Pioneering Families of Australia


Development of the Port & Customs Office

of Melbourne

The first Customs officer arrived in Melbourne in 1836, only two years after its founding.


Governor Bourke in Sydney had to accept the illegal settlement at Port Phillip by John Batman and his fellow entrepreneurs. There was little he could do to prevent it. But Bourke could at least ensure that smuggling was prevented and that customs duties were paid on all goods brought into Melbourne.


Robert Webb established his customs house in a round white tent pitched beside the Yarra River, close to where the boats unloaded their stock and supplies.



The customs service immediately paid its way. In 1837 Webb collected duties of 3000 pounds from 140 ships, far more than his annual salary of 200.

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The gold rush in the 1850s brought a dramatic increase in trade and a constant flow of immigrants to Victoria. When Victoria was proclaimed a separate colony in 1850 there had been concern whether the new government could raise sufficient revenue.


The Customs department was the governments own gold mine. Duties were levied on all the imported luxuries brought into the wealthy colony, while a tax was levied on the export of gold. Customs revenue in 1850 totalled 84,000. In 1854 the customs officers collected the same amount in a month.


Not everybody appreciated this success. The Melbourne Morning Herald fumed that customs officers were 'engaged in nothing more than in so disguising the medicine of taxation that the patient shall take it without being aware of the precise moment when he does so'.

Customs officers controlled immigration into Victoria. Any person regarded as undesirable could be refused entry.


Immigration restrictions in Victoria began during the gold rush, when a landing tax was imposed on all Chinese arrivals. By the 1880s, Chinese immigration was barred. Restrictions soon applied to all non-Europeans.


The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 introduced the Dictation Test, which enabled anyone to be excluded on racial grounds. Those non-Europeans who did arrive could not become naturalised or bring their families to Australia. By the 1920s and 1930s, quotas and landing taxes also restricted immigration from many European countries.


From the 1940s, restrictive policies were gradually dismantled. Not until the 1970s was all reference to race finally removed from the immigration laws.

During the 1850s, an endless procession of customs agents and ship captains climbed the stairs to the Customs House. By this time, the building stood at the centre of a busy maritime precinct.


The gateway to the Victorian goldfields and agricultural districts, the bustling port was a scene of continual activity.


Newly arrived immigrants crowded the wharves. Ships brought supplies for the new colony, and departed with Australian wool and gold.


Imported goods were hauled to the nearby Western Markets, or stored in the many commercial bond stores that ringed the area. Private wharves and crowded warehouses lined the waterfront, and the offices of navigation companies and ship owners were nearby.


Numerous hotels, attracted by the commercial opportunities in the busy precinct, offered temporary accommodation for travellers and immigrants, and entertainment to visiting sailors.

'Anything to Declare?'

As now, one of the main functions of Customs Officers was to prevent smuggling of illegal goods, and to ensure that customs duty was paid on imported goods.


When ships arrived at the port, passengers disembarked, the cargo was unloaded and the Customs 'Landing Waiter' checked the papers listing the cargo and persons on board. He then superintended the discharge of cargo and determined whether duties had to be paid.


Passenger's cabin baggage could be inspected when they disembarked. Because luggage held in the ship's hold would take longer to unload, passengers would typically return the next day to the Customs Shed at the pier or at Spencer Street railway station to clear the remainder of their luggage.