A short history of Cowes Customs

(Beta Version)

Isle of Wight Customs History

There has long been Smuggling on the Isle of Wight, in February 1395 the Rector of Freshwater, Thomas Symonde received a writ of summons on a charge of smuggling wool into France, confirmed in Wykehams Register (Journal of the Diocese of Winchester) the of that date. At that time Clergy had certain privileges in law and were entitled to be tried by an Ecclastical Court.

There is a poem (allegedly contemporary, although this is extremely doubtful) relating to this,

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"


The Cowes (and the Island) was then under the Control of the Port of Southampton and so far little has been located about this. 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. It must be bourne in mind that until about 1590 collection of Duty was farmed (that is franchised out and not directly collected by the Crown), this also occurred in the period between 1662 and 1671.


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 some, including that of Comptroller (controller of the Collectors finance) continued to exist for over 100 years.


The origin of Customs 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 possible that there was a presence on the Island from that date. It seems more likely that the original Custom Houses were actually the residence of the Customer / Collector.


The first direct reference I have found to Cowes Customs is 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.


The first named Collector found is David Horton who appears in the Customs Establishment Book for Midsummer 1675. He received the payment of £12 – 10 – 0 and had a small staff including a Surveyor, who received an allowance ‘to keep a horse and ride about ye Island’, three Waiters and Searchers, at Cowes, Newport and Yarmouth, and three Tydesmen and Boatmen. Unfortunately, he did not pass much of the duty he collected to the exchequer and was dismissed.


Treasury Papers of 1676 indicate that there had been problems with 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.’


Some interesting details are given in documentation attributed to Richard Thorold, Surveyor of Customs, dated 1747. He states that this information was obtained “By the books at Cowes Custom House and from what has passed from one person to another in the manner Traditionary” The relevant extract is reproduced in full:


“Before 1680 one Joseph Dawson was collector & 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 who in the last mentioned year was succeeded by the Collector at Portsmouth, whose name was John Pocock, he kept the office in the fore-Lore Room to the East. 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. Afterwards Thomas Cole Collector at Southampton was appointed to the Collector at Cowes, Lived there in the house where William Stephens do. The Custom house room was the chamber at the South East thereof under which was the storeroom or warehouse. Until about the year 1695 he removed and kept office at East Cowes. & in the year 1711 resigned his Collection to his son in law John Dale who in 1723 sold the same for £500 to Newlands Reynolds of Newport – he in 1738 was Dismissed for Mal-practices whose Suretys were indulged & nominated John Reed in his stead for which passes 8 or 9 hundred Guineas”


The earliest records we have specifically relating to Cowes is the Collector to Board Letter Book dated 1749 (although there is an isolated Board to Collector book dated 1703). There are a number of general references in earlier books.


The site of the Custom House in East Cowes has been established as being south of the White Hart public house, and the site is now the access road to the Red Funnel Terminal. It is not, however, clear whether this was the site to which Cole moved to or when it was built, but is stated in 1818 to be nearly 100 years old.


The lease for Customs House became due on 29 September 1789. The following appeared in the letters book on 24 October 1788:


“We observe that by a covenant in the lease, the lessors have covenanted to grant a new lease upon the rent paid now viz. Twenty-four pounds per annum for such further times as your Honors shall think proper. We beg leave to add that the present proprietor, a Mrs. Dorothy Jones, who was one of the lessors at the time of the present lease was taken in 1766 is a very old widow lady and resides in Northwood."


It was subsequently purchased by William Arnold, the then Collector and leased by him in to the Crown in 1791 for 21 years at £54 per annum. It was purchased by the Crown from his Executors in February 1807.


It is not currently possible to date the origin of the Watch House, but another part of Thorold’s document does refer to a watchouse at West Cowes, although it does not specifically mention that it was occupied by Customs, the date is not clear but could be as early as 1703.


