THE KING'S CUSTOMS
CHARLLS W. PKACH, A.I,.S.
THE KING'S CUSTOMS
AN ACCOUNT OF MARITIME REVENUE,
CONTRABAND TRAFFIC, THE INTRO-
DUCTION OF FREE TRADE, AND THE
ABOLITION OF THE NAVIGATION AND
CORN LAWS, FROM 1801 TO 1855
BY HENRY ATTON & HENRY HURST HOLLAND
WITH A PREFACE BY F. S. PARRY, C.B.
DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD OF CUSTOMS AND EXCISE
JOHN MURRAY, ALBEMARLE STREET, W.
;..i / .,,
In the history of the British Customs, as perhaps in the
history of civiUzed Europe, the end of the eighteenth
century may be said to mark ' the passing away of old
things.' Our authors' first volume described a Britain
•in which the consumer was in a way at the mercy of the
producer, the labourer defenceless against the employer.
The consumer's only remedy lay in smuggling, the
labourer's in riot. Almost every article of import was
dutiable ; the income tax was unknown.
The present volume describes a period during which
it might have been truly said, ' Lo, all things are becoming
new.' The navigation and com laws disappeared, the
slave trade and slavery were extinguished, the copyright
laws were remodelled, the ancient levies of 4^ per cent.,
prisage, butlerage, and many of the old import prohibi-
tions and restrictions, were abolished. Labour organized
its forces ; indeed, the evolutionary methods of trade
unionism interwove themselves so closely with those of
free trade that their results have been often confounded.
The Colonies, with the precedent of the American Revolt
to guide them, asserted with success their fiscal indepen-
dence, the home Government meanwhile gracefully doing
its best to disprove Burke's acrid maxim that ' to tax
and to please, no more than to love and to oe wise, is not
given to man.'
Administratively speaking, the period at which this
second volume appears is scarcely less important than
that described at pp. 88-92, when the separate Customs
Boards of the three kingdoms were centralized in Thames
Street, for it is little more than a year ago that the
amalgamation of the services of Customs and Excise gave
to one Board full control of the indirect taxation of the
United Kingdom. Our authors have not hesitated to
emphasize the popular objections to Customs and Excise
duties ; still, the joint establishment may be allowed to
secure comforting assurance against any fears of imminent
dissolution, by contemplating the equally obvious objec-
tions to direct taxation.
Customs history, properly studied, may be found fruitful
of striking lessons. Possibly the most novel of these is
the vital importance of discriminating clearly between
names and things. To mention an instance that is near
to all of us : the terms ' Free Trade ' and ' Protection '
existed a century ago, but whether they meant the same
as they mean to-day is a question worth deep individual
consideration. It is as a welcome help towards closer
thinking on such matters, and not merely as a picturesque
account of old days, old commerce, old taxes, old evasions,
and the struggles of the old legislative mind, that this
work deserves the attention of the reading public, both
here and in the Colonies.
F. S. PARRY.
This treatise deals with that memorable period during
which the British Customs system was gradually moulded
into the form suggested by Adam Smith. The sources
of authority and quotation have been found in depart-
mental records — accounts of the practical working of the
revenue, navigation, slave, com, fishery, and copyright
laws, preserved in a room at the Custom House, London.
These are by no means so numerous as they might have
been, had half the care in custody which now obtains
been practised in the past. It is evident that many
documents have become dispersed or been destroyed —
documents which might have been of great use to future
historical students — students who may be more desirous
to understand their ancestors' habits and doings than to
study battles, dates, and coronations.
One tolerably good ' find ' has been made quite recently.
The * Plantation Papers,' relating to colonial Customs
matters from 1814 (the date of the burning of the Custom
House) to the termination of the British Customs Board's
control of colonial revenue, have been discovered in the
cellars of the King's Warehouse. Among these are many
documents highly illustrative of Customs and commercial
proceedings in the colonies, and we have taken the oppor-
tunity of quoting from them at considerable length.
The practice pursued in vol. i. of blending revenue
and departmental history in the first part of each chapter,
and preventive laws and smuggling incidents in the
second, has been followed in this volume. The list of
' Illustrative Documents ' has been made retrospective,
and much more extensive than the previous one, many
readers having expressed a desire in that direction.
