Smuggling, Fraud and Embezzlement: Corruption in the 16th Century Customs House (by James Wilkes)

Smuggling, Fraud and Embezzlement: Corruption in the 16th Century Customs House (by James Wilkes)

Customs abuses by the officials themselves were not new to the Elizabethan period. Opportunities to take advantage of their positions would have been very tempting. Almost as soon as officials were in place, legislation was necessary to impose penalties on Customers, Collectors or Controllers who ‘should be attainted or convicted of falsely concealing the King’s Customs or subsidies, entered or paid’. A great part of the problem was that it was not centralised. Administration was severely lacking so there was no effective regulation. This almost invited corruption when combined with wages too low to allow them to do their job properly, let alone ensure they were kept honest . Genuine but unsuccessful reforms of the Treasurer, Marquess Winchester, occurred in the 1560’s. However, by the late 16th Century, corruption in the customs is widely accepted to have been almost institutional in both London and the outports . However, we do not know that much about how far the corruption spread within the customs house itself, nor how the fundamental dynamics of power within the customs house shaped the level of collusion.

We cannot get inside the customs house itself, but by looking at petitions about various abuses by the Custom Officials, we can start to build a picture of the relationships between those carrying out the abuses; whether they acted as a corporation, sharing in the profits of corruption, or were much more individualistic in approach, jealously guarding their illicit practises from one another.

Petitions were generally written by informers seeking to gain an advantage or reward from authorities rather than Custom Officials complaining of another’s malpractise. However, they do seem to be relatively accurate and detailed in their content, suggesting the authors had enough exposure to the officials to have an understanding of the way they worked.

Carmarden and Dewbeney

The principal sources to be looked at are petitions by Richard Carmarden and Oliver Dewbeney. Carmarden alleges abuses of Custom Officials in his Caveat to The Quene . The caveat has been looked at by John Nef and referenced in others, but this study mostly evaluates the document broadly and not in much detail with regard to the actual customs abuses themselves. We do not know much about his origins or even his date of birth. However, Carmarden was an influential merchant and involved in investigations into customs abuses from as early as 1565. Other documents can be linked to Carmarden such as the ‘Book of Articles to prevent or detect frauds in the Customs’ submitted to the Lord Treasurer in 1572. As pointed out by Evan Jones on his transcription, it has an endorsement on the cover noting: ‘Quere if this be not Carmarthen’s device’ suggesting Burghley or one of his secretaries suspected the author was Carmarden. This is plausible, given Carmarden submitted several documents about customs abuses to the Exchequer from 1570-80. However, the content and handwriting appear to be more like that of Oliver Dewbeney, a principal investigator into the abuses of customs. Dewbeney similarly submitted many petitions to the treasurer in the late 16th Century. The article makes particular reference to the abuses of Williams Byrd and Rivet, of whom Dewbeney had spearheaded an investigation. Its outraged tone is consistent with other writings by Dewbeney. The almost identical ‘Articles for the reformacion of the deceiptes’ is found in the Book of Customs in the Elizabethan State Papers Domestic, significantly including a covering letter. Other documents in Dewbeney’s hand are also in this Book of Customs.

Nef contends that Carmarden tended to exaggerate but can be trusted more than most informers as he does not ask for a special post himself. This is not true for Dewbeney who had been vying for the position of Surveyor . It also becomes clear there is another agenda behind the reporting of the customs abuses. The covering letter to the 1573 petition requests Lord Treasurer Burghley ‘make a proofe of my service & still let my thankes and rewardes’ be appropriate to his services. An almost identical document was also delivered to Treasurer Burghley without the covering letter about a year before. Presumably Dewbeney did not get the desired response, so re-iterated his contribution. This is more consistent with a man Dunn describes as a ‘hired investigator’. However, he was vouched for by Lord Treasurer Winchester himself to be a ‘verie honest man and a man of true dealing & good substance’.

The violent nature of the Customs Officers in protecting their illicit dealings become clear upon further inspection of both men’s’ true intentions. Their relationship with the rest of the customs and merchant community was rocky at best. This is unsurprising, given that they both informed repeatedly against the Custom Officials. Dewbeney petitioned to Treasurer Burghley in 1573 requesting he be ‘defended in myne honeste & lawfull doinge from theoppression and malice of myne evill willers for otherwise I shall not with quyetnes be hable to dwell among them’ . Similarly, when the Caveat was submitted in 1582, Carmarden requests her ‘highnes tendereth [her] owne benefitt and the salfgarde of my poore lyffe, which by this my dewtie shewed in your Majesties behalf shal greatly hazard the same’ . Both times they separately request to the receiver their identities be kept secret supposedly as they have protested to the point of retribution from their enemies. In the 1573 document Dewbeney complains he has

so farre growne into displeasure and have so much evil will of the merchanntes officers, keykepers, and lighter men for devisinge and procueringe the buylding of the newe custome howse & for openinge their disceiptfull doeinges that there is no way for me to live in quyetnes

