Customs House

Immigration Museum from Flinders Street in afternoon



The Building

Three customs buildings have occupied the current site of the Old Customs House, culminating in the existing grand structure. Archaeological digs have revealed the foundations of the earlier buildings, and a detailed restoration project has returned the Customs House to its former glory.

Three Customs Houses

Illustration of Custom House 1853
Illustration of Custom House lithographed & published by Stringer, Mason & Co., Melbourne, 1853.

The first iteration of Customs House was a white tent pitched on the banks of the Yarra, soon to be replaced with a structure described as a 'shabby, leaky, comfortless, weatherboard cabin' which shipped in pieces from Sydney and erected here during the 1830s.

As trade increased, a two-storey bluestone Customs House was completed in 1841. Designed by the Government architect in Sydney, it was Melbourne's first stone building. However, by the 1850s critics called it one of the 'ugliest and most inconvenient of all our public buildings'.

With the vast increase in revenue brought by the gold rush, the Victorian Government commissioned immigrant architect Peter Kerr to design a new Customs House. Although the building was occupied by Customs in 1858, a shortage of funds prevented its completion. The building was finally completed in 1876, to a modified design by Kerr and two other government architects.

Robert Russell's 'Melbourne from the Falls from sketch Nov. 6. 1844'

1841 Building 

As Melbourne's trade increased, a bluestone Customs House with a slate roof was completed on this site in 1841. It sat by the Turning Basin, a natural pool on the Yarra River that was the highest point to which ships could navigate up the river.

Convicts were used to row the customs officers out to ships moored in the bay. Although the settlement was not a penal colony, several hundred convicts worked as servants or on government duties.

The Present Building

External view of 3-storey grand building
The grand facade of the completed Customs House, 1876.

The present Customs House building is the result of two separate building phases over 20 years, architect Peter Kerr was involved in both.

With vastly expanded trade and soaring revenue from the gold rush, the Victorian colonial government commissioned Peter Kerr to design a new Customs House. Construction of the building commenced in 1855, but halted in 1858 when the economy slowed and government revenue declined.

Completion of a redesigned building recommenced in 1873, to a new design by Kerr and two other government architects, John James Clark and Arthur Ebden Johnson. The final 1876 building incorporated the Long Room from the 1850s building.

The Long Room of the New Custom House, 1876. Source: State Library of Victoria

A Grand Palace 

The Customs House was built to be one of Melbourne's grand buildings. Its grandeur declared that Melbourne was a thriving and wealthy metropolis, linked by trade to Britain and the other major cities of the British Empire.

Customs was the treasure house of government income. Until the introduction of income tax in 1915, customs duties raised some four-fifths of all government revenue.

The architecture was based on an Italian Renaissance palace. In the Palazzo style, the ground floor is a storage area, and the main activity occurs on the piano nobile (noble level) on the first floor.

Architect Peter Kerr modelled the ionic columns and door architraves on details of the Erechtheion temple in Athens. The plaster decorations may have been manufactured locally by British and Italian modellers, who established a local industry in the 1850s.


Two archaeologists digging pits
Uncovering foundations of a row of narrow toilet cubicles used by early customs officials, 1998.

An archaeological survey at the rear of the site in 1997 identified building footings from a previous occupancy.


When the project to transform the Customs House into the Immigration Museum began in 1998, the building had been empty for six years. It was in a state of disrepair, and decades of alterations obscured many of its original features.

Since its construction in 1876, considerable changes had been made to the building's interior to accommodate a growing Customs Service. After Customs officers moved out in 1965, the building was used as Melbourne offices for the Commonwealth Parliament and its local members. Linoleum tiles had replaced original floors, a rabbit warren of office partitions disguised the original layout, plasterwork was cracked and paintwork peeling.

The challenge was to restore the Customs House to its original design, while adapting it to operate as a modern museum. Many of the twentieth century additions were erased, and architectural features such as tiled floors, moulded ceilings and timber details were restored.


Customs History

Within a generation, the gold rushes and pastoral industry transformed Melbourne from a small town into a bustling metropolis. The work of customs officers reflected those broader changes, as they sought to regulate trade and immigration.

Early Customs, 1830s 

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. 

White tent on river bank
The Customs tent by the Yarra River, 1836.

The Customs Tent 

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 from 140 ships, far more than his annual salary of 200.

Maritime Trade, 1840s 

Melbourne's maritime trade expanded rapidly through the 1840s. Manufactured goods for the expanding town and surrounding farming districts came through Melbourne's port. Large amounts of imported spirits and tobacco generated much customs revenue.