Great care has been taken in selection and quotation,
yet the documents used have been so numerous and com-
pHcated that it is possible we may here and there have
committed slight blunders ; but we think that these, if
they exist at all, will merely take the form of unimportant
errors of detail. The labour has been arduous, and the
exigencies of duty and locality have compelled us to work
separately and confer by correspondence.
We beg to express our sincere thanks to their Honours
the Commissioners of Customs and Excise for allowing
access during unofficial hours to their recently collected
old books and manuscripts, and to the Marquis of
Londonderry for the use of his library at Wynyard Park,
also to the editors of the AthencBum, Vanity Fair, the
Annual Register, and the Times, for their kind permis-
sion to use certain material.
Preface . . . _ v
Introduction - - - - - - vii
I. Hunger and Consolidations - - - i
II. The Period of Gradual Relaxations - -135
III. Towards Free Trade .... 285
IV. Customs Literati - - - ^94
Appendix, showing Illustrative Documents - 406
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Charles James Peach - . - . Frontispiece
Sir Francis Hastings Doyle - - - To face p. 122
Revenue Cruiser 'Vigilant,' with Barge
'Alfred' in Tow - - ,, 234
Board- Room, Custom House, London- - ,, 286
Revenue Cruiser chasing Smuggler by
Night on the Kentish Coast - - „ 340
Specimen Pages from Register kept by
Humphrey Read, Deputy - Controller,
Parkgate - - - - Between pp. 406-7
Facsimile of Report of the ' John,' of
Dumfries. John Paul (' Paul Jones '),
Master (1769). . . . . To face p. 439
Page 68, line 2, for ' island ' read ' colony.'
Page 136, line 28, for ' square-rigged ' read ' fore-and-aU.
THE KING'S CUSTOMS
HUNGER AND CONSOLIDATIONS
180I — 1825
Before entering upon the purely fiscal history of the first
half of the nineteenth century, it is necessary to deal with
a matter of even greater importance. Nothing is so
momentous as the question of physical sustenance, and
at no period of English history has the question assumed
so ugly and daunting an aspect as in the year 1801. To
a certain extent this was caused by alterations in the laws
affecting the importation of corn. Be it borne in mind
that the enforcement of those venerable statutes lay with
There is much misconception at the present day as to
the structure and tendency of the old Corn Laws. Most
people think that protection of Enghsh agriculture was
a measure adopted during the first forty years of the
nineteenth century, and that the dearness of bread then
prevaihng was due to Protection only. This is a fallacy.
The supply of corn had for hundreds of years been an
important subject of consideration with English legis-
lators, and many thoughtful people believed that a
shding scale was the best method of insuring cheap bread.
2 HUNGER AND CONSOLIDATIONS
and at the same time safeguarding the interests of agri-
culture and the landed gentry. It is necessary to
examine into this. Yet, before displaying cold figures, it
must be repeated that at the beginning of the nineteenth
century the ogre of starvation was firmly installed in
Great Britain. No matter of a famine price for a month
or two, as occasionally of old, to fall as soon as the golden
bounty of a full harvest glistened in the sunlight. Cer-
tainly, for the first time in English history, there was
prospect of permanent dearness of bread.
A recapitulation of the ancient laws governing the
importation and exportation of corn is necessary. By
the Old Subsidy of 1660 the poundage value for imported
wheat was fixed at £2 a quarter when the market price of
wheat did not exceed 44s. When it exceeded that price,
the poundage value was 6s. 8d. Proportional ' regu-
lating prices ' were fixed for barley, rye, oats, etc. The
outward poundage value was £1 a quarter, irrespective of
price (see below).
Market Price not Exceeding 44s,
Poundage Value. Duty*
£ s. d. i s. d.
Wheat, imported, per quarter ,. 200 020
Market Price Exceeding 44s.
Poundage Value. Duty.
£ s. d. £ s. d.
Wheat, imported, per quarter ..068 004
Poundage Value. Duty.
Wheat, exported, per quarter £ s. d. £ s. d.
(irrespective of price) . . ..100 010
The first important alteration was effected by the Act
of 1670, ' for encouragement of Tillage.' The poundage
* The duty was 5 per cent, of the ' value.'
