Customs Service


By the time of Federation, Custom Houses (soon to be known as Customs Houses) were a prominent and important element of the colonies’ social and business life. They had often begun life as tents or makeshift huts, but they were very imposing and prestigious buildings indeed when transferred to the Commonwealth in 1901. Even the most modest ones on state boundaries ranked highly among the better buildings of the border towns. For centuries, custom collection was a major source of revenue for monarchs, and in the Australian colonies the custom houses reflected this importance to government administration. What was the origin of these grand buildings, now the property of the Commonwealth of Australia?

Dilemma of Dues

The collection of customs had developed in Britain over a period of 1,000 years as a means of regulating trade and preventing smuggling. ‘Customary Dues’ were collected on the King’s behalf by approved individuals, but after 1671 a Customs Commission undertook the task. For the right to import their goods and receive the protection of the state, merchants paid dues which were used to finance the monarchy. In 1643 the British parliament imposed a tax known as excise on beer and ale. Custom and excise duties came to play a vital role in the development of the colonies, providing revenue for public works and the business of government.

At the time of the establishment of the convict settlement at Sydney Cove, the British government reserved the right to establish customs duties in its colonies, and so no authorisation was given to the early New South Wales governors to do so. All expenses of the colony were met initially by the British Treasury, but a chain of circumstances contributed to the governors taking matters into their own hands. For the first three years the governor, military guards and convicts felt very much deserted and isolated; they were at the mercy of unpredictable ships sailing from Britain to bring supplies. The settlement remained desperately short of food until agriculture could become productive. Fortunately the colony was in a strategic position in relation to shipping routes, and it was not long before ships plying between India, America, the Dutch East Indies and even China were calling in at the settlement at Sydney. Food supplies from American ships saved the colony, even though the trade was illegal under the terms of the East India Company’s monopoly, and, once the emergency was over, Governor Phillip was prepared to levy dues to regulate the visits.

Problems associated with the importation of spirits began with the arrival of the ten ships of the Third Fleet in 1791. The colonists were saved from the brink of starvation but were set to wallow in rum and, even at this early stage, Phillip suggested a duty to control the trade. Whaling and seal hunting proved to be very profitable; oil not only filled the holds of the British ships on their return journeys, but attracted foreign ships as well. It was not long before a shipbuilding enterprise developed to take advantage of the potential profits. Phillip could see the need for fishing licences to prevent every carpenter and seaman from leaving the colony.

So governors from Phillip to Bligh saw opportunities to make money from the control of trade while regulating it to the advantage of the colony; but unfortunately the military officers also saw opportunities for a quick profit from the distribution of incoming goods and used their positions to their own advantage. Within a decade private citizens such as merchant Robert Campbell, and pastoralist, and ex-officer John Macarthur, became wealthy and influential enough to make the task of the governors difficult.

Following his arrival in 1800 to replace Governor Hunter, Governor King imposed harbour dues to be paid by all ships entering port, and charged a fee for permission to trade. The Naval Office was established to administer these arrangements. It had no connection with the navy; the function of the Naval Officer was similar to that of a Harbour Master. The office assessed the value of goods so that a proportional customs charge could be made on their importation. So that the British government would not object, the proceeds were devoted to the building of a gaol and an orphanage. As the settlement expanded, boat building increased to meet the growth of coastal shipping and the movement of goods by river, particularly coal and timber down the Hunter River and wheat down the Hawkesbury. King required that all boats be registered and pay a fee for permission to sail on coastal or inland waters.

The trade in rum, both imported and locally brewed, challenged the control of the governors, especially Governor Bligh, who was ignominiously removed from office by the officers of the New South Wales Corps in the famous Rum Rebellion. When Governor Macquarie arrived in 1810, he was authorised to impose a high rate of duty on the import of spirits which were to be unrestricted. He was anxious to set up a separate Customs Office but this was not approved by Britain and so the Naval Office continued to control any duties.

Establishing the Customs Presence

It was not until 1826 that the British government agreed to the appointment of a Customs officer, and Governor Darling was instructed to build a Custom House. In 1827 two government vessels were built to help enforce customs regulations and control smuggling. These measures were a great success, raising 8,000 pounds in the first 40 days of operation. Customs officers were appointed to Newcastle, Hobart and Launceston in 1830.

In Van Diemen’s Land government revenue in the early years depended almost entirely on duties imposed on spirits and tobacco. From 1823 to 1835, customs revenue rose from 17,000 pounds to 90,000 pounds. In 1857 duties were increased on tea, sugar, wines, spirits, and tobacco. The colony continued to impose substantial duties on imported goods, including food, which contributed to an increase in the cost of living.

