Customs House including north bank of Purfleet Quay


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Statutory Address:
Customs House including north bank of Purfleet Quay, Purfleet Quay, King's Lynn, Norfolk, PE30 1HP


Ordnance survey map of Customs House including north bank of Purfleet Quay
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Statutory Address:
Customs House including north bank of Purfleet Quay, Purfleet Quay, King's Lynn, Norfolk, PE30 1HP

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

King's Lynn and West Norfolk (District Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
TF 61627 20042


Customs House built in 1683 to the designs of Henry Bell.

Reasons for Designation

The Customs House, built in 1683 to the designs of Henry Bell, is listed at Grade I for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* it is an exquisitely proportioned building with elevations of outstanding architectural refinement;

* it is the masterpiece of Henry Bell who was the first man in King’s Lynn to appreciate the national architectural trends of the late C17;

* Bell’s assimilation of influences from the capital and Holland resulted in his design of the first classical building in King’s Lynn, and according to Pevsner, ‘one of the most perfect classical buildings in provincial England’;

* the interior retains C18 joinery of a high quality, notably the panelling and the upper flight of the staircase, adding considerably to the already exceptional interest of the building.

Historic interest:

* it is an important representative of the trade that made King's Lynn a prosperous national port in the C17 and C18;

* it forms a highly significant element in an area of King’s Lynn characterised by its rich architectural and historic legacy.

Group value:

* it has strong group value with many neighbouring listed buildings, notably 1 King Street (around 1670), the home of Sir John Turner who commissioned the Customs House.


King’s Lynn, first called Bishop’s Lynn, was founded in 1095 by Bishop Herbert de Losinga, who in the previous year had transferred the see from Thetford to Norwich. There was already an existing settlement which appears to have been based around a salt-water lagoon, or series of inlets, with its centre round the present All Saints Church. Losinga’s town developed to the north of this, between All Saints Church and Saturday Market Place where St Margaret’s Church and Priory were established from Norwich around 1100. Rapid expansion from the C12 onwards required an extension of the town, and Bishop William Turbe laid out a new settlement north of the Purfleet from around 1145, with its market at Tuesday Market Place and the Chapel of St Nicholas as a chapel of ease to St Margaret’s. Both settlements were united under a royal charter in 1204, the united town being named Bishop’s Lynn. Until the early C13, the Great Ouse emptied via the Wellstream at Wisbech, however following floods in the C13, the river was redirected to join the Wash at Bishop’s Lynn. The town became one of England’s busiest ports, serving the Ouse and its tributaries, exporting wool and cloth, and importing wine, timber and luxury goods, being adopted as a member of the original medieval Hanseatic League. This extremely influential trading association linked a group of towns around the Baltic and the North Seas, and played an important role in the prosperity and development of Bishop’s Lynn as a national port, which by the C14, was ranked as the third port of England (after London and Southampton).

Losinga’s town round the Saturday Market was protected from the river immediately to its west by the ‘great bank’, an earthwork which ran along the present line of Nelson Street, St Margaret’s Place and Queen Street. By about 1500 the river had moved approximately 50m west and was consolidated another 45m by the new South Quay in 1855. The period of development of the area between the Millfleet and Purfleet can therefore be identified, as well as building types and plans. The generous-sized plots are reflected in the surviving buildings dating from the C14 to the C17, which surround open courtyards. To the north, on Bishop Turbe’s ‘newe lande’, much the same pattern emerges: originally the west side of Tuesday Market Place was washed by the river, with King Street forming the line of the bank. The west side of King Street was built upon in the C13, with narrow plots, elongating in stages until river movement ceased in the C17. As land became available, warehouses were built straight onto the river front. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536-1537, the town and manor became royal property, and Bishop’s Lynn was renamed King’s Lynn or Lynn Regis.

