A review of our July talk by Mary Champion

Ron Davies, a retired schoolmaster, came to talk to us on Tuesday 19th July. Ron's subject was History and he now works, in a voluntary capacity, as the official publicist of the Customs & Excise Museum which forms part of the Merseyside Maritime Museum.

The purpose of Customs, he told us, is to collect revenue and to protect society, while that of Excise is solely to collect revenue. Excise is the tax paid on tobacco, beer, spirits, petrol, diesel and heating fuel - based on the value, or volume, or quantity. Examples of the formulae used for working it out are to be found at the Museum. From 1203 onwards, cargoes came to be loaded and unloaded at legal quays, Customs Houses were placed near the quays to keep an eye on affairs, and customs officers patrolled to prevent illegal landings. The principal officers were the Collectors, who took the money and sent it to the Exchequer in London, and the Searchers who examined the goods and assessed the amount of duty to be paid. Every major port had a Customs House - on the first floor was the Long Room where the merchants paid the duty and on the ground floor was the weighing area. The basement was used for storing seized goods.

In the mid-nineteenth century the development of steamships and the rise of the prosperous middle classes meant more people travelling. In the twentieth century airliners increased travel again. In 1909, when Bleriot flew the Channel, the Dover Customs Officer issued him with a quarantine certificate classifying his aeroplane as a yacht! By the 1950s travel had increased so much that officers could not check everyone's luggage, and the Red and Green channels were introduced.

Smuggling reached its peak in the 1700s. High duties on imported goods led to organised smuggling on a grand scale - spirits, tea and tobacco were in great demand. An electric map in the Museum shows that smuggling was rife all over the country. The smuggler was often portrayed as a romantic figure, and there are many tales of smuggling in the North West - but not enough room to include them here!

Nowadays, the war against drugs is of paramount importance - lorries and cargo ships are frequently used for smuggling. Also the trade in 'endangered species' has become a problem, much of it ivory which comes in disguised. Other smuggled objects are guns, pornographic books and films, and fake goods. The Museum makes people aware of the problem - and the high-tech equipment which is used to combat it - and trained officers speak to children in schools.

This is just a résumé of Ron's fascinating talk. Many of us, I am sure, will be off to see the Customs & Excise Museum, which is situated at Liverpool's Albert Dock.

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