The Custom House
'The Old Custom House'
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Custom House modelIpswich Maritime Trust model
The Older Custom House
Above: The Old Custom House and Crane on Common Quay, as they were in the 18th century (scale model by the late Ben Bendall). It is believed that the Old Custom House stood here for 500 years before it was demolished in 1843 to make way for the Custom House which we see today. The colonnade was known as the Sailor's Walk since it was where the mariners used to promenade or sit when in port. The ornately carved timbers were preserved by the Ipswich Museum when the Old Custom House was demolished. The Crane built in the early 1700s was probably treadmill operated; an example has been restored at Harwich. So, The Old Custom House was replaced by a new Custom House which, as the plaques illustrated below rather confusingly show, is now called by some/many 'The Old Custom House'.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Custom House engraving
The engraving above is from Frederick Russel and Wat Hargreen's Picturesque Antiquities of Ipswich (published in Ipswich, 1845).

High Water marker
For many a long day we thought that this building, attractive and of interest though it is, was lettering-free. In October 2012 we noticed a piece of carved lettering on the stone foot of one of the brick pillars on the west side of The Custom House. (We can remember as late as the early 1980s that this arcade had a gentlemen's toilet within, presumably for the use of dockers and porters.)
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 4   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 32012 images
'1 FT. ABOVE H.W.'
is inscribed, with a horizontal line marker below, close to the protective corner stone pad and features an iron plate projecting from the pavement. This marker presumably indicates one foot above High Water. The water level of the Wet Dock, protected by its lock gates, would surely have been stable so why would the 'High Water' level need to be shown? Perhaps the inscribed stone predates the opening of the Wet Dock (1842), to be incorporated in the Custom House (built 1844).
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 2   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 1
John Norman writes: "The water level in the dock is a product of the last time the gates were opened, usually approaching high water on the previous tide (ie the opportunity is taken to refill the dock when the water in the river is rising - by opening the lock gates, allowing the tide to flood in, and then closing the gates as the tide turns.

Inevitably water is lost with the passage of boats from the Wet Dock into the open river but this is almost insignificant compared with the volume of water in the Dock - although it can show on a warm Sunday in the summer when there is a high volume of movement through the lock.

It is important that the water level in the Dock does not get too low - to a certain extent the water supports the Dock walls (and in particular the ground water behind the walls) thus even at low tide the dock is never empty.

The protection afforded by the lock gates is to prevent extra high spring tides entering the Dock and overspilling the dock walls.  The Lock Gates (and eventually the new [anti- flood] barrier) can retain water at a higher level than the water in the dock - i.e. the '1 Ft' line should never need to be tested.

Thus I suggest that the '1 Ft' line is advisory (probably installed by the Harbour Master) so that all who built Wharfs, Quayside warehouses, Maltings and Manufacturing plant understood how high the tide could rise – when the sun and moon are in alignment."
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House High Water mark 19821982 image courtesy The Ipswich Society
Above: this photograph from The Ipswich Society's
's Image Archive (see Links) is dated 1982 – the year of the Ipswich Maritime Festival. The fabric of the building still bears the filth of the industrial revolution and the metal attachment, while unreadable, is an oval. The rusted plate in the modern photograph seems taller with a pointed top and has clearly been paved around since 1982. It would be really interesting to know what, if anything, was incribed on the plate and what its purpose was.
It has been suggested that this 'High Water' marker is a datum used by surveyors to locate other landmarks and positions. However, the Custom House already has an example of an Ordnance Survey benchmark datum on the clock tower, a few inches above the pavement (as always – see below).  O.S. Benchmarks are regular features of a town like ours occurring every 100 yards or so, on solid and permanent buildings – usually on the corner where they can be seen from a number of different directions.  They are marked on 1:1250 scale O.S. maps and a separate list gives their value – which changes as the building moves (sinks).
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House benchmark2016 image courtesy John Norman
An fuller explanation of O.S. benchmarks is found on the MapTools website (
"A datum describes the model that was used to match the location of features on the ground to coordinates and locations on the map. Maps all start with some form of survey. Early maps and surveys were carried out by teams of surveyors on the ground using transits and distance measuring "chains". Surveyors start with a handful of locations in "known" positions and use them to locate other features. These methods did not span continents well. Frequently they also did not cross political borders either. The "known points" and their positions are the information that the map datum is based. As space based surveying came into use, a standardized datum based on the centre of the earth was developed."