THE OLD CORN LAWS 3
on imported corn was abolished, and the duty made as
Market Price not Exceeding 53s. 4d.
£ s. d.
Wheat, imported, per quarter . . . . ..0160
Market Price Exceeding 53s. 4d. and not Exceeding £4.
£ s. d.
Wheat, imported, per quarter . . . . ..080
Market Price Exceeding ^4.
£ s. d.
Wheat, imported, per quarter . . . . ..004
The Corn Bounty Act of 1689 prescribed an export
bounty at the rate of 5s. a quarter whenever the price
of wheat did not exceed 48s. All export duties on corn
were abolished in 1700,
The above scale for regulating duty by prices remained
in force till 1773, but it must be understood that as each
additional Subsidy was levied on merchandise the duty
payable on wheat was increased. The net duties (fractions
rejected and discounts deducted) payable in 1770 were :
Price not Exceeding 44s. a Quarter.
£ s. d.
Wheat, imported, per quarter , . , . ,.119
Price Exceeding 445. and not Exceeding 53s. 4^.
it, imported, per quarter . , . . . . o ]
Price Exceeding 535. 4d. and not Exceeding £4.
Price Exceeding £4.
£ s. d.
Wheat, imported, per quarter .. .. .. o 8 11
Wheat, imported, per quarter . . . . ..013
During the years extending from 1696 to 1773 statistics
of EngHsh imports, exports, and prices were compiled in
the office of the Inspector-General of Imports and Ex-
4 HUNGER AND CONSOLIDATIONS
ports, Custom House, London.* Through those seventy-
eight years, according to the official returns, wheat was
rarely at what would now be deemed a high price. So
well accustomed were the lower classes to what we
should call cheap bread that during the reign of George II.
there were riots to prevent the exportation of corn from
England, and to resent the price of foodstuffs, when,
according to the statistics, the average price of wheat did
not exceed £2 a quarter. The average price of wheat
during the period from 1696 to 1764 was 33s. 3d. a
It appears that prices were mounting in 1765, so expor-
tation of corn, etc., was prohibited, and foreign corn
admitted duty-free, during a period of several years.
It is apparent that from 1696 to 1764, inclusive, low
prices had been maintained though the high scale of
duty must have been leviable. The prices were not
really high even from 1765 to 1773. The average was
It should be observed that the inefficiency of the home-
grown supply to meet the demand was contemporaneous
with the full operation of the Enclosure Acts, the efface-
ment of cottage industries, the expansion of the factory
system, and the consequent commencement of the efflux
from country to town. An element of obfuscation in-
trudes here. It may be asked : ' Were not the Enclosure
Acts supposed to have increased the acreage of arable ?
And was not the system of cultivation steadily improv-
ing ? And say you not that the import duties were re-
moved for a space ? Then how can you explain the rise
in prices ?' A straight cord runs through all the apparent
intricacies of the question. It is a homely fact that when
the peasant has a pig, a cow, and a share in common land,
he is not confined to a bread diet. When many thousands
of such peasants are seduced or driven into the cities, the
land becomes less useful, despite scientific fanning and
* Charles Davenant and Horace Walpole held the patent of
this office at various periods.
THE OLD CORN LAWS 5
enclosures of common. When the number of people who
can with ease produce their own food grows less, when the
cities become crowded, when, in addition to these cir-
cumstances, the importation of fruit, meat, and fish is
limited by primitive methods of traffic and repeated wars,
most of the poor have to fall back upon bread alone. Up
goes the price of corn. As misery increases the poor
become more prolific : it has ever been thus. The streets
are fuU of puny, squalid children ; the sweater has his
way. Up goes the price of corn.
In 1773, in order that the slow rise in price should
not proceed too far, the regulating figures were altered.
The duty then stood thus :
Price not Exceeding 44s.
£ 5. d.
Wheat, imported, per quarter . . . . ..119
Price Exceeding 44s. and not Exceeding 485.
£ s. d.
Wheat, imported, per quarter .. .. .. o 16 11
Price Exceeding 48s.
£ 5. d.