Melbourne from the south side of the Yarra River in 1839
Melbourne from the south side of the Yarra River, 1839.

Even stock and wool that was loaded at Geelong had to be cleared through customs at Melbourne, an arrangement that infuriated Geelong merchants.

In 1840 Melbourne was declared a free warehousing port, which meant that merchants could hold their imported goods in bonded warehouses, and only pay customs duty once they sold the goods. Commercial bond stores sprung up around the port in the vicinity of the customs house.

The Gold Rush, 1850s 

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 government's 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'.

Ships, warehouses, men and cargo at Melbourne docks
Customs House enclosure, Melbourne, 1858

Melbourne's Port, 1850s

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.


The primary role of customs officers was to calculate the tariff payable on goods imported into Victoria. The term was derived from the ransoms demanded by the pirates of Cape Tariffe.

Customs officers spent a great deal of their time measuring and weighing goods, and then calculating the amount of duty to be paid by the importer. The tariffs for different products varied, and officers consulted published lists.

'Anything to Declare?' 

Illustration of customs officers examining baggage
Victorian customs officers examining baggage at Spencer Street railway station, Illustrated Australian News, 1 June 1889

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.


Men measuring large kegs for alcohol content
Gaugers at work measuring the alcoholic strength of spirits, c. 1907.

Calculating the duty payable on a barrel of brandy was a detailed task. The gauger had to measure the barrel to determine its volume. Barrels were irregular in shape, and finding the volume required several measurements and checking tables of figures.

Alcoholic content was then measured with a hydrometer. The duty varied according to the alcoholic strength of the spirits. Imported spirits attracted a duty of 12 shillings per gallon; more if the spirits were above 'proof'.

Protection and Federation 

Officers examining crates on horse-drawn wagon
Passing through Customs at Wodonga, 1881

Customs tariffs were not just the major source of government revenue. They were a major instrument of government policy.

The nineteenth century Victorian economy rested on wool, gold and manufacturing. The colonial government used import tariffs as a way of protecting these industries. Farming and mining equipment were brought in free, but imported manufactured goods that would compete with local industries were subject to high tariffs.

These duties applied equally to items brought from New South Wales or South Australia as they did to items imported from Europe. Customs houses were built at all the major crossing points into the colony, and customs officers patrolled the borders to prevent smuggling.

Crowds of families their goods disembarking at a port
Immigrants arrive with their goods at Queens Wharf, near the Customs House, 1854.

Compared to the other Australian colonies, Victoria was protectionist, with high tariffs. The debates between free trade and protectionism fuelled the political debates over Federation, and the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 brought a welcome relief from the hated customs posts on state borders.

Controlling Immigrants 

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.

The Dictation Test 

Officer kicking Santa Claus off pier
A newspaper cartoon from the early 1900s, commenting on the newly introduced Dictation Test.

From 1901 customs officers were given the power to exclude all non-Europeans. This became the cornerstone of the so-called White Australia Policy.

In the face of considerable international criticism, officials looked for a way to exclude people without making it seem due to race. The answer was the notorious Dictation Test. Immigrants could be required to pass a language test in any European language. If they failed, they were refused entry.

Maltese applicants were given a test in Dutch. A political activist who spoke several European languages eventually failed when he was tested in Gaelic.

This technique continued to be used by Customs until the early 1960s

Administering the Dictation Test, 1950s

"If you wished to keep an immigrant out of Australia - and this could apply to anyone - you could apply the Dictation Test. That meant giving him a test in dictation in a language other than his own. We had to have an interpreter as well, to have it explained. It wasn't so difficult with the Chinese, because there were many Chinese restaurant proprietors. Often you'd pick the Sydney Morning Herald editorial, which most Australians probably couldn't understand anyway. You would read not less than 50 words. Some of us even made up our own tests:

'The harassed pedlar met the embarrassed cobbler in the cemetery gauging the symmetry of a lady's ankle in unparalleled ecstasy.'

It was most embarrassing to stand there and watch the - you know, the look on their face, and you'd say 'righto, well are you finished?' And there'd be a blank piece of paper. They then had to make a mark or sign their name at the bottom.

You assembled the documents, charged them at the police court. 'It was a breach of the Immigration Act', and so on. They'd be held in jail until the hearing the next day. At the hearing you'd get up and say, 'I applied the Dictation Test as follows'. They'd then be found prohibited in terms of the Immigration Act and held at Her Majesty's pleasure pending deportation.