Lynn’s prosperity as a national port was based entirely on trade, and the merchant class dominated the social and economic life of the town until the C19. When the Fens began to be drained in the mid-C17 and land turned to agricultural use, King’s Lynn grew prosperous from the export of corn: cereal export dominated from the C16, and especially in the C18. Coal and wine continued to be imported for distribution inland, and until the railway age, Lynn was the chief East Anglian port for both. Prosperity continued until continental trade was disturbed by the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), followed by a brief revival. The economy and population dwindled following the relatively late arrival of railway services to King’s Lynn in 1847, compounded by the irrevocable decline of coastal trading.

The Customs House is one of the most prominent buildings in the town. It was built as a merchants’ exchange in 1683, commissioned by Sir John Turner MP, a local wine merchant and three times mayor of King’s Lynn. The ground upon which it was built was granted by the Council at an annual rent of one shilling, and the building opened for business in 1685, the year that John Turner received his knighthood. Turner employed a fellow councillor Henry Bell (1647-1711) to design the exchange. The son of a prosperous Lynn merchant, Bell attended the local Grammar School and then took a degree at Caius College, Cambridge, after which he embarked on a tour of Europe. On his father’s death in 1686 he inherited property in Lynn and continued his business as a merchant, taking on architectural commissions for his own personal interest. Bell was jointly in charge of the rebuilding of Northampton after the fire of 1675 but all his other documented works are in King’s Lynn. These include the Market Cross (1707-1710, demolished 1831); the altarpieces of St Margaret’s Church and St Nicholas’s Church, set up in 1684 and 1704 respectively, but both since removed; and possibly the Duke’s Head (around 1684, Grade II-listed). In 1690 he became an alderman, and served as mayor in 1692 and 1703. Bell was influenced by the architectural trends in London and Holland: Edward Jerman’s Royal Exchange in London (1667-1671; destroyed by fire 1838) appears to have been a prototype for the Customs House, as does Pieter Post’s Stadhuis in Maastricht, Holland (approximately 1658-1664).

The first floor of the merchants’ exchange was let to the Collector of Customs and it became the official Customs House in 1703, being sold to the Crown in 1717 for £800. The ground-floor arcades were originally open (except on the west side) as a meeting place for merchants, but these were blocked up in either 1718 or 1741/1742 (sources differ as to the date). Two out of the four internal columns on the ground floor were removed and in their place masonry and timber partitions were inserted. The upper timber structure was damaged in the great gale of 1741 and was subsequently redesigned and lowered. The balustrade at the base of the roof was removed and the obelisk was replaced with an ogee cap. The large room along the west side of the first floor was originally divided by a partition with a connecting door which was removed in the 1950s. It is known as the Long Room, named after a room in the London Customs House, where ships’ masters came to make report of their vessels and importers to make entry of their goods. The northern section was the original Long Room, and the southern section was the Landing and Coast Office. In the late C18 the attic was used for the storage of dry goods, Customs’ documents and stationery. In the C19 it provided living accommodation for one of the junior officers and was used as such until 1936. The Customs House continued to be occupied by HM Customs and Excise until 1989 when it passed into private ownership. It is currently (2017) leased by Norfolk Borough Council and occupied by Tourist Information.


Customs House built in 1683 to the designs of Henry Bell.

MATERIALS: ashlar limestone from Ketton quarry with stone dressings and plain clay tile roof below a lead-covered flat centre section.

PLAN: it is located on the north bank of Purfleet Quay and is almost square on plan.

EXTERIOR: the building is in the classical style, originally in the form of an open arcade, with a first floor and attic under a hipped roof with an acanthus modillion eaves cornice. The north and south elevations are of five bays, and the east and west of four, all broadly similar. The arcade bays (blocked in the C18) are separated by Roman Doric pilasters supporting a plain Doric entablature and have keystones in the form of different masks, including that of Bacchus, the god of wine, and Ceres, the goddess of agricultural fertility, representing two of King’s Lynn’s main trading goods: wine and grain. The end bays have two blind recessed panels, vertically placed, except for the upper panel on the right hand side of the south elevation which is glazed with leaded lights. The first floor is lit by mullioned and transomed cross casements with leaded lights in the middle bays, and a single-light transomed casement in the end bays. The bays are divided by Ionic pilasters with garlanded capitals.