Wheat, imported, per quarter . . . . ..006
But this had no effect. The unfavourable conditions
were being slowly intensified. Factories were rising in
localities hitherto immune, the urban population was
increasing at an ominous rate. Busy people still strove
to stave off the evil day when it should depend upon
foreign supplies as to whether the poor should starve or
be filled. Much waste land was reclaimed in the mari-
time counties, and in the sylvan parts of England the axe
resounded in the woodlands. The rise, though resistless,
was gradual. The average price for the twenty years
succeeding 1773 was about 44s. a quarter — greatly in
excess of 33s. 3d. ; still, not intolerable.
It will now be seen that for nearly one hundred years the
average price of wheat in England was so low that the high
duty on foreign corn must have been leviable during most
6 HUNGER AND CONSOLIDATIONS
of the period.* We are confronted with the spectacle of
a plenteous supply of cheap bread while a bounty was
paid on the exportation of home-grown corn and a high
duty levied on foreign.
The ' imposts on proceeds,' and the alterations under
the Consolidation Act, left the duties immediately after
1787 as follow :
Price Under 48s.
i s. d.
Wheat, imported, per quarter . . . . ,.143
Price At or Above 48s.
I s. d.
Wheat, imported, per quarter . . . . ..006
In 1791 the duties stood thus :
Price Under 505.
Wheat, imported, per quarter
Price 50s. or Under 54s.
Wheat, imported, per quarter
Price 54s. or Above.
Wheat, imported, per quarter
Soon it became apparent that no sliding scale could pre-
vent dearness, and that the scale last adopted had worked
as a factor in raising prices. The imposts of 1796 and
1797 increased the corn duties. In 1800 they stood
Low Duty. Lou Duty.
£ s. d. £ ■ d.
029 00 6^g
During the concluding years of the century, despite the
danger to commerce by the widespread European wars,
the importation of corn into Great Britain had increased
* Not at every port, for the prices occasionally varied much
in different counties ; but it is evident that, with such low average
prices, corn could rarely have been dear, even in the districts
DEAR BREAD 7
rapidly. Still the price had kept on climbing, climbing.
From 1696 to 1773 the exports of corn had always ex-
ceeded the imports ; the import duties had been high, and
the prices extremely low. From 1774 to 1794 the im-
ports slightly exceeded the exports ; the import duties
were higher than of yore : the prices had increased, yet
were reasonable. During the last few years of the
century the imports greatly exceeded the exports, the
duties mounted, the prices gradually became tremendous.
It is therefore clear that dearness of bread is not always a
direct result of high corn duties. One may find it neces-
sary^ to burn all the time-honoured reference-books ere
a correct conclusion on this matter may be achieved.
When economics fail to enlighten, a judicious blend oi
ethics and common sense may avail. It would seem to
be inevitable that, when the poor are driven from the
land, the poor will in the end have to bear the suffering
entailed by deprivation.
One undeniable cause of high corn prices must not be
overlooked. The old restraints upon engrossing had been
swept away in 1791. Their abolition was due to the
teachings of that incorrigible doctrinaire, Adam Smith.
For forty years subsequent to 1791 the engrossing of corn
became a popular branch of speculation.* Rents greM
higher as prices went up ; even in counties remote a3
Wilts and Somerset the rent of an ordinary farm rose
from 15s. per acre to £3. It was as though a great curse
had fallen upon the home territories. The manly sports
and exercises, for which rural England in particular had
long been famous, began to fall into disuse. The physique
of the agricultural labourers deteriorated ; child labour
and adult slavery were fast removing even the signs of
humanity from the toilers of the great industrial towns.
There is no part of English history so terrible as that of
the years from 1790 to 1830.
Below is a return of the average prices of wheat in
* When corn was at its highest, the ports were often crowded
with corn-laden ships, discharge being ^purposely delayed.
8 HUNGER AND CONSOLIDATIONS
England from 1792 to 1800, and of the quantities im-
ported and exported.
. 51 8
• 5i I
• 50 3
• 113 7
Below is an account of the average prices of wheat at
Dublin market (per barrel of 280 pounds = |^ of an English
Prices in Irish Currency.
1792 . .
.. 23 4
1793 • •
. . 28
1794 • •
.. 32 4
1795 • •
.. 38 I
1796 . .
