One of Sydney’s most important heritage buildings will remain in public hands after being sold to the City of Sydney. 

The history of Customs House

Customs House Sydney has a long, rich history. Designed by architect Mortimer Lewis and opened in 1845, the building was home to the Australian customs service for 145 years. It dominated the waterfront, symbolising British power over the sea and trade. 

customs house 1900
Customs House circa 1900. Image credit: State Library of NSW

In the early days of the colony, Customs House was the gateway for all goods and people coming in, and the taxes and tariffs it charged were the colony’s sole source of income. Eventually, Customs House also became a watchdog for socially unacceptable goods, ideas and diseases coming into the country. 

crowded customs house 1900s
Customs House was once a hotbed of activity, as the gateway to the colony. Image credit: Heritage NSW

“The government first introduced income tax during World War 1. Prior to this, customs income was the chief source of government revenue,” says xx of x.

“As late as 1924, customs tax still contributed more than 70 percent of the nation’s revenue, meaning Customs House played an enormous role in funding Australia during the early years of Federation.”

Following Federation in 1901, the Customs Department and Customs House came under government control. In the decades that followed, the wool stores and shipping businesses of the 19th century started to dwindle, being replaced with skyscrapers, a train station and the Cahill Expressway. Throughout this process, Customs House started to lose its connection with the harbour. 

In 1990, the customs department moved out of the building. The rise in shipping containers, computers and aviation meant proximity to the harbour was less important than ever. 

Four years later, the City of Sydney started to lease and manage the building, turning it into the vibrant space that it is today. 

A new chapter

The City of Sydney has purchased Customs House, after leasing it from the Commonwealth Department of Finance for almost 25 years. 

“Customs House is one of Australia’s finest buildings and I’m delighted it will remain in public hands,” says lord mayor Clover Moore. 

“It remains one of Sydney’s most iconic buildings, welcoming a million visitors through its doors each year. It’s a cultural centre, public library, exhibition space and provides commercial offices, cafes and space for events. It’s also home to an ever-evolving scale model of our city centre which is loved by children and other visitors. 

“We will now look at how we can improve the building to ensure it remains a valuable community asset for generations to come.”