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Customs Houses

The most recent 'Customs House' was behind the Falk building facade on the corner of Phillimore St and Henry Sts. Many people will think of the 'Old Customs House', 1908, at 4-8 Phillimore St (north side) as the first customs house, but there were at least three others before that. From 1879, an 1852 building which was part of the Commissariat complex was used for that purpose, but there were offices elsewhere before that.

On August 8, 1834, Captain James McDermott, one of Fremantle's first merchants and landowners, was drowned when his vessel, the Cumberland, was wrecked in Mangle's Bay. Captain McDermott, an Englishman of Irish descent, was an officer of the East India Company until 1829, when he arrived in Fremantle in his own vessel. He established a business on Marine Terrace between Henry Street and Collie Street. Later the premises were acquired by the Government and used as Fremantle's first Customs House. A wooden residence for the Collector was added to the original buildings. Hitchcock: 23.

Fremantle's first official customs house between Henry and Collie Streets, in Marine Terrace, where Leonard Worsely Clifton (1830-1895) was Collector of Customs 1862-1891. (photograph from Dowson 2003: 184.)

Note that North is to the < LEFT on this map. McDermott's buildings on Lots 118 and 119 Pakenham Street and lot 94 Henry Street, designated as Custom House on town plan "1844Cons_3846_Roll_Plan_106_plan". The water to the right is South Bay, and the jetty is in front of Captain Scott's premises, where convicts were later housed and the Esplanade Hotel now stands.

Another 1844 map, but this time redrawn in 1983 by R. M. Campbell, showing clearly the relationship of McDermott's buildings and the Customs House. North is to the top.

The business of customs was afterwards conducted in the P&O Building, before moving to the Customs House shown below in 1908. (Dowson 2003: 128, has 1907)


Nixon & Merilees c. 1897 photo of HM Customs building in Cliff St. Fremantle Library photo #2943: 'The Commissariat was originally built to house Government Stores and was erected in sections from 1851 to 1898. It was used as a Customs House and Bonded Stores from 1879 to c. 1904. Taken before 1897.'

customs house

The 'Old Customs House', 1926 photo from Wikipedia. The letters H.M.C have been removed from the building, but the marks are still visible on the stone in my photo below:


The 'Old Customs House', 1908, stands where the first Railway Station and before that The Green used to be, on land reclaimed from the river, at the entrance to Victoria Quay. It was designed by Hillson Beasley and built by Aslin & Warner. The Customs department moved into the new Commonwealth offices building (the Falk Building, on the other side of Phillimore St, at 41) before 1987, and the building has since been used by arts organisations like Deckchair Theatre and the WA Circus School, as well as providing studios for a number of artists. A plaque on the building 'commemorates' the Customs House, reading 'Fremantle Customs occupied this building 1907-1986.'

Heritage Council:
Customs House (fmr), a two-storey building constructed of Donnybrook stone in the Federation Free style, has cultural heritage significance for the following reasons: constructed in 1908, the place was the first purpose built customs building in Fremantle and functioned as the main branch of the Customs Department of Western Australia from this time; the place is one of a small number of surviving purpose-built customs houses in Western Australia and is a fine, substantial example of the early twentieth century work of the Public Works Department in the Federation Free style; the site has the archaeological potential to yield information about the site's past use as the first major transhipment point in the colony (1829-1879), the first railway station in Fremantle (1880-1906), and a centre for customs operations (1906-1986); situated on the corner of Cliff and Phillimore Streets, the place is a landmark building and is a key element of the streetscape. This intersection defines the entrance to Victoria Quay, the Fremantle Port Authority and the Aquaculture Centre; the place contributes to the aesthetic qualities of Phillimore Street, a streetscape comprised of early twentieth century buildings; the place has had a long association with the maritime history of Fremantle and recognition of its past uses contributes to the community's sense of place.

The WA Circus School lost its tenure in the Phillimore St Customs House in 2017 and moved to a 'big-top' circus tent in Princess May Park for a planned two years, opening 14 May 2017.

Collectors of Customs Western Australia

This is Appendix 14 from Clayton Roberts, History of the Australian Customs Service in Western Australia 1832-1988, pp. 349-350.

1. H.C. Sutherland 1834-1853 (then known as Collector of Revenue)
2. Richard McBryde Broun 1853-1854 (first Collector of Customs)
3. F.D. Wittenoon 1854
4. Richard McBryde Broun 1854-1858
5. Win. Gale (Acting) 1856-1857
6. Robert Maitland Sutherland (Acting) 1857-1858
7. Thomas Brown 1858-1862
8. Leonard Worsley Clifton 1862-1891
9. Clayton T. Mason 1891-1911
10. O.S. Maddocks 1911-1914
11. R. McK. Oakley 1914-1921 (later Comptroller-General)
12. H.M. Robinson 1921-1924
13. Maurice B. Synan 1924-1927
14. H.E. Neal 1927-1929
15. George F. Mitchell 1929-1933
16. Harold St.G. Bird 1933-1944
17. James R.D. O’Loughlin 1944-1945
18. J.D. Carroll 1945-1946
19. Frank I. Hansen (Acting) 1947-1948
20. Albert E. Griffin (Acting) 1948-1949
21. Joseph Darcy 1949-1951
22. Sydney M. Buttfield (Acting) 1946-1947
23. J.B. Curaming 1951-1952
24. John P. Brophy 1952-1953
25. Albert E. Griffin 1953-1957
26. John B. Lovell 1957-1960
27. William R. Lawson 1960-1971
28. John W. Cahill 1971-1973
29. John H. Slattery 1973-1974 (Acting)
30. Norman A. Custance 1974-1978
31. Paul A. Murphy 1978-1981
32. Ivan Olsen 1981-1985
33. Brian A. Bissaker 1986-1987
34. John D, Lambert 1987-

Bureau of Customs, Pile W79/1567, 'Historical Records of C & E Department' AA : K 272.

References and Links

Building Management Authority 1994, Former Customs House, Preliminary Conservation Plan (Draft), Dept of the Arts, November, 77 pp.

Crawford, Ian, Anne Delroy & Lynne Stevenson 1992, A History of the Commissariat, Fremantle 1851-1991, WA Museum.

Dowson, John 2003, Old Fremantle, UWAP: 128, 184.

Hitchcock, JK 1929, The History of Fremantle, The Front Gate of Australia 1829-1929, Fremantle City Council.

Roberts, Clayton 1989, History of the Australian Customs Service in Western Australia 1832-1988, Australian Customs Service.

Wikipedia page

Heritage Council page

I thank Diane Oldman for drawing my attention to Roberts's book.

Garry Gillard | New: 28 August, 2015 | Now: 4 December, 2023