Cowes & Isle of Wight Customs History

The once proud Customs Service is now nothing more that a shell of what it previously was, there are now no staff employed on the Island. The Watch House, a Customs office since the early 18th Century, has been sold to the RNLI.

I have worked on and off for 25 years as a Customs Officer at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.  Whilst I was a Cowes I had the opportunity to extract details from some of the historic records which were held at the Cowes office, fortunately some of these have now been returned to the Island and are held by the Isle of Wight Records Office, and it is hoped that others will be transferred to the National Archives.  I am now also transcribing extracts from records (mainly Letters Books) held at the National Archives and Isle of Wight Records Office, but this will be a long job. I am also attempting to compile a list of officers who have served on the Isle of Wight, which also includes Excise Officers, although most of these records do not appear to have survived, and Coast Guard Officers until about 1830. I have recently added a list of Prosecutions from 1751 to 1860.

Most records post 1925 have not yet been released as the result of privacy considerations, so I only have very limited information about staffing after that date.

Unfortunately I have not been able to spend a great deal of time on this site in recent year, but am currently in the process of checking links and generally updating it.

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A short history of Cowes Customs.

The history of Cowes Customs until 1750


Cowes in the News Newspaper Extracts about Customs at Cowes, also includes some Excise and Coastguard.

1800 - 1819

1820 onwards


From Cowes Record Books - This includes transcriptions of extracts from Collector to Board Letters Books, now held in the National Archives, which give insights into the way Cowes Customs operated.

Letters Books, Collector to Board 

Customs Prosecution 1751 - 1839  


Customs Staff

An Alphabetical List of Officers who have served on the Isle of Wight

Customs and Excise Staff 1790

Preventive Waterguard/Coast Guard 1816 - 1832 - transcription from the records at the National Archives

Customs Staff 1821 - 1830  -  transcription from the Oaths of Admission book held at the National Archives.

Cowes staff 1839 - 1922  - transcription from the Ages and conditions book held at the National Archives.

Serving from 1885 to 1898 - extracts from record books

Serving between 1892 and 1912 - extracts from record books


Other Information

The wreck of the Varvassi off the Needles, 1947 including Customs reports.

A Note of sort of people suitable for positions in Cowes Customs service. - 1811

Customs Gallery - a limited range of pictures of Customs Officers and property on the Island.

Do you want to be a Tidewaiter? Take the examination to become a Tidewaiter from the Guide to the Civil Service Examinations, 1856

Salt Survey 1749 - of the English salt officers, Wight Isle collection, by the Excise Surveyor General, 1749

Tales of Island Smugglers - From the Isle of Wight County Press 1927 New


Customs Cowes Papers - An occasional series of papers about more specific areas of work / Customs Officers

Robert Willis, Boatman Yarmouth 1785 - 1823

Richard Chiverton Coastwaiter Ryde 1804 - 1816

From the Charge Book

This book detailed investigations into alleged misdemeanours by Customs Officers at Cowes. 

The tale of the six Cocoa Nuts

John Fowell - Three strikes and you're out

William Meades - Intoxicated three times

Benjamin Brown - Coal Meter intoxicated three times


Gravestone of smuggler in Binstead churchyard


This picture shows the gravestone of Thomas Sivell in Binstead churchyard. The inscription reads:

To the memory of THOs SIVELL who was cruely fhot on board his floop by fome officers of customs of the Port of Portfmouth on the 15th June 1785 at the age of 64 years leaving a difconfolate widow & family.

All you that pafs pray look and fee

How foon my life was took from me

By those officers as you hear

They fpilled my Blood that was fo dear

But God is Good and juft and true

And will reward each to their due

Note: At this time an 'f' was often used in place of an 's' in the English language


This is not the only case of an allegedly innocent person being killed by Customs.

In St. Helens churchyard there is a gravestone which reads:

Sacred to the memory of Richard Matthews who died 5th December 1816.

All ye who pass by, pray look and see

How soon my life was ta'en from me

By the cruel officer, who as you'll hear

Split by blood, which was so dear:

But God is good and just and true,

And will reward each to his due:

And, when you come my grave to see

Prepare yourself to follow me

(The officer involved drowned shortly after after falling overboard from a cutter)

 Contact me


Note: These pages are my transcriptions of original documents, they are accurate to the best of my ability but I do not take any responsibility for errors. This page predominantly contains Customs records, but have included Excise records where available. Unfortunately these do not appear to have been preserved in the same way as Customs records. 

Vic Street

Page dedicated to Vic Street and Roy Griffiths, both late Officers, Cowes Customs

Roy Griffiths
1 April 2018