In the U.K an Ordnance Datum is a datum used by the Ordnance Survey as the basis for deriving altitudes on maps. In Great Britain, Ordnance Datum for the Ordnance Survey is ODN (Ordnance Datum Newlyn), defined as the Mean Sea Level at Newlyn in Cornwall between 1915 and 1921. For another example of an Ordnance Survey Bench Mark, see Christchurch Street.

1884 map
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House map 18841884 map
Illustrating the stretch of the northern quays including St Mary at the Quay Church, the small Albion Wharf and most of Common Quay, this map detail shows the Custom House, centre. The building was orientated to follow the curve of the dock at this point; it labels a 'Police Station' at the central entrance at the rear of the Custom House, facing Key Street. The legend 'Malthouse' is very much in evidence on this map, indicating the importance of this trade to Ipswich.

Built in 1844 by Ipswich Architect John Medland Clark, this classical building has been fully restored in recent years. Bob Malster tells us that it was originally called 'The Commerce House' and the Customs authority had only one room in it. The Custom House, now the offices of Ipswich Port Authority, was opened in 1845. The Wet Dock, when it was opened in 1842, was the largest area of enclosed water of its kind in England.
The front of the building carries a number of lettered plates giving information:-
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 8   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 9   
See our plaques page for the full set of ten Ipswich Society Maritime Ipswich 1982 plaques.

Rather confusingly the original Custom House was a wooden-framed structure which had stood for four or five hundred years: "a low, ill-shaped, isolated building, supported, on the south, next to the water by a numerous range of pillars, reaching the whole length of the front, which is about a hundred and twenty feet, forming a colonnade, under which the masters of vessels and other seafaring people delight to perambulate, excursion as being, we suppose, more similar to the agreeably-varied amusement of walking the deck" (G.R. Clarke with a plethora of commas!). Once this 'Old Custom House' was demolished it was follwed by the Custom House built in 1844, which stands today. In the way of these things, at some point in the 20th century this started to be called 'The Old Custom House'.
(The final line attributing the casting of the plates is poignant in 2012 when the large engineering works of Crane Ltd which once stood opposite Ipswich Airport on Nacton Road have been demolished and John Lewis and Waitrose stores built on part of the site.)
“What was so novel … with the Custom House, was the marrying of the polychromy technique with an essentially Classical or Neo-Classical style. Hitherto, such buildings in East Anglia, as in London, had been built in 'white' brick, used, strictly speaking, as a substitute for the more expensive white stone. Red brick was considered unsuitable and even 'common' for such styles. But here we have, quite early in its conception, the technique of using red brick, executed in an extremely pleasing and decorative way. The first building in London (Christ Church, Streatham) to employ such polychromy was built only in 1841. In fact, Clark's plans for the Custom House really date from this same year, if not actually 1840, so that he seems to have been in the vanguard of the development and use of this particular technique. Although submitted in the competition in 1843, these plans had actually been prepared at the request of P.B. Long in his mayoral year, 1840-41; they had been accepted by the Estate Committee, inspected by the public, and universally approved. They had then 'lain on the table' of the Borough Council until March 1843, when the Estate Committee finally decided to go ahead with a new Hall of Commerce (the name officially given to the new Custom House). It was only because of the acrimony over the Wet Dock plans of 1837, which had been decided upon behind closed doors, that the Corporation decided, reluctantly, that they would have to declare a competition, though as Alderman Bullen forthrightly stated; 'he did not hold the slightest doubt that Mr Clark would be the successful competitor' (25 Mar. 1843). The following May the Suffolk Chronicle supported this view: 'the result of the competition ... displayed the superiority of Mr Clark's design which might not have been evident without the competition (27 May 1843).”
[Source: John Medland Clark 1813-1849 'Sometime Architect of Ipswich' by Ruth Serjeant, The Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History reserch paper. Volume XXXVII, part 3 (1991)]

See our Warwick Road page under the section headed 'The Casino' (once Rhynwick Lodge) for photographs of the house built for himself by architect John Medland Clark on the corner of Woodbridge Road and Palmerston Road.

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Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 11
17th JULY 2002'

Close to the quayside in front of the Custom House is the following plaque, featuring the Ipswich Borough coat of arms:
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 13   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 14
[*East of England Development Agency.]
Compare with similar plaques outside the former Martin & Newby in Fore Street and on Cornhill,

See also our Lettered castings index page.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 1845
Above: an engraving of the Custom House by Henry Davy in 1845, a year after it opened.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 1934
How splendid the Custom House looks in 1934 and how dominated it became by the Paul's silo later (see the first image on our Pauls' and Burtons page).

