Customs is a tax on all imported goods and has been levied by the government from the middle ages onwards. Until 1671 Customs taxes were ‘farmed’ out, meaning competing people bid to collect a nominated sum that was then paid to the Crown. Any profit raised above this total was theirs to keep.
Incoming and outgoing cargoes were checked by paid officers who would meet ships arriving from abroad to check cargoes before they landed. Teams of boatmen would intercepted ships whilst still at sea. The officers would assess any duties on imported goods and mark the cargoes before entering port.
Customs for Lancaster were organised by the Port of Chester until 1732. The officials were required to fill in ‘Port Books’, blank books issued each year to each port. Details collected included port of cleaning, contents and duty paid.
Trade was carried out with the West Indies, America, the Baltic, Ireland and other parts of the UK, such as Whitehaven and Liverpool, and smaller local ports such as Milnthorpe and Ulveston.
Hemp, flax, hides, tallow, tar, timber and linen came to Lancaster from Russia and the Baltic. Going out were goods such as pewter, brass, wrought iron and perry.
Before the American War of Independence there was direct trade with the American colonies. Exports included cloth, haberdashery items, clothing, shoes, handkerchiefs, leather goods, saddlery, paper, mirrors, gunpowder, pewter, lead, nails and wrought iron. Tobacco was imported from the colonies. Following the War of Independence direct trade took place with Canada, importing timber.
In Africa, Lancaster merchants exchanged metal goods, cowrie shells, cloth and alcohol for slaves. The slaves were then taken to the West Indies, where they were exchanged for sugar, rum, alcohol, tropical hardwoods, tobacco and coffee.