The north elevation has a broken-forward central bay with a heavy double-leaf panelled door. The entablature above bears a cartouche with the coat of arms of John Turner, and a plaque dedicated to commercial and nautical business with the inscription: Mercaturx Reicp Nauticx Hoc posuit Johannes Turner Anno dom CDDCLXXXIII Arm. Above on the first floor is an arched niche with the statue of Charles II on a fluted semi-circular pedestal flanked by a pair of Corinthian pilasters. There is a shallow pediment over this bay. The arcades on the east elevation are filled in, as are those on the south elevation except for the central bay which has a double-leaf door with flush panels beneath a semicircular fanlight with radiating glazing bars, and HL hinges on the internal side. This provided access to the landing platform for the Customs’ cutter. On the west elevation the arcade bays are glazed with leaded lights which have radial glazing bars, possibly of C19 date.

The north and south roof slopes are lit by two pedimented dormers separated by a segmental-headed dormer. The east and west slopes have two pedimented dormers, all with two-light casements and wholly within the roof space. Resting on the flat centre section is a timber lantern of Greek cross plan composed of four arches each carrying a pediment with angle pilasters and Corinthian capitals. This is surmounted by a hexagonal lantern with an ogee cap. The flat centre section has a turned balustrade with square corner piers, the eastern two being disguised chimney flues. INTERIOR: the ground floor was originally open, as already described, with four bridging beams running north-south and one running east-west, at the junctions of which were four entactic Doric columns resting on octagonal bases, of which the two western ones survive. The room in the north-east corner, once known as the King’s Warehouse, has a wide panelled door with strap hinges and a lock case. The oak staircase and bolection moulded panelling was installed in 1718 but the lower flights were remade in the 1930s in the same style. The C18 upper flight has a closed and moulded string, dumb-bell balusters, and a heavy handrail supported on square newels with flat square caps.

On the first floor the Long Room, which occupies the western side, has large framed panelling, probably of 1741, with a dado rail and narrow horizontal panels along the top. On the cornice there is a mark indicating the former partition that was removed to create one large room. On the east wall are two fireplaces, that on the left has a pulvinated frieze, moulded overmantel and stone flagged hearth; and that on the right, now blocked up, has a simple moulded surround with a plain central panel. To the right of the fireplaces are built-in cupboards; that on the left retains HL hinges. The cupboard to the left of the right fireplace has been knocked through to create access to the Surveyor’s Room which occupies the north-east corner. This has smaller-framed fielded panelling, probably dating to 1718, with a moulded dado rail and cornice. The room also retains panelled window jambs, two-panelled doors and a fireplace composed of moulded stone jambs and entablature set directly into the panelling. The small room to the south of the staircase was used for storing wood for fires in the C18 and retains some lead pipework.

The attic has been subdivided into small rooms, most of which have modern doors. The roof structure has principal rafters with butt purlins, and the cupola is supported on four cross-braced trusses.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: the quay was probably a loading point of the Purfleet from the C13, and certainly a lime and stone quay existed in 1547. The present brick structure, laid in English bond with limestone dressings, is a result of continuous repair and rebuilding, the earliest identifiable elements being of C17 date. The listed section begins at the south-east corner of the Customs House and runs 60m west along the north bank of the Purfleet, including the brick retaining wall, its stone capping and the stone steps leading down to the quay.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Colvin, H, A Biographical Dictionary of English Architects 1530-1830, (1995)
Pevsner, N, Wilson, B, The Buildings of England: Norfolk 2: North-West and South, (2002)
Visit West Norfolk, ‘Maritime Kings Lynn’, accessed 1 September 2017 from


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 07 Jan 2001
Reference: IOE01/03146/16
Rights: Copyright IoE Graham Brown. Source Historic England Archive
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