HM Customs and Excise

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HM Customs and Excise
Corporate Logo for HM Customs and Excise.svg
Final logo of HM Customs and Excise
HM Customs Ensign vector.svg
Ensign of HM Customs and Excise
Non-ministerial government department overview
Formed 1909 (1909)
Preceding agencies
Dissolved 1 April 2005 (2005-04-01)
Superseding agency
Jurisdiction United Kingdom
Headquarters New Kings Beam House, Upper Ground, London

HM Customs and Excise (properly known as Her Majesty's Customs and Excise (or His as appropriate), often abbreviated to HMCE) was a department of the British Government formed in 1909; its primary responsibility was the collection of customs duties, excise duties, and other indirect taxes.

The payment of customs dues has been recorded in Britain for over a thousand years and HMCE was formed from predecessor bodies with a long history.

With effect from 18 April 2005, HMCE merged with the Inland Revenue (which was responsible for the administration and collection of direct taxes) to form a new department: HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).[1]


The three main functions of HMCE were revenue collection, assessment and preventive work, alongside which other duties were performed.[2]

Revenue collection[edit]

On behalf of HM Treasury, officers of HM Customs and Excise levied customs duties, excise duties, and other indirect taxes (such as Air Passenger Duty, Climate Change Levy, Insurance Premium Tax, Landfill Tax and Value-added tax (VAT)).


Officers spent significant amounts of time in docks, warehouses and depots and on board newly-arrived ships assessing dutiable goods and cargoes. Specialist tools were provided e.g. for the measurement of containers or the specific gravity of alcohol.

Preventive work[edit]

HMCE was responsible for managing the import and export of goods and services into the UK; as such, its officers were active in the detection and prevention of attempts to evade the revenue laws, for example through smuggling or illicit distillation of alcohol. Since the early 17th century, the searching of vessels for illicit goods when undertaken by customs officers has been called 'rummaging'.[3]


For various reasons HMCE also accrued a variety of other responsibilities over the years, some of which had nothing to do with revenue collection and protection. Many of these additional duties pertained to the regulation of activities in UK coastal waters on behalf of HM Government (not least because HMCE had customs officers stationed all around the UK coast). Thus at various times in the 20th century HMCE was involved in receiving, regulating or recording:[4]


Exeter's former Custom House

Historically, the Board of Customs and the Board of Excise were (along with the General Post Office) 'the only Crown Services organised on a country-wide basis'.[2] Custom Houses were to be found in all major ports of entry (as well as some smaller harbours). Excise Offices were located both around the coast and inland (in former centuries, every market town in England had a designated Excise Office, albeit not permanently manned; often a room in a local inn would be adapted for the purpose when required).

Corporate structure[edit]

The 1909 amalgamation of the (hitherto separate) Customs and Excise services required a new corporate structure, which substantially remained in place until 1971. The new Board of Customs and Excise had oversight of three inter-linked branches, each with its own management structure:[2]

The Headquarters Staff had oversight of policy implementation and management, as well as providing central accounting, legal and administrative services; its operation was akin to that of a government department.

The Outdoor Service was divided into geographical areas called Collections, each overseen by a Collector (a senior executive who acted as the Board's representative). Initially there were ninety-two Collections (formed by merging the previously separate Customs Collections and Excise Collections) but these were later reduced to thirty-nine by 1930 and twenty-nine by 1971.[5] Each Collection was subdivided into Districts (each overseen by a Surveyor) and Stations, with each Station being staffed by one or more Officers of Customs and Excise. Within each Collection, the Stations were responsible for assessment of duty while the Collector's Office focused on collection of revenue.

The uniformed Waterguard carried out preventive work; it worked closely alongside the Outdoor Service but was separately constituted with its own management structure and its own geographical 'Divisions'.[2]

After 1971, management structures were streamlined and unified, with Civil Service grades replacing the previous disparate ranking structures in most areas. At the same time the Waterguard ceased to operate as a separate body, although uniformed customs officers continued to be involved in preventive work.

Corporate history[edit]

A British Victorian 6-pence customs revenue stamp.

The Board of Customs, responsible for collecting duties levied on imported goods, and the Board of Excise, responsible for raising revenue from inland taxes, existed for several centuries prior to their amalgamation. Although they were initially separate and independent bodies, their purposes and activities often overlapped and their respective officers often worked in close co-operation (or, at times, in close rivalry).[5] The existence of Customs Officers and Excise Officers predated the establishment of their respective Boards (by several centuries, in the case of HM Customs).