The heavens would open and fall on you if someone passed the Dictation Test. I could legally deputise a German to come in and give him Ethiopian. It was intended that no one passed. It was the ultimate weapon to keep people out of Australia."

- Wall Moore, ex-Newcastle Customs Officer

Step Inside

Each area within the Old Customs House has many layers of history that reflect the diverse activities of the customs officials.

Long Room 

Grand hall filled with 1870s people
Merchants and customs agents gather in the recently completed Long Room, 1876.

The Long Room's dramatic scale and decorations emphasised the importance of the Customs department, in the same way a ballroom in a private home advertised the owner's wealth and status.

The Weekly Times applauded the design:

'This Long Room is a hall of noble proportions and is finished in a style which will secure unbounded admiration from all whose business leaves them free to appreciate the beautiful in art.'

The Long Room was the heart of Melbourne's trade for over 100 years.

White men checking Chinese immigrant's paperwork
Customs officers checking the identity papers of Chinese immigrants, 1895.

It was a noisy, bustling place, where merchants and customs agents came to pay duty on imported goods. On busy days, up to 30 customs officers and 100 customers would be processing forms. 

Immigration Office

The Immigration Office occupied other sections of the building, wherein Customs oversaw the arrival and departure of immigrants, both in the building and on the wharves. Its officers inspected luggage and validated documents, determining whether immigrants matched the identity papers they carried. The Passenger Act was implemented in the 1850s to prevent unscrupulous captains from overcrowding ships to increase profits.

Customs also enforced a range of immigration restrictions. During the gold rush, officers collected the poll tax from Chinese immigrants. From 1901 they administered various parts of the White Australia Policy, including the discriminatory Dictation Test.

Bond Store

Men seizing cargo marked with Chinese writing
Customs officers seizing smuggled goods in Little Bourke Street, 1882.

Bluestone vaults on the ground floor of the Customs House housed the Bond Store.

Imported goods were held in bond until customs duty had been paid. As Melbourne's trade grew, privately owned bond stores sprang up around the port, supervised by customs officers.

The vaults also held the evidence of attempts to breach the law and evade customs regulations - opium and whisky smuggled into Port Phillip on a recent ship; or illegal distilling equipment seized in a raid.

The Censorship Office


'Mr Ivo Hammett, Melbourne's literary examining officer, had his table piled high with the day's intake - dozens of crime and sex magazines, German sunbathers, English horror stories, Forever Amber in German, Love Me Sailor in French.

Newspaper clipping titled Tasters in Chief from 1954
Newspaper clipping Tasters in Chief from The Sun Weekend Magazine 20 March 1954

In the past three years there has been a tremendous increase in the flow of objectionable literature. Recent prosecutions in Britain have underlined the scope of the trade in crime, sex and brutality.

It is so big that here they are banning a dozen books each day.

In each State they come to the local man who looks them over. If he thinks there is a case against them, their offences are noted and they're sent to Canberra. There the Literature Censorship Board, headed by Dr L.H. Allen, M.A., Ph.D., pass judgment. Even then, if the importers want to appeal, they can take their case to the Appeal Censor, Sir Robert Garran, who is a G.C.M.G, a Q.C., an M.A., and an LLD.

Many do get through - in first-class mail, which is impossible to police. Once the original has been copied and republished here, the Commonwealth is powerless to act.

The detective magazines coming in are mostly American and deal in great detail with crimes of sexual depravity, brutality and passion. All are banned here, but some still get through the screen.

Several recent Australian crimes, says Mr Hammett, are models of cases described in these magazines - he is positive some of our local misfits have got their ideas from the American masters.

Every book is not read right through - that would be physically impossible.

"We work it this way", said Mr Hammett picking up a magazine from his desk. It was a private eye story, full of boots in the face, bullets in the belly, and girls on the couch.

"I flip through it first, just like this. I see the publisher’s name - well known for this type of book - see a few objectionable paragraphs and decide if it's suspect."

"Then I go through it more thoroughly, noting the pages giving the greatest offence."

Watching the flood of material hasn't completely dulled Mr Hammett's love of books. But it has taken the edge off it.

He still reads a great deal, but he can't stand fiction. The private eyes have done that to him.