However, by 1582, Carmarden made far greater enemies than the lower officers, to the point that Carmarden felt he had to go over the Lord Treasurer’s Head. Carmarden wrote of ‘privie and open threatenings to the greate danger of my lyffe’, twice threatened at her ‘Majestie’s Courte at the White hal’ when he came up to Windsor. Though Dewbeney’s protest could be dismissed as exaggeration, Carmarden’s plight appears to be substantiated. He had made enemies of the corrupt political elite through investigating powerful customs officers such as Thomas Smythe, customer of London. Treasurer Burghley, the Earl of Leicester and Secretary Walsingham were under Smythe’s pay to the tune of £2000 . Sir Walter Raleigh attests that ‘all Three [were] Pensioners to Customer Smith, did set themselves against a poor Waiter of the Custom-House called Carwarden, and commanded the Grooms of the Privy-Chamber not to give him Access, yet the Queen sent for him, and have him Countenance against them all’. Raleigh, a republican and critic of Elizabethan ministers since his downfall would have tried to discredit these politicians, but given the close match to Carmarden’s testimony, the statement is probably true. Violence does not seem to be uncommon in the customs; Thomas Watkins complained at length of the violence showed to him by Customer John Dowle of Bristol and his accomplices in 1598. That was by a Customer of an outport against his own Clerk. It is therefore highly conceivable that violence and threats would be used against the troublesome Carmarden, especially with such powerful figures in the picture. Carmarden and Dewbeney’s investigative activities do seem to have genuinely riled not only the lower orders of Custom Officials, but also the most powerful head officer who had the political establishment in his pocket. This would seem to indicate a strong element of truth in their testimony.

The way the customs of London was set up to Farm in the late 16th Century suggests more inherent collusion in the system from the top down. Farms were rented out at great cost, upwards of £20,000 a year and could bring ruin to a Farmer ‘if they should fayle yearly to bringe boeth ends together’. Commission was granted to the Farmer if he collected over a 6-year average. This was unlikely to amount to the cost of the yearly rent. This set-up laid the perfect breeding ground for corruption. Smythe had ‘an interest in misrepresenting the volume of trade in order to keep down the rent he was obliged to pay the crown’ . However, this average was calculated from the Books submitted to the exchequer by the customer and Controller at each port under his Farm. These same officers were under the direct pay of Smythe. Smythe was relieved of accounting in detail to the exchequer as part of the agreement with the Crown to take on the Farm. There is plenty of evidence to suggest Smythe failed to keep accurate accounts of the imports. As Newton points out ‘everything seems to point to the conclusion that Smythe had come to an agreement with his fellow officers before he made his offer’. However, the crucial direct evidential link between Farmer and Customs officers is missing. We cannot therefore determine for sure the relationship between the Farmer and his Custom Official employees. What is clear is that corruption ran from top to bottom.

Waiters and Searchers

Waiters paid large sums, sometimes £100 for an office of £4 a year stipend and had to borrow the most part to pay for it. Yet they were able to live luxuriously ‘as diverse of them do kepe’ : able to spend £100 yearly in his house, and within 5-6 years had £1000 disposable income. It is therefore unsurprising that officers ‘do mosts maintayne them selves by deceyvinge the Queenes majestie and speciallie the waiters taking charge of goods inwarde’.

Waiters developed relationships with the merchants separately to their senior officers. Waiters were the first point of contact for the merchants with the customs system as they were supposed to make sure no goods went uncustomed in the custom house. They targeted merchants that traded in fine wares and tried to become acquainted. If the merchants were of too great a rank they would become friends with their servants. Pretending they thought the custom was too high, they offered to conceal part of the cargo from the Customer for half of the unpaid duty. Merchants generally accepted this offer of ‘friendship’ when first offered. They also had their methods of ensuring merchants accepted their offer. If a merchants refused, they were ‘so evel entreated as they shalbe forced to make then great seute to obtaine that which before was so franckley proffered.’ This could be taken to mean violence. It could also be merely an abuse of the power of their station. Entry of goods could be delayed to the point that goods could perish if they were foodstuffs, or Waiters might charge extra for writing of customs documents e.g. cockets.

