Jordan), these seemingly being outstations of Cowes. It also showed that Thomas Tye had become Surveyor.
An Order of the King in Council was issued in February 1693 “charging all seamen and mariners remaining in any county of England and Wales and not listed in his Majesty's service to render themselves to” the Navy Commissioners or Collectors of Customs, including Cowes.
In October 1694 Robert Eden, a Landwaiter at Cowes who it was stated “may be spared by reason of the present meanness of trade in that port”, to be an additional Landwaiter at Whitehaven, where there was the “necessity for such addition by reason of the great increase of the Virginia trade in that port: there being no need to supply the vacancy at Cowes during the war”. A similar event occurred in 1698 when April Michael Whittle, also a Landwaiter at Cowes was employed at London port “until the business of Cowes shall increase” thereby saving £40 per annum to the King, although this appears only to have continued until September 1698.
In Michaelmas (September) 1695, the At the same time Robert Flory is shown as Commander of the Sloop, “by warrant of 24th June” 1695, with an annual salary of £25, a post he retained in 1698 (prior to the introduction of the Greenhill yacht), although by 1700 he was merely a mariner on that vessel, which suggests that the Sloop was not of any considerable size.
1695 is also, according to Thorold, when Thomas Cole “kept office” at East Cowes, first mention of the actual location of a Custom House other than in the Collector’s house, unfortunately no location is given, although
the site was probably to the south of the White Hart Inn, now opposite the Red Funnel Terminal.
In May 1698 a Warrant was issued by the Treasury to the Customs Commissioners “to establish a small vessel (the Greenhill yacht) for the guard of the Isle of Wight and the opposite coast on the main and for advising the officers at Cowes and Portsmouth of the arrival of all ships of cargo in order to the timely boarding thereof” with John Rutter as Commander and one Mariner, Richard Pemberley, another mariner and a boy. Little is known about this vessel, which was an early Customs Cutter (although the term Cutter was not used by Customs until some years later). It continued to operate from the Island until 1727, making regular seizures, when it was removed to Portsmouth, where it continued to operate for some years (until at least 1750). A further Warrant was issued in September of the same year “to establish the following officers for a stricter guard of the western coast during the high Duties as above: Bembridge Point or St. Helens: John Crouch of Brading to be riding officer at £40. per annum, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight: Thomas Goodman waiter to have £10 per annum for a horse, Newport: Stephen Marsh, waiter and searcher to have £5 per annum, Cowes: Thomas Cole to be waiter and searcher loco Michael Whittell at the 40 per annum at present established.”
Rewards were paid in June 1699 to Thomas Cole, Collector, £40 for “for his care and industry in bringing the goods in the “Thiley” (“Hurley”) sloop, of Dunkirk, to entry” and to James Imber, chief officer in the boat at Hurst, £70, “having with great care and industry timely met the ship “Norrington” of Keyhaven, William Thomas master, laden with wine, linen and other French goods from Morlaix; and the “Mary Ann” of Lymington, John Bath master, with the like goods from St. Malo (being both upon the smuggling trade) and instead of taking advantage of forfeiture (which might have been attended with hazard if he had given opportunity for landing the said goods) did bring the whole to entry in November last”
The payment of Tidesmen and Boatman was changed in September 1699 from £10 per annum and 2s per day when employed, to £30 per annum.
1700 saw another appearance of a Riding Officer, John Crouch said to cover Bembridge Point to St Hellens (although he had disappeared by 1705). The Greenhill yacht was said to be based at St Hellens, and Walter Clark, a Tidewaiter at Cowes had been appointed Master in place of John Rutter, the Mate was Richard Young and the Mariner Richard Flory (there was a vacancy for another Mariner), and the boy was not named.
An incident occurred in 1702 when it appears that a French Privateer, Susanna put into Cowes under the pretence of buying drapery, and a merchant from it, Lavalle Potavin, left the ship and went ashore. Thomas Cole, Collector suspected him of being a spy, and reported it to the Admiralty. The Master then went to London. The Ship was detained and subsequently seized. The Collector requested permission for him to go home but the outcome of the incident is not known. Like many early incidents, information is very sketchy, although Cole did receive a Moiety (half) of £23. 4s. 6d. for seizing the ship. Cole was also described as ‘Agent for Prizes’
It appears that the Collector regularly received rewards for seizures, two other examples are in April 1704, when he received £24 3s 6d in respect of the ship St. Lewis of Nantz and in August 1705 £16 9s. 0d for a moiety of a seizure of English money (attempted to be exported).
Whilst not strictly relevant to Customs at Cowes, in May 1705 the Collector of Excise for the Island, William Sharrett was arrested as he owed the Treasury £800 14s 0½d and committed to Newgate Prison, where he remained until at least 1712, when it was said that “he has no effects and is aged.” It is not known if he was released at that time.
In September 1705, Jonathan Filks, who was described as having been “a Landwaiter for many years and at present Comptroller of one of the warehouses for prohibited East India goods” as Surveyor of Cowes port in place of Thomas Tye who had died.