There was no official Customs officer in the years immediately following the settlement on the Swan River in 1827, but Governor Stirling lost little time in imposing a duty on imported spirits. Western Australia differed from the other colonies in that the Customs Board in London had no control over the collection of customs; its powers were limited to advising, and ensuring that the legislation was compatible with British law. Customs affairs were managed by the governor, but in regional areas his representatives, the Government Residents were responsible.

When the proposed settlement in South Australia was being planned, Captain Thomas Lipson was appointed as Naval Officer and Harbour Master, and in 1837 his duties were extended to include the collection of customs. Duties were imposed on wine, spirits and tobacco in 1838, and export duties were charged on grains in 1839. When Port Adelaide was established in 1840, a Custom House and residence were built there.

When Captain Lonsdale took up office as Police Magistrate in the Port Phillip District in 1836, he arrived with two customs officers. The three main centres of settlement were Portland, Geelong and Melbourne. Melbourne, on the River Yarra, was chosen as the main customs centre. Although most of the ships anchored in Hobsons Bay, the customs tent was erected on the banks of the Yarra, with the government boat used to make the necessary trips between the two sites. In 1840 a customs officer was appointed to Portland and in 1847 it became a free warehousing port. Geelong, where a Custom House was built in 1845, followed Portland as a free warehousing port in 1848.

In the Moreton Bay area, initially a convict settlement of New South Wales, it was the responsibility of the magistrate to check ships’ papers and seize smuggled goods. In 1842 the convicts were removed and free settlement encouraged. By 1846 the value of exports was estimated at 60,000 pounds and a sub-collector was appointed to Brisbane. The service was extended to Rockhampton in 1858 (in response to the gold rush), Maryborough in 1859, and Gladstone and Port Dennison (Bowen), by 1860.

Customs Officers

The most senior officer in the customs service was the Collector, who was seen as a very respected and influential member of society, and was very often a member of the legislative body. The service relied on honest, trustworthy citizens, but in the early days of New South Wales, their numbers were limited and some Collectors resorted to employing convicts as clerks and boatmen. Officers of the service were often overworked and subjected to internal and external criticism, many grappling with the temptation of opportunities for personal gain at odds with their official responsibilities. Senior positions were filled on recommendations from Britain and officers were required to be of British descent. Rank and file employees were supplemented by casual employees, who were supplied with meals and lodgings by ships’ captains. Staff of a well established customs service included a Sub-Collector, clerks, and officers with quaint names such as Landing Waiter and Tide Waiter. The Landing Waiter worked on the wharf, checking the goods unloaded from the ships, while the Tide Waiter anticipated the arrival or departure of ships on the tide. The Tide Waiter boarded incoming ships with the pilot and health officer for the purpose of checking the cargo, and made note of the provisions which were to be reserved for the crew. He supervised the ships in port and enforced regulations, keeping a keen eye on potential smuggling. Equipment used by the service included scales and weights, hydrometers and tubes for testing the strength of spirits.

The initial customs presence in newly developing areas was often one man acting as Sub-Collector, visited intermittently by his senior officer. His duties were sometimes combined with others such as post master and clerk of petty sessions and he had to make do with dilapidated accommodation and few resources. When James Gordon was appointed to Townsville in Queensland in 1865, he acted as police magistrate and took Presbyterian church services in the court house. In 1886 the number of ships berthing in the port exceeded 1,000, revenue amounted to 136,940 pounds and the population had doubled since 1881. Despite this, the customs officials were confined to a primitive structure which had come from Thursday Island and was declared a fire hazard in 1888. To make matters worse, it doubled as the post office.

Bond Stores

In the early days, the intermittent arrival of ships and the need to ration the sale of goods necessitated the provision of suitable storage. Commissariat stores were built to house government goods and, in 1830, the government approved other warehouses to operate under customs supervision. Known as bonded warehouses, they played an important role, allowing for the unloading of ships which were then free to leave the port, while their cargo remained stored in the warehouse. Customs duties were payable later when the goods were removed. Ports with these facilities were declared by the British sovereign to be free warehousing ports; this status not only brought prestige but also attracted trade at the expense of other ports. Geelong, for example, was placed at a disadvantage when its neighbour, Melbourne, was chosen as the customs headquarters for the Port Phillip District. All shipping had to be cleared and goods assessed in Melbourne before they could continue to their destination, so Geelong lost the prosperity generated by direct trade.