.. 37 II
Thus the average price of a quarter of wheat in England
during the nine years quoted may be stated roughly as
a little over 64s., and the average price per English
quarter of wheat in Ireland may be expressed as a little
over 58s. in English currency. The British shortage
raised prices in Ireland. Great Britain became compelled
to buy oversea : Ireland, especially in time of war, was
the market most convenient to buy in. Ireland had to
sell. In England the price of com usually regulated
rents ; in Ireland the middleman had fostered sub-
letting, especially in the southern counties.* (The
* Extract from evidence given before a Commission of Inquiry
held early in the nineteenth century : ' The noblemen and gentle-
men in the south of Ireland, in a greater degree than those in
the north, let their lands to a class of people called middlemen.
These in some instances keep large tracts in their own hands, in
other instances they underlet tracts of considerable extent to
i8oo] DEPARTMENTAL CONDITIONS 9
cotters in Ireland, be it remembered, had no such privi-
leges as the cottagers and commoners of England, prior
to the Enclosure Acts, had enjoyed.)
Readers of our first volume may remember that the
concluding portion contained a short review of the con-
dition of the British Customs towards the end of the
eighteenth century, and a brief history of Irish revenue.
As the fiscal contingencies of the Union of Great Britain
and Ireland now present themselves for enumeration, we
cannot do better than preface the account with another
review of the condition of both the British and Irish
To commence with England. In spite of the Act of
1798, there remained an imposing list of Customs sine-
cures, the total yearly emoluments amounting to about
£25,000. The Customs revenue had increased con-
siderably, partly through the duties being higher, partly
through the growth of commerce.
The Scottish contributions to the revenue of Great
Britain were still unimportant. The proportions of the
Customs returns (gross) in the two countries may be stated
as about 20 in England to i in Scotland. The Scottish
list was packed with sinecurists and pensioners. Among
the latter were no fewer than four Cockburns and eleven
The Irish revenue business was carried on in a very
slack way ; the British method, bad as it was, appears
in comparison exactness itself. Whenever Commis-
other tenants under them. And sometimes that second class of
tenants underlet again to others, till at last the property comes
to be divided into lots of an acre or half an acre, and sometimes
still less than that.'
Here was a numerous class of small holders, deprived by the
middleman system of everything that tends to make division of
land beneficial. (The witness was no local agitator, but a Scots-
man acting as steward and valuer in Ireland.)
10 HUNGER AND CONSOLIDATIONS [1800
sioners of Inquiry were sent across channel to overhaul
matters, most amazing anomalies were recorded. Huge
defalcations were dragged into publicity, and the system
of accounts shown to be especially blamable. The old
Revenue Board had been rearranged towards the close
of the eighteenth century, the number of Commissioners
being reduced to nine — four sitting for Customs, two for
Excise, and the other three as Commissioners of both
Customs and Excise. The scope of the work to be per-
formed by each set was not exactly definable ; indeed, so
jumbled was the control that certain Commissioners of
an Inquiry held soon after the Union declared themselves
unable to state which set was responsible for any par-
ticular branch of the duties.
Fees were charged at an exorbitant rate — as means
towards official emolument — and many of these were un-
sanctioned except ' by usage.' The scale had been fixed
by statute shortly after the Restoration, but it had been
increased in 1695, and the increase sanctioned by the
Irish Parliament. Soon the scale came to be altered ' by
usage,' and always in the direction of increase. At the
end of the eighteenth century there were no two Irish ports
at which similar fees were charged. If a merchant com-
plained to the Board, the latter directed the officer con-
cerned to comply with the 1695 scale, but took no steps
to enforce compliance unless the merchant complained
again and again.*
* The following letter, sent by the collector of Dundalk in
answer to a query as to his emoluments, illustrates the vagarious-
ness of the Irish system of fees :
I am under the necessity of informing you that I am utterly
ignorant of the nature or amount of tlie fees of the patentee
officers, and no trace of them ' (no trace of an authorized scale)
' can be discovered in this office, nor any clue which can enable
me to comply with the order in question. The employments of
the patentee officers have degenerated into sinecures from time
immemorial, and, my predecessor having constantly contracted
to receive the fees of those officers for a much longer period than
I can possibly learn the date of, the patentees' fees have become
blended with those of the collector, and from ancient usage no
separate charge is ever made. I found things in this state on
being appointed, and made no alteration, except having the