- Sun Week-End Magazine, 20 March 1954


Newspaper clipping titled Tasters in Chief from 1954
Newspaper clipping Tasters in Chief from The Sun Weekend Magazine 20 March 1954


'Looking after films is the job of Mr Les Hillier, a quietly-spoken Deputy Film Censor, who wears glasses and has probably seen more films than any other man in Melbourne.

He sees them all day, every day, in the department's theatrette.

Millions of feet a year pass through his projector, mostly innocuous, some so filthy it startles even him. And he's seen a great many pornographic films.

There is a well-organised trade in such works of dubious art - once smuggled ashore they are shown at private screenings where you may pay up to five guineas a seat for the privilege.

The films come from Europe and North America. (Some of the US films are even in colour.) Most of them are technically excellent, as well-made as any main feature attraction.

The penalties for smuggling them ashore are severe - but there is always someone willing to risk it. The last spools of pornographic film were found in the shoulder pads of a passenger's suit.

The smuggler who does declare his films usually tries to fool the censors by splicing a long section of harmless film in front of his main work. "Look at this one," said Mr Hillier, switching out the lights and feeding a film into a projector.

It began so chastely it was a bore. Then, where a new film had been spliced on, the pornography began.

"They think if the first few feet are all right, we won't bother to view it at all."

But they do. Every foot is seen by the censors.

"People say if this is going to corrupt the country, why don't they corrupt me?" Mr Hillier, we can only agree, is not the corrupted type.

"All I can say is, I think I'm still as pure as I was ever going to be."

Film censoring standards have changed with the years. Scenes which 20 years ago would have been banned, are now acceptable - as social customs change so does censorship.'

- Sun Week-End Magazine, 20 March 1954

People and Stories

Meet some of the people associated with the Customs House, and discover some of their surprising stories.

Customs Official, 1840s John Mullaly

John Mullaly at a desk circa 1870s
John Mullaly, Customs Official, 1840s

John Mullaly set sail from Ireland in 1840 with his parents and three sisters, in search of a better life. They were lucky to survive the voyage of 173 days. Typhoid fever raged through the ship, killing 14 people on board, and causing the first typhoid scare in Melbourne.

Mullaly was skilled with figures and an excellent record keeper, and after ten years working as a customs officer he had risen to become second in command of the 1841 Customs House.

With the expansion of trade during the gold rush, Mullaly left the Customs Department to establish his own business as a private customs agent, but retained an office in the Customs House. The firm of Mullaly & Byrne still operates as customs agents in Melbourne, more than 150 years after Mullaly first joined the Customs Department.


Portrait of a man with moustache, coat and bow tie
Peter Kerr, Fellow of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects.

Architect, 1850s Peter Kerr

Scottish architect Peter Kerr had a major influence on the design of the present Customs House.

Kerr trained in Scotland and London, where he worked with the leading London architect Charles Barry, designer of the British Houses of Parliament.

Before sailing for Melbourne, Kerr had arranged to join a local firm of architects. He later joined the Victorian Government’s Public Works Department and contributed to some of Melbourne's finest public buildings, including the Law Courts, Government House, the General Post Office and perhaps his greatest achievement - the design of Victoria's Parliament House. 

MM 134993 – Photograph - 'Parliament House', Melbourne, May 1901 - MM 134993

Customs Detective, 1890s-1900s John Christie

Man in hat and coat sitting backwards in chair
John Christie as a police detective in his twenties.

They called him Australia's Sherlock Holmes.

John Christie had arrived in Melbourne at the age of 18, ready to try his luck in the world. He worked on the goldfields, but made more money in the boxing ring.

He joined the police force as a detective, gaining fame for his use of disguise to make arrests. Then he was accused of using dubious police techniques and forced to resign.

In 1884, at 39 years old, Christie joined Customs as a labourer on the wharf, but quickly rose through the ranks to become a detective, searching ships for smuggled goods. Within a few years he held the senior position of Inspector of Liquor and Excise.

John Christie was forced to retire in 1910, following injuries he received in a fight with knife-wielding opium smugglers on Melbourne's docks.

Opium Raids, 1950s

Fred Steed joined Customs in 1945 and worked mainly in opium detection during the 1950s.

His first raid was in a building off Little Bourke Street in Melbourne, after officers smelt opium from the street.

"We would congregate up the top end of Little Bourke Street and walk slowly down. Two hiding in this doorway, two in that one, two on the other side. We'd wait for them to come out of the opium dens.