In England, the Board of Customs and the Board of Excise were both established in the 17th century. Following the 1707 Act of Union a separate Scottish Board of Customs and Scottish Excise Board were constituted; and then a century later separate Boards were likewise established for Ireland. By an Act of Parliament dated 2nd May 1823, these and the English Boards were consolidated to form a single Board of Excise and a single Board of Customs for the whole United Kingdom.[4]

These Boards (and their successors) were made up of Commissioners, appointed under the Great Seal of the Realm and overseen by the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury.

HM Customs[edit]

Custom House, Lower Thames Street, London: long-time home of HM Customs.

The first payment of Customs dues in England is recorded (in a charter of King Aethelbald of Mercia) as having taken place in AD 743.[5] Originally, the term customs meant any customary payments or dues of any kind (for example, to the king, or a bishop, or the church), but later became restricted to duties payable to the king on the import or export of goods. The centralised English customs system can be traced to the Winchester Assize of Customs of 1203, in the reign of King John,[6] from which time customs were to be collected and paid to the State Treasury (rather than to local sheriffs or feudal lords) and accounted for by the Exchequer. Legislation concerning customs can be traced to King Edward I: under the nova custuma in 1275, Collectors of Customs were appointed by Royal patent and, in 1298, custodes custumae ('customers') were appointed in certain ports (viz. Boston, Bristol, Hull, Ipswich, London, Newcastle, Southampton and Yarmouth) to collect customs for the Crown in the form of tonnage and poundage.

The Board of Customs[edit]

In the first half of the 17th century customs dues were farmed (i.e. leased to speculators in return for an annual rent). A Board of Customs was effectively created by ordinance on 21 January 1643 under the Ordinance concerning the Customs for the continuance of the ordinance of concerning the subsidy of Tonnage and Poundage from 1 March 1643, to 25 March 1644. Under this act the regulation of the collection of customs was entrusted to a parliamentary committee; however in 1662 Parliament reverted to the farming system, until a permanent Board was finally established in 1671.

HM Revenue of Excise[edit]

The Excise Office, Broad Street, London in 1810: former headquarters of the Board of Excise.

His or Her Majesty's Excise duties are inland duties levied on articles at the time of their manufacture, such as alcoholic drinks and tobacco; historically, duties were levied on such diverse commodities as salt, paper, bricks, windows and hair-powder.

The Excise Board was also responsible for collecting the duty levied on imports of beverages such as rum, brandy and other spirits, as well as tea, coffee, chocolate and cocoa beans.[7] Prior to payment of duty, these items were often stored in a bonded warehouse, where excise officers could assess and measure them.

The Board of Excise[edit]

A Board of Excise was established by the Long Parliament, and Excise Duties first levied, in 1643 under the "Excise Ordinance" (Ordinance for the speedy raising and levying of moneys by way of charge or impost upon several commodities). The Board was established on a permanent footing in 1683.[4]

The Board of Inland Revenue[edit]

In 1849 the Board of Excise was merged with the Board of Stamps and Taxes to create a new Board of Inland Revenue.[4]

HM Customs and Excise[edit]

HMCE Office, Queen's Dock, Liverpool; opened 1993, closed 2012.

The combined Board of Customs and Excise was formed in 1909 by the transfer of responsibility for Excise from the Board of Inland Revenue to the Board of Customs.

HM Revenue and Customs[edit]

HM Customs and Excise was not responsible for collecting direct taxes: that was the job of the Inland Revenue. In March 2004, the O'Donnell review called for the merger of Customs and Excise with Inland Revenue; in the 2004 Budget, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that the merger would go ahead, and the merged body (HM Revenue and Customs) was implemented by the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005.

Border enforcement[edit]

Customs & Excise officers had authority throughout the country, including the powers of entry to premises and of arrest (though at times requiring the presence of a police constable). It was the nation's borders, however, that were the prime location for much of HMCE's work. Before the 20th century the UK's only border was its coastline and customs activity was focused around the coast. The establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 gave the United Kingdom a land border, which also required customs checkpoints; later, customs officers were needed at airports as well.

As well as administering Customs declarations, HM Customs and Excise staff had responsibility for guarding the borders of the United Kingdom from smugglers. To try to achieve this, HMCE and its predecessors had a history of operating both on land and at sea and in the coastal waters between the two.

17th-19th century[edit]

In the late 17th century, an effort was made to combat the growing problem of smuggling. The Board of Customs and the Board of Excise both began to employ land-based Riding Officers and sea-going Revenue Cruisers to help patrol the coastline; these were later supplemented by a body called the Preventive Water Guard, before being amalgamated together with the latter to form the Coast Guard.