At this level the relationship between merchant and officer was not always stable. The Waiters, the bottom of the rung, did not hold that great a power over the merchants and so they were not always compliant. The abuse was based on a mutual understanding that occasionally broke down. Merchants sometimes tried to hide valuable goods from the Waiters to avoid paying the bribe (already lower than the original custom). If this happened, the Waiter was outraged not for deceiving the Queen, but for breaking the ‘League of friendly thievery with them’ . There seems to be some unity in the community at this stage. It does not seem to be just one rogue Waiter, but many, perhaps all 18 in London working together. The fact that Carmarden mentions that the disloyal merchant was betrayed to the Waiters suggests there was a separate method of informing used by Waiters to maintain this ‘League of friendly thievery ’. This could be a separate network of gossip and information the Waiters used to control their independent slice of customs abuse. This tip-off does suggest the method of informing on miscreants was somewhat effective, if not for the legal uses preferred by the Crown. This abuse appears to be separate from wider corruption. Waiters could operate this abuse independently and indeed relied upon the Customers never knowing part of the goods coming inward never made it to them. However, they could try to be a part of other frauds if they could.

Likewise at the opposite end of the system, Searchers jealously guarded their practises from the eyes of colleagues. They like others were continually accused of unlading ‘in corners’ ; away from prying eyes of potential informers. They were charged with making sure the cargo of ships outward matched the certificate of customs paid known as a cocket. They could easily abuse the system by allowing merchants to smuggle out goods without custom for a bribe. As they were the last official to see the cargo, there were few checks that could be done on them. They would strongly protest if this was tried,. Searchers would block a Customer or Controller from investigating the illicit lading of goods on a ship. They claimed this could be done on the grounds that the Customer and Controller were limited to the customs house and ‘hath not to deale in anythinge aborde the shippe’. Because they were at the tail end of the system, they had little knowledge of the exact figures of frauds going on further up the chain. They would therefore not represent an informant threat these abuses and so would not be privie to much embezzlement. However, they would have knowledge of the customs system and were able to advise merchants on the best way to avoid the system: ‘suffer the marchant to defraud the Queene of her Right, geving them advise when best opportunitie will serve, not desirous to be privie to the valew for his oaths sake’ presumably for a fee as they had ‘no other meanes to recover them selves’ . Indeed opportunities for individual abuses were limited to taking small bribes to allow smuggling and levying of extra fees on bills of discharge. However, opportunities for more valuable frauds were not possible without colluding with other officials. Even then this would only take place if the practise had been decided upon by the Customer and collector.


Controllers were very involved but at the same time very dependent on others in the customs abuses. They kept an independent record of all goods declared and customs received and were supposed to be there with the Customer at point of entry so the goods matched in their respective books. This book was separate to that of the Customers. At the end of each fiscal year (at Michaelmas) both would be submitted to the Exchequer for audit. Significantly only the Controller could enter into his book, as checking his handwriting was part of the audit process. Controllers also viewed and counter-sealed cockets from the Waiters and Searchers with the Customer, who held the other half of the seal. As they had a central position they would likely have to be included in any frauds requiring official documents or entering into the customs accounts. However, because of the auditing nature of the position, they could not operate customs frauds by themselves, and were dependent on collusion with other officials or being paid to look the other way to benefit from the corruption, as becomes clear when looking at the abuses the Customer was involved in.

Williams Byrd and Rivet, the Customer and Controller respectively and Richard Gray, the Searcher, were alleged to prefabricate cockets at the merchant’s dwellings. This same cocket would then be given to the merchant or master of the ship before sailing. The Searcher would then falsely declare at Custom house that a predetermined proportion of the cloth recorded on the cocket could not be loaded due to unforseen circumstances; a certificate would then be produced allowing for the same supposedly unloaded proportion of cloth to go Custom free on a later voyage. This fraud required the co-operation of many individuals. The pre-planned natures of these frauds suggest that meetings between merchants and numerous Custom Officials would have taken place to decide details. Collusion would have been necessary between the Customer and Controller to make sure the exchequer records matched and to create the correct cocket. Likewise, the Searcher had to be involved to ensure the practise went through, but also that the merchant would not try to double cross them and smuggle anyway.

London – Bristol Comparison of Customers

Customers and collectors found it more difficult to operate abuses without some degree of collaboration with other Custom Officials as they were at the head of the Customs house. The cargoes they recorded were supposedly viewed by the Waiters, and they had an official check against them in the form of controllers, who kept independent Customs accounts. Customers had a strong incentive to abuse the system. The Customer of London Inward Custom sometimes paid £3000 for a y¬¬ear in the office for a post that paid £100 a year, yet were still able to ‘Purchass such landes and Lordshipps, buyld and buye suche sumpteous howses, deck up them selfs and theyres with theyr howses so gorgeously, spend so rioughteosly, keepe poorts so lordly, give fyve times the wag[e]s they receave them selfs yearely’ . The Customers would therefore try and operate any frauds independently if he could.