"We knew they were smoking because you could smell it. You can smell opium a mile off, smells like foliage burnin'. You'd come up the alley and pull a string that opened the door. But first we had to do something about the lighting in the alleyway. We picked up a few stones and all had a shot at knockin' this big globe out so we wouldn't be seen. Eventually after about ten shots we got it and pulled the string. First Chinaman comes down and sings out 'himon, himon'. Open goes the door and we rushed it. He's got two parcels in his arms and this poor Chinaman gets knocked over.

"'What for, what for? All I got is two chickens,' he says.

"We went upstairs as fast as we could, forced open the door and saw these poor devils all smokin' in there. They're all huddled up, you know. They get very cold, very cold smokin'. And they stand on their heads, oh, it's marvellous the things they do. It's terrible actually to see them in this state.

"The manager, or the fellow in charge, a fellow named Mahchow, was most surprised to see us. He said 'oh well, oh well'. That's all he said."  

- Fred Steed


Marijuana and heroin became a problem in the early 1960s. Fred recalls searching for a plantation on the outskirts of Canberra with the sole Customs sniffer dog in Australia, which was based in Sydney. The search was abandoned when the dog got a burr up its nose.

Fred also tracked illegal importation of tobacco and in later years, bird smugglers.

ST 19075 – Opium Pipe, circa 1900s-1930s

Smuggling Fauna 1950s -1960s

"I first got involved in the late fifties, working with a person named Jim McShane. We worked very well together, all over Australia.

"There was a Dutchman who used to get couriers to bring back birds in a specially marked briefcase. A fellow got caught and spilled the beans saying he'd done it for a certain Dutchman. From then on we began to take a big interest in the birds, what was coming in and what was going out.

"A lot of foreign birds were coming down the Queensland coast. I got tipped off that a whole ship was loaded full of birds from Thailand, some from New Guinea. They landed up near Bundaberg, I sent up the information, and they happened to get this fellow with the birds. He got heavily fined.

"We built up our diary on bird smugglers. We'd buy the newspapers and see who was advertising and what species they were offering. I don't think they thought we'd go to the trouble.

"We used to watch the airports to see if any known bird smugglers were going out. If they were, we'd search their baggage and nine times out of ten we were fortunate and found birds drugged, suitcases of them, drugged and ready to be shipped."  

- Fred Steed


"Birds, gee whiz, some of the stuff we got. I'm convinced we never did more than scratch the surface. Once we got four suitcases with about 200 exotic parrots. Now they we so valuable they could have a 25 per cent death rate and still make thousands and thousands, just the ones that survived."  

- Clive Bull


"Snakes were big too. They mostly went to Germany. One young lad used to parcel them up and send them to Germany. Yes, they go for the lizards and geckos, even spiders were sent overseas in parcels. A person in Sydney used to train us on the snakes. Some of the fellas wouldn't touch 'em, but I just picked 'em up. I don't think the snakes were dangerous."  

- Fred Steed

Searching ships, 1960s

Fred Steed joined Customs in 1945 and worked mainly in opium detection during the 1950s.

"There was one ship, the Carpentaria. I was crawlin' over gunnysacks in the hold and found three little pieces of cork and thought, hello, somebody's been interferin' with the insulation. I put my screwdriver in the screw slot and found moist paint. So I took it off and much to my amazement there was opium around all the refrigeration pipes, about 25 pound of it done up in rubber tubes. This insulation went nearly all the way through the ship. I fetched the chief officer who brought the captain down and I said, 'we want all that removed, will we remove it or do your engineers remove it?' He said, 'the engineers remove it', and we got another 75 pound. That made just on a hundredweight of raw opium in one ship, worth about 10,000 pounds, which was a lot of money."  

- Fred Steed


"That year we made another five or six big seizures. One ship had about 300 weight of opium, which is a lot of opium, stacked around the top of the funnel. There was an informant of course."  

- Fred Steed

Further Reading

If you're interested to find out more about the history of Customs House, we suggest the following reading:

  • John Mitchell Christie, Reminiscences of Detective Inspector Christie related by J.B. Castieau, G. Robertson Melbourne, 1911
  • David Day, Smugglers and Sailors: The Customs History of Australia 1788-1901, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1993
  • David Day, Contraband and Controversy: The Customs History of Australia from 1901, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1996
  • Ken Ewins, 'Murray trade and Customs control', Australian Customs History Journal, No. 3, September 1991.
  • J.M. Petersen, 'Customs houses and officers in 19th century Victoria', Australian Customs History Journal, Aug 1992.

Or of course, if you have any questions, queries or comments, please feel free to Ask Us!

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