Riding Officers[edit]

The first Riding Officers were appointed in Kent in 1690; they were also known as the 'land guard'. Following the passage of the Wool Act 1699, their numbers were expanded and they were stationed at regular intervals along the coast from Sheppey to Chichester.[5] Each officer was expected to cover around a 10-mile length of coastline (with additional officers allocated to difficult areas); but they often found themselves greatly outnumbered by the smugglers. By the start of the 19th century HM Customs had Custom Houses in 75 ports in England and Wales. Each Custom House was staffed by two Collectors, who received payments and supervised the other local officers. To supplement the officers in fixed locations around the coast, Riding Officers covered lengths of coastline on horseback looking out for suspicious activity on or just off the coastline.[7]

Revenue Cruisers[edit]

The Resolution, an Excise Cutter (wearing the ensign and pennant of the Excise Board) in 1794.

From the 1680s, Revenue Officers began to be provided with sea-going vessels to help them patrol the nation's coastal waters.[8] A pair of sloops are recorded in 1689, and more were acquired ten years later. By 1797 HM Customs operated a flotilla of 33 sea-going cutters stationed all round the coast of Britain. The Excise Board also had cutters: fewer, but faster; there were seven of these in 1784.[7] Revenue vessels could call on the Royal Navy to assist in apprehending a non-compliant vessel; while the Navy continued to designate a number of its own vessels to smuggling prevention duties in the 18th century, HM Customs also worked closely with the Royal Navy's Fishery Protection Squadron.

Then again, the Admiralty was itself able to commandeer revenue vessels for naval use at times of war. In 1816, after a post-war review, the decision was taken to place almost all the revenue cruisers under Admiralty control, leaving HM Customs with just two cutters of its own (Vigilant and Fly). (With a large number of other naval vessels lying idle after the war, most of the former revenue cutters were soon scrapped).[5]

The Preventive Water Guard[edit]

In 1809, a Preventive Water Guard was formed under the authority of HM Treasury, independent of the Boards of Customs and of Excise, to combat smuggling. It was arranged in three geographical divisions, covering the east coast, south coast and west coast of England and Wales.[7] It had particular responsibility for patrolling shallower coastal waters, while the revenue cruisers operated further out to sea; to this end, it was provided with a fleet of 'preventive boats' (small rowing boats). At times when the sea was too rough for the boats, its officers were expected to patrol the coast on foot.[5] Officers were stationed away from their homes (to try to prevent collusion with local smugglers), so at various points along the shoreline 'watch houses' were built to provide the preventive officers with accommodation (as well as a shore base). In time, the Preventive Water Guard was also given responsibility for providing assistance in the event of shipwrecks.

The Coast Guard[edit]

In 1822, the Riding Officers, the Revenue Cruisers and the Preventive Water Guard were brought together, under the renewed oversight of HM Customs, to form a new organisation named the Coast Guard. The number of revenue vessels, which had been allowed to dwindle, was again increased: there were 33 such vessels in service in 1823 and by 1839 there were fifty. The organisation of the Riding Officers (now renamed the Mounted Guard) was also strengthened; older officers (some in their 80s) were pensioned off, and new personnel were recruited (with former service in a cavalry regiment a requirement).

As the Mounted Guard gained a more military character, so the other branches of the Coast Guard were given an increasingly naval emphasis, with naval officers now commanding the revenue cruisers and training provided at Royal Naval establishments. In 1831, the formal decision was taken to ensure that all those serving in the Coast Guard should be made available to serve on naval vessels if and when required; and so the Coast Guard began to function more as a sort of naval reserve. This came to a head at the outbreak of the Crimean War, whereupon over 3,000 men were drafted into the Royal Navy from the Coast Guard.

After the war, in 1856, the reality of this situation was recognised by the passing of the Coast Guard Service Act, which removed responsibility for the Coast Guard from HM Customs and transferred it to the Admiralty. It was primarily tasked with defence of the coastline against military attack, though revenue protection remained as a secondary duty.[5] (Eventually, in the 20th century, the Coast Guard would be reconstituted as a life-saving organisation under the auspices of the Board of Trade.)

The Waterguard[edit]

In 1891 a specialist Waterguard service was re-established within HM Customs, dedicated to rummaging vessels and combatting smuggling.[9]

20th-21st century[edit]

HM Revenue Cutter Vigilant.