Customers in London seem to have been able to act surprisingly independently in committing frauds. The chief embezzlement alleged in the Caveat is collusion between the Merchant and the Customer. The Customer came to an understanding with the merchant whereby the merchant only paid 2/3 duty on the goods. The Customer then recorded less than the remaining amount in the Customs Books, mis-recording goods so as to hide the true value of the Custom collected. He then kept the difference. Depending on how far the goods were mis-recorded, the merchant may actually come out better off than the Customer. This lends weight to Carmarden’s earlier attestation that merchants were used to paying no Customs and the Customer had to lower the bar to get them to pay. However it could just be to placate the merchant against informing of the practise, and if this abuse happened frequently, the total sums embezzled would probably soon make up the difference. Carmarden points out that this practise would not escape the attention of the Surveyor, controller, their clerks and the Waiters. However, they were not direct partners in the practise. Rather, they could be paid off on an individual basis not to look too closely ‘so that none of them al are privie to his gayne, how moche it is’ . That he paid them off individually suggests that the rest of the Customs house was not a united body. Ignoring such a blatant fraud confirms the corruption of the other Custom Officials, but also suggests they were happy with their own sources of income if they were content not to inquire further. This practise was therefore driven by the Customer without the direct collusion with the rest of the Customs house departments.

Perhaps the best-documented equivalent in the outports is that of the deceits of Customer John Dowle of Bristol as testified by his clerk, Thomas Watkins. Dowle similarly deceived the Treasury of Customs duties by under-recording the quantity of wine imports in the Customs Books below the threshold for payment of prisage. As Dunn observes, it is therefore likely that he would have received payment from the merchant more than this value in lieu of his entitlement. This was all done by the Customer, who would have been entitled to 1/8th of prisage taken in port and as ‘prisage master’ he could enter goods as he pleased without check and so could operate independently.

Yet, Dowle colluded particularly strongly when embezzling Customs money from wine shipments with other Customs officers, who ‘doe share her Custome and subsidie and devyde it amongst themselves’ . The fact that it specifically mentions the Waiter, Customer and controller would suggest embezzlement similar to that mentioned in the Caveat, where Customs duties were taken from high value items such as wines and then under-recorded in the Customs Books, allowing the officials to keep the duty. However, where the London Customer was able to keep the practise to himself, Dowle was forced into colluding with the other officers who dealt with the shipment. Dowle is described as pragmatic, not acting with other merchants, or even other Custom Officials, when he did not have to. The small size of Bristol’s Customs income compared to London meant fewer opportunities for and a lower value of embezzlement and corruption. Therefore it would make sense for Dowle to be as independent as possible. However, it also meant fewer opportunities for his colleagues, who would seize upon a chance to be included. This line is strengthened further by the petition of the Waiters in the port of Bristol, who, in 1590 complained of Customers concealing incoming shipments and their forfeitures. This deprived Waiters of income from the seizures and allowed the Customer to commit fraud with merchants without their knowledge. That the Customer would bypass the Waiters and that the Waiters in turn would complain to the Treasurer of fraud, possibly depriving the Customer of a line of income indicates how reluctant the different levels of Custom Officials in Bristol were to collude with each other. When they did, it was out of necessity to avoid the possibility of informing by others.

Carmarden’s Petitions for surveyors

Given that there was a great reluctance for different departments to collude together, and only doing so when circumstances dictate, it is interesting to note Dewbeney’s petition to grant the Surveyors, an auditing office Carmarden was to take on later in 1589, more powers.There are 7 different powers propositioned:

1. Surveyor has to be in Customs house with Customer and Controller when making entry of goods. Merchant must simultaneously sign his name. Surveyor to keep his own book.

2. Cellar or storehouse under the control of the Surveyor placed in every port and creek where all goods inward and outward had to be kept to be surveyed. As an incentive, the merchant will be allowed ¼ of merchant’s goods to go Customs free.

3. Surveyors given their own print or seal to mark all dry wares after being customed.

4. Customers and Controllers could not examine any ships or accept a shippers bill unless the Surveyor was present.

5. All cockets had to be viewed and signed by the Surveyor before issue to the merchant or Searcher.

6. Surveyor had authority to search all ships and loadings as often as he felt necessary. He would also have the power to seize uncustomed goods.

