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Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Part 3 – The Beginnings of the English Customs System

We know that Customs duties have been levied in Britain from at least the 8th Century but in fact they are probably as old as civilization itself.  Though there is no written or physical evidence to support it, England must have operated the Roman system of portoria (see earlier blog ) , for the collection of taxes on imports, exports and goods in transit (tolls) as the country (especially Londinium) was an importance centre of commerce and trade for the Roman Empire.  Excavations in Lower Thames Street, London uncovered the remains of a Roman quay, sadly not finding any evidence as to the possible site of a Roman portoria or Custom House, but the Customs Service has been closely linked with the sea, ships, quays, wharfs, warehouses and, of course, goods for centuries, so who needs evidence?

The earliest written record in England of actual Customs dues charged is in a Charter dated 743, granted by Aethelbad, King of Mercia, to the Abbey of Worcester.  It allowed the Abbey the revenue from the dues collected from two ships: “Which shall be demanded by the collectors in the hithe of London Town”.   In 745 a further charter, from the King of Mercia again, granted: “the toll and tribute of one ship which formerly accrued to me by rights” to the Bishop of London. Most ancient customs in England consisted of fees, like these, paid by the merchants for the privilege of using the king's warehouses, weights and measures and the name “customs duty” supposedly came from the fact it was an inheritance of the king by immemorial usage and common law, (ie customary) and not granted through statute; this definitely changed going forward when “government” became involved in customs. It was not nationally organised at this time but ran on separate grants being issued at individual ports. (Further other definitions see blog 1)

It was in the year 979 that we find real documentary evidence of systemised import duties in England.  King Etheldred established a system at Belingsgate (Billingsgate), in the port of London, for collecting import duties on ships and merchandise.  The duty was levied at:
  •  ½d on a little ship
  • 1d on a larger ship with sails
  • A ship full of wood, one piece of wood as tax
  • Men of Rouen who shall come with wine or large fish shall give a due of 6s
  • Men from Flanders, Normandy and France shall be free of tax.

There were other duties on cloth, cheese, butter and eggs.  Even in these early days, with the various exemptions, the duties were complicated to calculate, collect and administer.

After the Norman Conquest a type of excise duty was introduced to take tax advantage of the considerable increase in the import of wine, especially from Gascony.  This duty on the new wine importers was called “prise”, collected in kind by the King’s butler  - mainly to supply the King and his Court with wine.  It didn’t take long for the “prise” to change from casks of wine to money – this fiscal tax was called “butlerage” and it survived until the early Nineteenth Century.

To see a centralized, formalised English customs system we need to move forward to the Winchester Assize of 1203-4.  The great administrator and tax enthusiast King John decreed that: “the customary dues at the ports”, ie money/ taxes due, should be accounted directly to the State Treasury, payable to the King personally and not through the local lords and sheriffs.  King John should, therefore, be given the credit for establishing a Customs service on a national scale responsible directly to the Crown.  King John’s other major administrative achievements included the establishment of the Exchequer, the reorganization of the Navy and establishing the foundations for a formal national Archives – oh, and annoying a certain hero/robber called Robin Hood.

King John’s decree at Winchester Assize established a duty of one-fifiteenth on all imports and exports (called the “quidecima”), led to the formation of a Customs Service when he employed six or seven 'wise and substantial men, well versed in the law' to account to him for the revenue, established ports where goods could lawfully be imported or exported and set up the first know Custom House in very close proximity to Billingsgate. 

The next blog will look at these first Tariff Charges and development of the English Customs Service.

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