In 1971, the Waterguard (whose uniformed officers had long been a common sight at entry points into the United Kingdom) was fully amalgamated into HMCE. In 2005, its functions were transferred (along with the organisation responsible for them) to HMRC; but in 2008 they were again transferred (at least in part) to the new UK Border Agency of the Home Office,[10] which due to various failings was itself disbanded in 2012, whereupon a new UK Border Force was established with border enforcement responsibilities and powers.

During this time a fleet of Customs Cutters (latterly 42 metre Damen patrol vessels) continued to operate throughout UK territorial waters inspecting vessels for illicit cargoes (especially for drugs and the excessive fish catches which wreaked havoc on the European fishing community in the late 20th and early 21st centuries). After the merger with the Inland Revenue these continued to operate as HMRC vessels, before becoming part of the UK Border Agency and then the Border Force.


Peaked cap as worn by Preventive officers when in uniform.

The majority of staff belonged to the Civil Service grades (generally clerical, executive, and secretariat). They were responsible for excise duties, purchase tax, import duties and, from 1972, VAT. The main grades were clerical staff, Officer of C&E, Allowanced Officer of C&E (the allowance was for taking on certain administrative duties e.g. rostering), Surveyor of C&E – all of which were at 'district' level and then Assistant Collector, Deputy Collector and Collector (regional management). The regions of London Port and Liverpool (later 'London Airports' was added) were graded as slightly higher than the others. All grades were amalgamated and incorporated into the general Civil Service grades in 1971.[2]

The Investigation Division was headed by a Chief Investigation Officer, equivalent in rank to a Collector, assisted by a Deputy Chief Investigation Officer and a number of Assistant Chief Investigation Officers. Each team of, usually, six was headed by a Senior Investigation Officer (equivalent to a Surveyor or SEO) and consisted of a mix of Investigation Officers and Higher Investigation Officers.

Officers of the Waterguard (after 1971 the Preventive Service) had their own rank structure and wore uniform. This was identical to the Royal Navy officers’ uniform with the exception of the cap badge (a crowned portcullis with flying chains), buttons (a crown rather than the fouled anchor) and the cuff rank lace (which only extended halfway round the cuff, rather than full cuff as in the Royal Navy (this possibly believed to be a WWII cost-cutting measure)).

Prior to 1946, Chief Preventive Officers (CPO) wore two and a half gold stripes on their uniform while Preventive Officers (PO) had one stripe and Assistant Preventive Officers (APO) no stripe. After that date CPOs wore three stripes, Preventive Officers (later Executive Officers (Preventive)) two stripes and Assistant Preventive Officers (later Assistant Officers (Preventive)) one stripe. All uniformed grades wore a Navy curl; CPOs were further distinguished by having a row of gold oak leaves on the peak of the cap. Higher grades were the Assistant Superintendent and Superintendent, neither of whom wore a uniform.

Famous Customs and Excise officers[edit]

Some of the more well-known figures to have served as Customs officers or Excise men are Robert Burns, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Congreve, Daniel Defoe, John Dryden, Thomas Paine and Adam Smith.[11] A number of senior officers in London went on to serve as Lord Mayor, including Sir Nicholas Brembre, Sir William Walworth and Sir Richard ('Dick') Whittington.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "About us". HM Revenue and Customs. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Introducing HM Customs & Excise (1971)
  3. ^ "Rummage". Oxford Living Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2 March 2018. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Records of the Boards of Customs, Excise, and Customs and Excise, and HM Revenue and Customs". The National Archives. Retrieved 27 November 2017. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Smith, Graham (1980). Something to Declare: 1000 years of Customs and Excise. London: Harrap. ISBN 0 245 53472 5. 
  6. ^ Heckscher, Eli F (1935). Mercantilism. 1 (1994 ed.). London: Routledge. p. 52. ISBN 9781315003993. 
  7. ^ a b c d Lavery, Brian (1989). Nelson's Navy: the Ships, Men and Organisation, 1793-1815. London: Conway Maritime Press. 
  8. ^ "History of Smuggling". Border Force National Museum. Liverpool Museums: Maritime Archives and Library. Retrieved 2 March 2018. 
  9. ^ "History of Rummage". Border Force National Museum. Liverpool Museums: Maritime Archives and Library. Retrieved 2 March 2018. 
  10. ^ "Launch of Britain's new unified Border Agency". UK Border Agency. 3 April 2008. Archived from the original on 7 September 2008. 
  11. ^ "Custom House". Open House London. Retrieved 30 November 2017. 

External links[edit]

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