Customs Revenue

It is difficult to appreciate that, in the early days of British settlement in Australia, revenue from customs duties was the main source of regular income for the governors. Gradually dependence on duties was reduced as sales of Crown Lands increased and mineral finds generated wealth. It is significant that, at the same time as responsible government was granted to the colonies in the 1850s, the control of the customs services passed from the Customs Board in Britain to the individual colonies. All revenue was then handled by the responsible government department in each colony. Anthony Trollope gave an account of the relative importance of customs revenue in his reference to South Australia:

Few countries can, I think, show a more favourable account of their public financial matters than that exhibited by South Australia. Customs duties are the only taxation to which her people are subject, and the amount paid by them in that shape averages no more than 25s. a head. On the 31st December, 1871, the population was 189,018, and the duties levied in 1871 had amounted to 234,980 pounds. The total revenue in that year had been 785, 489 pounds and the total expenditure 759,339 pounds. 1

Range of Services

Collection of customs and excise duties and enforcement of port regulations were the main duties of customs officers. Initially the control of imported spirits was of prime importance. Equally as important were the licensing of local distilleries and prosecution of illegal production. Excise duties were charged on exports of beer and spirits as well as tobacco products and sugar. Over the years, customs officers have taken responsibility for many other services. From 1860 to 1908 Victorian customs officers were responsible for enforcing the government regulations on growing and trafficking in opium. In Western Australia customs officers regulated the pearling industry, checking the size of shells and enforcing safety requirements for the Aboriginal and Japanese divers. In the 1880s Macassans from the islands to the north, who had been fishing off the coast of the Northern Territory long before white settlement, were charged customs duties on their supplies of rice and spirits, and were required to obtain a licence to fish.

The enforcement of immigration regulations was a major Customs responsibility, becoming urgent in the 1850s when the gold rushes attracted thousands of immigrants, often on overcrowded boats. The Chinese were singled out as the worst offenders and were subjected to a ten pound poll tax to discourage their arrival. Victoria was the first colony to legislate against them in 1855, not only imposing a poll tax, but also restricting the numbers who could arrive on each boat to one Chinese passenger for every ten tons of the weight of the boat. As a result, the Chinese entered through small ports such as Robe in South Australia where the regulations were not in force. However, they were welcomed in the Northern Territory where in 1888 they outnumbered Europeans by four to one, and in Western Australia where customs officials actively encouraged foreign labour until the 1890s. In Queensland officers supervised the entry of Pacific Islanders who were brought in as indentured labourers for 40 years, beginning in 1863. Although many colonists wanted to restrict immigration to people of European descent or citizenship, and the rationale for the ‘White Australia Policy’ was developing, it was by no means common to all the colonies. It was not until Federation that a uniform immigration policy could be applied.

In addition to checking immigrants, the customs officers were responsible for inspecting imported foodstuffs to ensure their suitability for human consumption. They were also the quarantine officers, and ensured that no people or animals who posed a health risk were allowed entry until they had been declared free of disease.

Customs on Colonial Borders

Intercolonial trade was becoming a major concern for customs officers and it gave rise to the building of numerous Custom Houses along the colonial borders. As early as 1846, Van Diemen’s Land had imposed an import duty of 15 per cent on all goods entering the colony whether from overseas or other colonies. When responsible government was granted, the British authorities were aware of the difficulties which could arise from lack of co-operation when the independent colonies drew up their own constitutions. As early as 1848, Earl Grey, the Secretary for War and Colonies, wrote to the Governor of New South Wales concerning potential problems associated with the improved communications and easier movement of goods between South Australia, the Port Phillip District, and other areas of New south Wales:

If therefore these three portions of the mainland of Australia should be placed under distinct and altogether independent Legislatures, each exerting absolute authority as to the imposition of duties on goods imported, the almost inevitable result will be that such differences will grow up between the Tariffs of the several Colonies as will render it necessary to establish lines of internal Custom houses on the frontiers of each. The extreme inconvenience and loss, which each community would sustain from such measures, needs no explanation;...2

Problems arose from differences in policies on free trade versus protection against cheap imported goods. Victoria needed to protect its infant manufacturing industries and imposed tariffs, but New South Wales adopted a liberal attitude. It was therefore necessary for Victoria to impose duties on goods crossing over the border from New South Wales. The geographical location of the border on the Murray River, which flowed out through South Australia, compounded the problem for river boats which had to cope with three different customs policies: a degree of co-operation was reached when it was agreed that South Australia would collect the customs at Goolwa near the mouth of the river and distribute them to New South Wales and Victoria. The other geographical anomaly was the proximity of the Riverina district of New South Wales to the markets of Melbourne, to which access was restricted by border customs policies. Customs activity was by no means confined to the borders of the south east colonies; all governments realised the potential income available for gathering at the borders. On his visit in the early 1870s, Anthony Trollope wryly remarked:

