Exeter Custom House
- About this route
The Custom House, a nationally important Grade I listed building is located at Exeter Quayside where thousands of tourists flock every year. It was built in 1680 by Richard Allen and along with other Georgian buildings at the Quay such as the Wharfinger’s house and office, the Quay House and warehouses, contributes to the history of Exeter’s rich and exotic past and reflects the success of trade in Exeter during the Georgian and Victorian eras.
The Custom House is possibly the earliest surviving brick building in Exeter and the earliest purpose-built Custom House in England. It was built to cope with the expansion of Exeter’s port facilities on the back of the rapid growth of the wool trade after the English Civil War (1642-1649). Woollen cloth was exported to places such as Bordeaux and the Canaries and wine and other goods were imported on return.
The building stands proud. With its Renaissance-inspired façade and centralised double-depth plan it is the epitome of the 17th century building style that had arrived in Devon. For its time and use as a civil building it was opulent, no expense was spared in employing the best craftsmen. For example, John Abbot II, a plasterworker from Frithelstock was among some of the employees to work on the Custom House. Abbot was at least a third generation plasterworker, so the family name would have been well known for providing quality pieces such as the finely embellished plaster ceilings he created in the Custom House. The Custom House would have conveyed to merchants that Exeter was a prosperous city and that it considered its import duty serious business.
The Custom House thrived. Its far-reaching jurisdiction to Teignmouth through to the east of the River Axe at the Devon and Dorset boundary ensured Exeter lined its coffers with merchant dues. Coal from South Wales and Sunderland also passed through Exeter as well as the usual goods such as wine, spirits, tobacco and tea. Between 1758 and 1784 the tonnage of coal increased from 4,266 to 17,143. Catching smugglers as well as administrative duties was also included in the job description.
Much of the original splendour is still present including the sump, with its semi barrel vault, thought to be used for the disposal of contraband wine. The ornate plaster ceilings also survive with The Long Room frieze of leaves, flowers, exotic fruits, serpents, scrolled masks and cartouches being the finest.
The cannon that front the building, thought to have been used in the Battle of Waterloo, are two of a batch of English cannon that were sold to Russia in 1789. After Napoleon was defeated the cannons became obsolete and were returned to England. Fifteen were taken to Exeter Quay in 1819 and four were to be placed on the Wellington Memorial in Somerset. When it was discovered that the cannon had not been used at Waterloo they were no longer wanted for the memorial. Several years later Exeter City tried to sell them to pay for the storage costs but were never sold. Four of the cannons were eventually used as bollards at the Quay and the rest buried. The cannon were excavated in the early 1900s, four were taken to Wellington Memorial but during WWII they were melted for scrap leaving only the Exeter cannon remaining and now stand prominently in front of the Custom House.
H.M Customs and Excise used the building until 1989. Since then, it has been used by Exeter City’s Archaeological Unit, traded as a clothes shop and is now in the hands of the Exeter Canal and Quay Trust. The Trust promotes businesses located on the Quayside and Canal Basin as well as cultural events and festivals. It displays a wealth of information about Exeter and the Quayside including an audio-visual presentation about the history of Exeter.
- Getting Around
By car: The nearest major road is the M5. Along Topsham road towards city centre, at Southgate turn left along inner bypass, take first left and park at Quay and Cathedral car park. A short walk from this car park will take you to the Quayside.
By bus: A regular bus service runs from the city centre to the Historic Quayside.
- Exeter Quayside offers restaurants, bars, antique and gift shops and indoor and outdoor activities.