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1788: a complicated site

For many years the Customs House site was thought of as the place where Captain Arthur Phillip raised the Union Flag on 26 January 1788 and created the Colony of New South Wales.

Recent research reveals that the flag raising occurred on the west side of the cove, among rocks that have since been buried behind the Overseas Passenger Terminal.¹

This historical event has been described very differently over the years. From romantic prose suggesting ‘terra nullius’ to the acknowledgement of the destructive impact of invasion on Aboriginal culture – it’s a complex history to navigate.

1 Michael Flynn and Gary Sturgess, ‘New Evidence on Arthur Phillip’s First Landing Place – 26 January 1788’, History: Magazine of the Royal Australian Historical Society, (December 2014) no 122, 3–5

"The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788" / Original [oil] sketch [1937] by Algernon Talmage R.A.

1845–1990: crowded house

Sydney’s Customs House opened on 17 April 1845 and was home to the Australian Customs Service for 145 years. It dominated the waterfront as a symbol of British power over sea and trade.

A gateway for goods, people and ideas entering the colony, Customs House was the only supervisor of shipping in a colony dependent on maritime trade. The taxes and tariffs applied by Customs House were also the only source of income in a colony struggling for economic survival.

Soon customs agents, bond stores, warehouses, shipping brokers, wool buyers, and pubs rose up around Customs House.

As the population increased so did trade, passenger ships and immigration. With more products entering the country, import taxes increased and opium, alcohol and tobacco smuggling became rife – along with pillaging on the wharves.

As Sydney became the wool capital of the world, the quay filled with even more ships and Customs House continued to expand.

When the port was busy, it became a vibrant place filled with noises, smells and people while Customs House became a dramatic place filled with long queues and raised tempers.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries Customs House also became a watchdog over socially unacceptable products, ideas and diseases entering the country. Banned products included opium, astrological charts, electric goods for therapeutic purposes and, after a 1903 Royal Commission into declining birth rates, contraceptive devices.

As the notorious 1901 White Australia Policy took effect, Customs officers enforced strict immigration laws against Chinese people and non-Europeans by conducting complicated dictation tests – in any European language they chose. People smuggling escalated. Customs officers searched ships for stowaways and patrolled the wharves catching those who swam ashore in the dead of night.

George Peacock's 1845 view of Customs House with The Rocks in the background (Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW, DG 35)

Farewell to the old House

After Federation in 1901, the Customs department and Customs House came under federal government control.

Over the following decades, the wool stores and shipping businesses of 19th century gradually disappeared and were replaced by skyscrapers, a railway station and the Cahill Expressway.

Customs House became separated from its natural relationship with the harbour.

Although customs headquarters were based in Melbourne, Sydney’s Customs House still managed business in New South Wales.

With the onset of shipping containers, computers and aviation, the customs department no longer needed a waterfront location. On 15 June 1990, Customs left the building.

In 1994 the City transformed the building into the creative cultural venue it is today.

Discoveries in The Rocks show remains of an Aboriginal fireplace and meal of rock oyster, hairy mussel, snapper and bream dated to about 340 years before British settlement. Traces of Aboriginal habitation can still be found in shell middens around the harbour foreshore.

A view of Sydney NSW entering the heads. (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)
A view of Sydney NSW entering the heads. (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)