It strikes an Englishman with surprise that he should meet all the paraphernalia of custom-houses in going from one colony to another. One’s shirts and socks are subject to be searched on entering Sydney Harbour from Brisbane, as undoubtedly as when taken into Prussia from Belgium. And I observed that the shirts and socks of some men were searched by custom-house officers on occasions. Personally I encountered no difficulty. I was asked some questions and allowed to pass without even a reference to my keys. As I have almost always been allowed to do so on the Continent, and even at New York, I presume that I have no trace of smuggling ingenuity in my countenance. 3


It is not surprising that customs was one of the major functions handed over to the Commonwealth on Federation. In 1901 the Commonwealth Department of Trade and Customs was established under the direction of Dr. H.N.P. Wollaston, formerly head of the Victorian Customs department. The new department enforced a policy of free trade between the colonies but imposed protective tariffs on many imported goods. Responsibility for immigration and quarantine were subsequently undertaken by other Commonwealth departments, although customs officers continued to co-operate in the course of their duties. The transfer of Customs collection to the Commonwealth deprived the states of a lucrative source of income The Tasmanian Cyclopedia of 1931 commented:

In 1901 the main source of the State’s revenue, that of Customs duties was under Federation yielded up to the Commonwealth, together with that of the Post and Telegraph Department. The loss of the Customs duties, which was one of the State’s most substantial sources of revenue, and disabilities due to Federation have placed the State finance in a difficult position. The field of direct taxation for the State Treasurer is limited, due to the entry therein of the Commonwealth. 4

The development of the taxation system and arrangements for states’ incomes are outside the scope of this book, but we need to be reminded that Customs duties made a major contribution to government revenue.

In October 1901, the Commonwealth Customs and Excise Acts were passed. Excise duties were imposed on beer, spirits, starch, sugar, snuff and tobacco products; at that time there was no indication of the prosperous wine industry which would prove so lucrative for the government. The new department established procedures for business and trade such as application of tariffs, and negotiations with foreign countries; but the Collectors in the State Offices retained control of day to day administration such as entry and clearance of ships and movement of goods. Until the development of air travel and electronic communication the states operated with a high degree of autonomy. They continued the long traditions of British trade practices; for example value for duty on imported goods was expressed in pounds stirling until 1947, despite its difference in value from the Australian pound. In 1956 the department was restructured with the new Department of Customs and Excise having no control over treaties or tariff decisions.

Today the duties of the department have extended to coastal surveillance for illegal drug trafficking, immigration and fishing. The control of goods coming in and going out through ports and airports is a major task, and until 1972 the department policed censored literature. The department is no longer the major income producer that it was in the past, and often administers decisions made by other departments. Today most Australians think of Customs in terms of the queues at airports where bags are inspected for illegal imports. As we stand there shuffling from one foot to the other, maybe we could spend the time reflecting on the historical importance of this service to the development of our nation.


1 Simpson, D.H., (ed.), Australia and New Zealand by Anthony Trollope, The Colonial History Series, 2nd edn, Dawsons of Pall Mall, London, 1968, first published London, 1873, vol. 2, p. 249.

2 Grey to Fitzroy, 31 July 1848, HRA, 1, XXV1, pp. 531-2. Quoted Donald Laidlaw, Discovering Australian History to 1900, Edward Arnold (Australia), 1990, p. 363.

3 Simpson, D.H., (ed.), Australia and New Zealand by Anthony Trollope, The Colonial History Series, 2nd edn, Dawsons of Pall Mall, London, 1968, first published London, 1873, vol. 2, p. 195.

4 Tasmanian Cyclopedia, The Service Publishing Co., Hobart, 1931, p. 32.


Day, David, Smugglers and Sailors, The Customs History of Australia, 1788-1900, Commonwealth of Australia, 1992, Australian Government Printing Office.

Hawke, Lindsay, ‘The Growth of Central Control’, Australian Customs History Journal, No 2 June 1990.

Laidlaw, Ronald, Discovering Australian History to 1900, Edward Arnold (Australia), 1990.

La Nauze, J.A., ‘The Collection of Customs in Australia. A Note on Administration’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 4, November 1949 - May 1951, Melbourne University Press, Krauss Reprint, 1969. Roberts, Clayton, ‘Excise and Australia’, Australian Customs History Journal, No 4 August 1992.

Shirley, Bronwyn, ‘Customs Versus Lady Catterley’, Australian Customs History Journal, no. 3, September, 1991.

Simpson, D.H., (ed.), Australia and New Zealand by Anthony Trollope, vol. 2, The Colonial History Series, 2nd edn., Dawsons of Pall Mall, London, 1968. First printed, 1873.

Tasmanian Cyclopedia, The Service Publishing Co, Hobart, 1931.