1708 saw two dismissals, in February Thomas Cole, Landwaiter, for neglect of duty and in May of that year Joseph Elmes, Tidesman (who had been appointed in 1679) for unknown reasons.
Jonathan Filks, Surveyor, was dismissed in June 1709, the reason was not stated, but in 1712 he petitioned the Treasury stating “that he had served therein faithfully for many years as well as for the Excise, Salt and Stamp Duties; that being served with a mandamus from the Queen's Bench to attend forthwith at the Devizes, where he had been a Common Council man about 30 years, and obeying same before he had leave from the Customs Commissioners he was dismissed: therefore praying to be restored”. He was re-appointed in July 1713 “at the established salary (£60) and £10 for keeping a horse” and served until his death in May 1720. His replacement in 1709 was James Benn, who was superannuated on account of poor health (although “not 40 years of age”) in 1713, but subsequently appointed Collector Shoreham as he was “now in perfect health”.
In September 1709 Walter Clarke, commander of the Greenhill yacht, is noted as receiving £78 6s 4½d “as a moiety of the sum of £156 12s 9d seized by him out of the ship Bourbon, a French man of war, at the Mother Bank, taken by two Zealand privateers, which sum of money is condemned as prize and paid into the Exchequer”.
In May 1710 Thomas Cole resigned as Collector and was replaced by his son in law, John Dale, it is stated that Cole ‘surrenders to him voluntarily without pecuniary consideration’.
In January 1712 a reward of £9 16s. 0d. was paid to Daniel Toomy, one of the Tidesmen being a moiety of a seizure of English coin from on board the ship St. George of Dantzic, Daniel Gronaw master, bound for Dantzic.
From 1715, there are few sources available, although a record of Seizures has survived. Details included are limited, showing the only the Officers involved, the goods and their value. The record for the first recorded seizure dated 25 May 1715 is:
Walter Clarke was the Captain of the Greenhill Yacht, and John Dale was the Collector, Richard Fancourt was Tide Surveyor but the position of Benjamin Newlands is not known, although he may have been Comptroller. It was not been possible to determine the role of the latter two, as the term “App.”, which appears in all seizures in the Seizure books have not been defined, although they may be the Officers who confirmed the seizure.
1716 saw the murder of Richard Young, Mate of the Greenhill Yacht, and the offer of a £50 reward, the outcome is not known. This appeared in the London Gazette of the 3 July 1716:
Whereas. Richard Young, Mate of the Greenhill Yacht, imployed in the Service of the Customs at Cowes V the lfle of Wight, was a few Days ago wilfully killed by one William Harris, who immediately fled, whoever shall discover the said William Harris, so as he may be apprehended and brought to justice, shall receive as a Reward, the Sum of Fifty Pounds, to be paid by the Receivers General and Cashiers of His Majesty's Customs. The said William Harris is about five Foot and a half high, of a swarthy Complexion, black Cured Hair, down Look, about 35 Years of Age.
1717 saw the establishment of 2 Riding Officer, posts which in the past had appeared spasmodically. John Fursman (formerly a mariner on the Greenhill yacht) covered the Ryde area and Edward Trattle, the Chine area, although the actual area this covered were not stated. Walter Clarke remained Commander of the Greenhill Yacht, no longer stated to be based at St Hellens, with his son as Mate, replacing the murdered Richard Young.
The staffing and salaries (per Quarter) at Midsummer (June) 1720 was:
In 1723 Newland Reynolds, seemingly a merchant in Newport, became Collector, having bought the position from John Dale for £500.
Also in 1723, there appears to have been a prosecution for running Wool to France, but again no further details are available.
1725 saw the appointment of another Riding Officer, Samuel Mitchell, covering from the Needles to Newtown joining John Fursman, Ryde and Thomas Wells (who had replaced Edward Trattle), Chine. Between 1725 and 1727 Walter Clarke (and his son) left the Greenhill Yacht and was replaced by John Button. His period in command was seemingly short, as he died on the 19th September 1727. The Yacht was then moved to Portsmouth.
In 1730 the Boatman’s posts at Hurst were left vacant, although they were not abolished until 1740.
In 1738 Newland Reynolds, the Collector, was dismissed for Mal practices and his Sureties were indulged (every established Officer had to put up a surety before taking up their post, something which remained in a limited degree until the early part of the 20th century), unfortunately nothing more is known about the reason for the dismissal. He was replaced as Collector by John Read, who apparently “paid 8 or 9 hundred Guineas” for the position
From 1740 until 1750, the leadership and staffing seems to have remained stable, John Read was Collector, Richard Thorold, Surveyor, Thomas Wise, Landwaiter, and William Goodwin, Tidesurveyor. The Waiter and Searcher, a Patent Office, was Benjamin Winter, Waiters/Searchers at both Yarmouth and Newport, nine Boatman/Tidewaiters, and three Riding Officers. The outstations at Bewley remained with two Boatmen.
10 December 2008