The vault
The Custom House does have some rather fine features, which it would be churlish not to include here.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 6   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 7
The quarter-sphere formed by the stonework entrance (to a secure door – see below) at the centre of the frontage at ground level is very fine (if a little spoiled by the red plastic lifebelt box). Richard Watkinson of the Ipswich Maritime Trust (see Links) demonstrated the practical usage of this architectural feature, which you can test for yourself. Stand with your back to the blue door and talking in a normal voice walk slowly until you are under the keystone. Your voice will, at the point of the focus of this concave structure be amplified. It would be nice to think that this architectural loud-hailer was designed for customs officers to call to vessels on the Wet Dock: 'Come in number 4'.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House stepThe patina on the stone threshold

A bonded warehouse
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House periodPhotograph courtesy Ipswich Society
Above is the scene in earlier times; the date is unknown, but we would guess 1960s or 1970s. There is a remarkable lack of clutter and obstruction compared to the 21st century dock where the motor car is king. The lifebelt is in a rather more pleasing pentagonal casing with the letters 'DC...I' on it: presumably 'Ipswich Dock Commission' (people park their bicycles behind it). The central door has a flood barrier in place, but the inscription on it is even more interesting:
NO. 7'
A bonded warehouse is a building or other secured area in which dutiable goods may be stored, manipulated, or undergo manufacturing operations without payment of duty. It may be managed by the state or by private enterprise. In the latter case a customs bond must be posted with the government. This system exists in all developed countries of the world. Upon entry of goods into the warehouse, the importer and warehouse proprietor incur liability under a bond. While the goods are in the bonded warehouse, they may, under supervision by the customs authority, be manipulated by cleaning, sorting, repacking, or otherwise changing their condition by processes that do not amount to manufacturing. After manipulation, and within the warehousing period, the goods may be exported without the payment of duty, or they may be withdrawn for consumption upon payment of duty at the rate applicable to the goods in their manipulated condition at the time of withdrawal. Robert Walpole proposed in his "excise scheme" of 1733, the system of warehousing for tobacco and wine. The proposal was unpopular, and it was not till 1803 that the system was actually adopted in England. That year, imported goods were to be placed in warehouses approved by the customs authorities, and importers were to give bonds for payment of duties when the goods were removed. It is interesting that the local brewer Cobbolds hired the vault space from the dock authorities for this purpose.

Water fountain
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 7a
The drinking fountain which stands to the right of the vault entrance is in reasonable condition, although not plumbed in. The waste pipe appears above ground level as shown above within very eroded stonework.

Architectural features
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Left: on the Key Street elevation of the building is the Italianate clock tower. This also appears on our page of Public clocks in Ipswich. Right: at the front the skewed, square-section pillars are very pleasing.
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These cushion-like red brick structures stand near the semi-circular doors at each side.
[UPDATE 8.3.2022: 'I was having a look at your page on The Old Customs House, and half way down you have a couple of photos of 'cushion-like red brick structures', on the exterior.
I wondered if they could be Victorian urine deflectors? To discourage the obvious activity. There are plenty of similar looking examples in London, and a number of websites dedicated to the subject... This is a fascinating if unsavoury subject! Apparently public toilets were quite unusual until the 1890s and we know The Old Custom House was built in the 1840s. I think I've spotted another one on the side of The Town Hall in Lion Street, The more you look, the more you see! Best Regards, Evelyn Hewing.' Thanks to Eve for writing in – and we thought they were to strengthen the walls of a bonded waterhouse.]
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 20   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 19
Below: views of and from the Custom House steps  on the gathering of Dunkirk vessels on the marina on the Island site, May 2018.
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2018 images
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 23   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 24

Ipswich coat of arms
The classical style of the building is particularly impressive from the dockside, with its four columned portico bearing a large projecting pediment, with an equally large, three-dimensional version of the Ipswich coat of arms of lion rampant and the stern of three ships supported by sea-horses, a reminder of the town's maritime heritage.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 15b2016 image
The Public sculpture of Norfolk and Suffolk website tells us that:
'The facade of the Old Custom House facing the docks is strikingly classical with four columns supporting a deep pediment decorated with the Borough of Ipswich's coat of arms - a rampant lion with the sterns of three galleons at sea are set within an elaborate cartouche held by two wyverns.' We think that the use of the word 'wyvern' is debatable: a wyvern is a legendary creature with a dragon's head (which may be said to breathe fire or possess a venomous bite) and wings, a reptilian body, two legs (sometimes none) and a barbed tail. A sea-dwelling variant, dubbed the sea-wyvern, has a fish tail in place of a barbed dragon's tail. Surely they are Neptune's Horses?
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Custom House 15eCourtesy The Ipswich Society

