Fremantle Stuff > Buildings > Customs House

Customs House

The most recent 'Customs House' was behind the Falk building facade on the corner of Phillimore St and Henry Sts. Many people will think of the 'Old Customs House', 1908, at 4-8 Phillimore St (north side) as the first customs house, but there were at least three others before that. From 1879, the 1852 building below, part of the Commissariat complex, was used for that purpose, but there were offices elsewhere before that.

On August 8, 1834, Captain James McDermott, one of Fremantle's first merchants and landowners, was drowned when his vessel, the Cumberland, was wrecked in Mangle's Bay. Captain McDermott, an Englishman of Irish descent, was an officer of the East India Company until 1829, when he arrived in Fremantle in his own vessel. He established a business on Marine Terrace between Henry Street and Collie Street. Later the premises were acquired by the Government and used as Fremantle's first Customs House. A wooden residence for the Collector was added to the original buildings. Hitchcock: 23.


Nixon & Merilees c1897 photo of HM Customs building in Cliff St. Fremantle Library photo #2943: 'The Commissariat was originally built to house Government Stores and was erected in sections from 1851 to 1898. It was used as a Customs House and Bonded Stores from 1879 to c1904. Taken before 1897.'

According to Dowson 2003, the first building specifically built for the purpose was at the corner of Henry St and Marine Terrace, where Leonard Worsely Clifton (1830-1895) was Collector of Customs 1862-1891. (See the photograph in Dowson 2003: 184.) The business of customs was then conducted in the P&O Building, before moving to the building in the photograph above in 1907. (Dowson 2003: 128)

customs house

The 'Old Customs House', 1926 photo from Wikipedia. The letters H.M.C have been removed from the building, but the marks are still visible on the stone:


The 'Old Customs House', 1908, stands where the first Railway Station and before that The Green used to be, on land reclaimed from the river, at the entrance to Victoria Quay. It was designed by Hillson Beasley and built by Aslin & Warner. The Customs department moved into the new Commonwealth offices building (the Falk Building, on the other side of Phillimore St, at 41) before 1987, and the building has since been used by arts organisations like Deckchair Theatre and the WA Circus School, as well as providing studios for a number of artists. A plaque on the building 'commemorates' the Customs House, reading 'Fremantle Customs occupied this building 1907-1986.'

Customs House (fmr), a two-storey building constructed of Donnybrook stone in the Federation Free style, has cultural heritage significance for the following reasons: constructed in 1908, the place was the first purpose built customs building in Fremantle and functioned as the main branch of the Customs Department of Western Australia from this time; the place is one of a small number of surviving purpose-built customs houses in Western Australia and is a fine, substantial example of the early twentieth century work of the Public Works Department in the Federation Free style; the site has the archaeological potential to yield information about the site's past use as the first major transhipment point in the colony (1829-1879), the first railway station in Fremantle (1880-1906), and a centre for customs operations (1906-1986); situated on the corner of Cliff and Phillimore Streets, the place is a landmark building and is a key element of the streetscape. This intersection defines the entrance to Victoria Quay, the Fremantle Port Authority and the Aquaculture Centre; the place contributes to the aesthetic qualities of Phillimore Street, a streetscape comprised of early twentieth century buildings; the place has had a long association with the maritime history of Fremantle and recognition of its past uses contributes to the community's sense of place. (Heritage Council)

The WA Circus School lost its tenure in the Phillimore St Customs House in 2017 and moved to a 'big-top' circus tent in Princess May Park for a planned two years, opening 14 May 2017.

References and Links

Crawford, Ian, Anne Delroy & Lynne Stevenson 1992, A History of the Commissariat, Fremantle 1851-1991, WA Museum.

Dowson, John 2003, Old Fremantle, UWAP: 128, 184.

Hitchcock, JK 1929, The History of Fremantle, The Front Gate of Australia 1829-1929, Fremantle City Council.

Wikipedia page

Heritage Council page

Garry Gillard | New: 28 August, 2015 | Now: 9 February, 2019