The first specific reference to a Customs Watch House was in 1752, a letter of 7 August 1782 from Collector to Board states that the rent has been paid for the premises since October, 1756 and was given as £16 per annum. The property was described as ‘the Watch House & Tide Surveyors Office’ and the Tide Surveyor lived there from September 1769 when John Miller moved there ‘for the advantage of the service … where he can better observe all ships coming in and going out’


Both premises are mentioned in the letters book (Collector to the Board) dated 2 July 1766, which also gives some indication of location:  

“The present ensign belonging to the Watch House at this Port was provided and sent us by your Honours order of 23rd August 1745, in the room of one then worn out and the use of such an ensign is more than necessary here from the situation of the Port, as the Custom House is at East Cowes and the Watch House at West Cowes near the mouth of the Harbour, the River that runs up to Newport parts the two towns.”

On 27 October 1792 in a letter to the board it is reported that the freehold of the Watch House is being offered for sale:


“The premises referred to in your secretary’s letter of yesterdays date being advertised for sale, we think under the circumstances of your being the tenants and that the convenience of the situation of the Watch House may probably be an inducement for you to renew the lease, that purchasers would be found to give £300 for the premises or more, but we cannot recommend Yr. Honnrs. At any rate to exceed £300. The Land Tax is moderate and does not exceed 20/- per annum”


This was rejected and although offered on a number of occasions by various Landlords does not appear the freehold was purchased until 1922.


A Boat House was built at Atherfield around 1810 to house a Preventive Boat, and a Watch House was completed in 1812. This was the first of a number of similar buildings (not detailed here) which subsequently became Coast Guard Stations.


In 1814 the Collector submitted a list of premises occupied by Customs for the purposes of fire insurance:





Sum for Insurance

Custom House, East Cowes, Office above, Warehouse below.

Crown Property


Tobacco Warehouse at East Cowes, constructed with Brick and Wool. 

Crown Property


Cottages adjoining Tobacco Warehouse, Brick Construction

Crown Property


Watch House for Tide Surveyor at West Cowes. Brick and Wood Construction

A Repairing Lease for 21 years at £36 – 16 – 0 per annum


Watch House for Preventive Boat No. 19 at Atherfield Rocks Constructed of Wood and Thatch

Built by the Crown on the Estate of A Burnett Esq. on Lease for 21 years at £5 per annum



In 1833 a proposal was put forward to move the Custom House from East to West Cowes, the Collector put forward a proposal to rent a new house in Birmingham Road for £70 per annum. This was initially rejected because of its distance from the Watch House and problems with the Kings Warehouse. A petition against the move was put forward by residents of East Cowes and another supporting the move by Foreign Consuls, Merchants, Traders at West Cowes. The Board were eventually convinced and gave approval for the move on 10 May 1834.


The property at East Cowes continued to be used for storage for some time. It was to be converted into accommodation for the Chief Officer of Coastguard and seven men. It is clear that the property was in a very poor state of repair and that unapproved work had been carried out on it. This led to acrimonious correspondence between the Coastguard Chief Officer and the Collector of Customs, which eventually ended up with the Lords of the Treasury. The work was eventually approved in 1836.


In 1875 a proposal was put forward to merge the Custom House with the Watch House at 82 High Street and a Mr Ratsey offered a lease at £40 per annum. It appears that this fell through because of a delay in accepting it, which resulted in Mr Ratsey putting the property to other uses.


In 1886 the Custom House moved from Birmingham Road to share premises with the Post Office in their newly built premises next to Market Slip. It appears that during the war Custom House moved out of the Post Office and moved into the Watch House, which was renamed the Custom House. It does, however, appear that the Kings Warehouse remained in the Post Office Building. At the end of the war, on 23 November 1946 Custom House staff moved to Northwood House. The Kings Warehouse was moved from the Post Office in 1947. ‘A strong iron chest with Crown locks stored at Northwood House’ was used as a temporary replacement. Northwood House was vacated in about 1982 and all functions moved to the Watch House.


This remained the case until 2005 when Customs management decided there was no need for Customs on the Island and it was de-staffed. The building remains and is now used occasionally by visiting VAT staff.


Customs Cowes

1 April 2018