London’s Landscape: The Custom House

May 31, 2011 at 8:47 pm (london's landscape, places, travel) (, , , , , , , )

How fortuitous! Only last week was I trying to find some information about a certain “Mr Hames” who may be a “Mr Haines” of the Custom House, and today I find this wonder 1816 image of the riverside facade!

Let me fill you in on the dilemma…

When you travel to transcribe you also leave with nothing to compare your transcription to should a question arise. This happened when, in two letters, I encountered the abovementioned Mr H.

In spring 1823 the younger children, Charlotte and Maria, were writing to this mother and siblings who had ventured to the Continent and stayed the winter in order to see Rome! An inquiry must have turned up, for young Charlotte (born in 1810) is responding when she says, “We heard from Mr Haines [note!] that you had written to him to know if you might send some dresses to England, he says they must seem as if they had been worn.”

Emma later writes to Aunt, “Mamma begs you to be so kind as to offer to pay Mr Hames [note!!] (of the Custom House) for the money he has paid for our things….”

So… was it ME and I mis-read either Charlotte or Emma’s handwriting? Did Charlotte not know how the man spelled his name, but Emma did? Without heading back to Essex and Hampshire, I’ll not know.

Though I’m hopeful of ID’ing him through newspapers of the period.

Anyway: the building itself is much easier to discuss than some cog-in-the-wheel worker who paid for some trunks of clothing from Italy in 1823!

This picture is found in The Repository of Arts, July 1816 (see the issues found online). Some interesting tidbits accompanies it:

  • “The Custom-House erected at the commencement of Queen Elizabeth’s reign … destroyed by the great conflagration in 1666”
  • the new building, together with 120 houses, also burned down – in 1715; 50 persons died.
  • the next successor also burned – in 1814.

While this building (before it burned) was deemed “inadequate to the vast increase of commercial business”, the Board of Customs “abandoned the idea of making additions to the old building”. “[P]lans were prepared for a building on a magnificent scale, and of a very classic design, the first stone of which was laid, with the usual ceremonies, at the south-east corner [between the old Custom House and Billingsgate], on the 25th of October, 1813.

“This building is great in its features of design, and substantial in the dimensions of its parts…[and] is highly honourable to the abilities of Mr. Laing, the architect: but, unfortunately, the situation is not favourable to a display or to an inspection of its merits; for the grandeur of the outline cannot be sufficiently seen, owing to the comparatively confined terrace or quay….”

Oh, dear.

“The front is of Portland stone, and consists of an Ionic superstructure, supported by a basement, and finished by an attic. the centre … contains the great room, which is lighted by nine large arched windows; the central entrance beneath is {flanked} by flights of steps on each side; and a projecting portion of the basement sustains recumbent figures of Ocean and Commerce. The attic of the centre is decorated by a fine bas-relief 200 feet long, with figures 5 feet 6 inches high, representing our commercial alliances, and executed by Mr. Bubb. Above this is a group of figures representing Industry and Ingenuity, supporting a dial.”

“Though all the desired results … cannot be expected, from its crowded situation, yet its effect from the entrance of the metropolis over London bridge is very striking, and foreigners, who visit the port of London, on viewing it, must speak with respect of our architectural talent, and of the magnificence of this national edifice.”

more later!

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