If you’ve spent any time down at Sydney’s Circular Quay, chances are you’ve passed by Customs House. That beautiful Georgian building with the large forecourt – that’s the one. It was constructed in 1845 and for more than 150 years performed an active role as the primary trade gateway for goods and people coming into Australia. The driving force behind the buildings construction was Colonel John George Nathaniel Gibbes, who was the Collector of Customs for New South Wales for a record term of 25 years from 1834 to 1859. He convinced the Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps, to begin construction of a Customs House in 1844 in response to Sydney’s growing volume of maritime trade. This also served as a welcome relief to the economic depression which had fallen on the colony at the time, providing employment for stonemasons and labourers.
Designed by Mortimer Lewis, the Georgian structure featured thirteen large windows to afford a clear view of shipping activity in Sydney Cove. In 1887 it was partially dismantled and expanded to three levels under the supervision of the then Colonial Architect, James Barnet. While various additions were made over the next century, especially during the First World War, significant vestiges of the original Gibbes-Lewis building remain.
For many years, Customs House was not only a focal point for trade but also the building and square in front of it provided a focus for major national celebrations. This tradition is carried on today as Customs House Square plays host to numerous cultural events and exhibitions. The role of Customs House in the 19th and 20th centuries was two pronged – on the one hand it was responsible for raising revenue by taxing trade and on the other its job was to keep society physically and morally isolated from socially unacceptable goods, products, ideas and diseases.
The Australian Customs Service ceased its operations in 1990 and in 1994 ownership was transferred from the Commonwealth Government of Australia to the City of Sydney Council. The building is now used for exhibitions and private functions and in 2003 was refurbished to house the City of Sydney Library.
Significantly the site on which the building stands was where the Eora people, the original owners of the land, are said to have watched the First Fleet land in 1788. The Aboriginal flag is now permanently flown from the building. It is also the site where convict David O’Connor was hanged in 1790 and it is said that his ghost haunts the Customs House to this day, offering people rum.