Ipswich Dock Commission ('The Gateway To East Anglia')
had their offices in the Custom House at the time of this advertisement in 1936:
Ipswich Port Authority advertisement 19361936 advertisement
The text of the advertisement reads: 'PORT OF IPSWICH:
The Gateway To East Anglia.
The Dock. 261/4 acres. Deep water quays. Vessel drawing 17ft. 3in. can enter the Lock.
Largest vessel. s.s. "Sheik," 2,828 n.r.t.
Cliff Quay. 1,200 feet in length. Vessels drawing 23 ft. 2 in. have berthed at Cliff Quay (28 ft. alongside at
L.W.O.S.T.). Largest Vessel, s.s. "Cordelia," 4,178 n.r.t.
Butterman's Bay. 5 miles from Harwich Harbour. Deep water berths for vessels drawing up to 28 ft. Largest vessel, s.s. "Wisconsin," 469 ft. long, 4,691 n.r.t.
The Channel of the River Orwell has a minimum depth of 19 ft.
L.W.O.S.T. from Harwich Harbour to the Dock.
Rise of tide (springs), 13 feet. The channel is lighted at night. Electric and steam cranes for discharging and loading cargoes. Warehouses, bonded and free.
The Dock Commission have land to let for suitable businesses at the back of Cliff Quay.
Address all enquiries to:– The Clerk, Ipswich Cock Commission, Old Custom House, Ipswich. Telephone 3193.'

[N.B.: 'L.W.O.S.T.' stands for Low Water of Ordinary Spring Tides; 'n.r.t'.: Net register tonnage.]
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ipswich Port Authority poster1948 poster
The above British Railways
'East Coast Havens, Suffolk' poster painted by Frank Mason in 1948 depicts 'Grain ships on the Orwell' in Butterman's Bay showing steam and sail cargo vessels being lightered up to the Wet Dock by a sailing barge.
By 1870 a new Wet Dock plan had been drawn up not only because of the position of the lock gates but because of the advent of the steam ship. It promised even greater revenues for the River Commissioners, although they were concerned that the bigger ships would take trade from their own small ships that could easily manoeuvre into the lock.
They planned to put the new lock at the south end of the wet dock directly into the estuary rather than the narrow river channel of the New Cut and increase the length of the dock from 140ft to 300ft. It was opened in 1881. The use of this lock by the large ships was again short-lived because the ships kept getting bigger and they still found the Orwell difficult to navigate. In 1898 the Commission planned a deepwater berth at West Bank Terminal just south of the Wet Dock.
Other meanders on the river were cut through and by 1900 the berths at Butterman's Bay were deepened and enlarged so that the ships could unload their cargo onto sailing barges without entering the Wet Dock.
A swing bridge was installed over the lock in 1903 to allow the tramway to circuit the docks. It was replaced by one engineered by Ransomes & Rapier in 1949 (as shown on our Island site page). By 1915 the river was straighter and wider and the meanders had broken down into inlets.
‘The first full length of the river was excavated between 1947 and 1951, and more improvements were made on some of the bends and the width became 300 feet at the narrowest part with a depth of 19 feet. A volume of 2,500,000 cubic yards (1,912,500 cubic metres) of material was removed,’ wrote Malster and Jones in A Victorian vision (see Reading list).
Outward facing lock gates were fitted to the lock of the Wet Dock in 1976 as part of a flood prevention scheme.

For a view of the Custom House, as it used to be, dominated by the concrete R&W Paul Ltd. maltings see our Burton's page.
See also our Paul's malting page for the story of the company and its importance to Ipswich.

Related pages:
The Question Mark
Christie's warehouse
Bridge Street
Burton Son & Sanders / Pauls'

College Street
Coprolite Street
Cranfield's Flour Mill

Trinity House buoy
Edward Fison Ltd
Ground-level dockside furniture on: 'The island', the northern quays and Ransome's Orwell Works
Ipswich Whaling Station?
Isaac Lord

Neptune Inn clock, garden and interior
Isaac Lord 2
The Island
John Good and Sons
Merchant seamen's memorial
The Mill

Nova Scotia House
New Cut East
Quay nameplates
R&W Paul malting company
Steam Packet Hotel

Stoke Bridge(s)
Waterfront Regeneration Scheme
Wolsey's Gate
A chance to compare
Wet Dock 1970s with 2004
Wet Dock maps

Davy's illustration of the laying of the Wet Dock lock foundation stone, 1839
Outside the Wet Dock
Maritime Ipswich '82 festival

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