7. Surveying the Customers’ issuance of correct bonds of employment with foreigners.

This petition could represent a rather more genuine attempt at reforming the Customs system. In all suggestions the Surveyor was to be placed squarely within the customs framework of most of the fraudulent dealings. Continual references to keeping to the proper places and times appointed suggest an attempt to impose discipline on the unruly officials. The powers he describes were very similar to those of earlier Surveyors but updated to fit abuses of the time. Each of the suggested powers might actually have a positive effect.

1. Forcing all parties to be in the Customs house to make entry of goods at the same time and all to sign, would make it difficult to commit fraud in the Customs Books independently.

2. Enticing merchants to load and unload straight into an official storehouse by offering part of it custom-free suggests a genuine attempt at preventing unloading out of sight.

3. Marking all goods after being customed would making smuggling more difficult as it would be clear which goods were customed and which were not.

4. By having to be with Customers and Controllers when they examine ships and make or receive cockets, it would make it much harder for there to be any fraud not only by the Customer and Controller aligning their respective Customs Books, but also making sure cockets issued by the Waiter upon entry did actually record the correct cargo.

5. This is similarly true for article 5.

6. The explicit power to come on board ships and seize uncustomed goods would serve as a check to the Searcher to prevent him from allowing goods to be smuggled outwards.

7. A prevention measure against the common practise of allowing foreigners to leave the country with bullion to make sure their earnings were spent in the country.

However, from a more cynical point of view, this could be a more devious approach to create a position that had fingers in as many corrupt pies as possible. The position this petition would create if enforced would be almost unmanageable. The job description seems to be Customer, collector, Waiter and Searcher combined. Even with a deputy as it suggests, it appears to be too much responsibility to be carried out effectively. Nor is it suggested that they have any real power beyond that of the traditionally ineffective role of oversight. Perhaps that was the point. Someone in this position would legally have been part of almost all facets of the Customs administration that corrupt practises operated. Corruption in the Customs system was rife to the point of mistrust and hatred if you were not crooked. As has been shown, Customs Officers were very reluctant to share in any corrupt practises unless their colleague’s role prevented the abuse from being carried out without their knowledge or suspicion. Given this, it does not seem too far-fetched to suggest Dewbeney proposed the powers deliberately under the pretence of a solution to customs abuses so that when Dewbeney was to step into the position he would immediately be party to the majority customs frauds within the customs house and be able to profit greatly.


There was no obvious great corrupt corporation of Customs officers from 1570 onwards. The working relations between the officers themselves when running the Customs abuses suggests there was no sense of generosity between Customs Officer classes. Where each officer could practise illicit dealings independently, they would. Some had more opportunities to do so than others. The Waiters and Searchers, as the first and last officers in the Customs system found they could deceive by themselves. Customers and Controllers found it harder to be independent, especially the controllers, whose auditing role left them dependant on the practises of others to become involved. Customers, as executive head of the port had more freedom in their role, allowing them to deal directly with merchants and largely hide the extent of the corruption from their colleagues. This was not always possible and an abuse in wealthy London would not operate in the same way as in poorer Bristol. Officers would also jealously guard their practises away from other Customs officers, partly out of selfishness, but partly out of fear of being informed upon to the exchequer. Where they did collude, they did so out of necessity rather than choice. This competition was so fierce, wily outsiders such as Dewbeney may have even attempted to augment and usurp existing roles that would muscle in on the corruption under the guise of plausible solutions to corruption.

Primary Sources

Lansdowne Collection housed in the British Library (Obtained from State Papers Online)
E. T. Jones (ed.) ‘A Book of Articles to prevent or detect frauds in the customs, 1572’ University of Bristol, ROSE, 2011) A transcription of British Library Lansdowne Collection, 110/40/fo. 117-25
BL Lansdowne MS.110/26 – ‘Petition from the Waiters in the Port of Bristol’ c.1590, Transcribed by and found in Vanes, J. (ed.) Documents Illustrating the Overseas Trade of Bristol in the Sixteenth Century, (Bristol Record Society Publications, Vol. 31, Kendal, 1979), No. 32, p. 51
Elizabethan State Papers Domestic Series (Obtained from State Papers Online) originally from the Public Record office in Kew Gardens, London
SP12/151/fo. 15-27
SP12/151fo. 38-40
SP12/288/fo. 12
Richard Carmarden, ‘A Caveat to the Quene’, Journal of Political Economy (Vol.41, No.1, Feb., 1933), 42-57
Raleigh, Sir W., The works of Sir Walter Ralegh, Kt. political, commercial and philosophical; together with his letters and poems. (Vol.1, 1751) My thanks to Evan Jones in referring me to this document

Secondary Sources:
Carson, E., The Ancient and Rightful Customs; A History of the Enhlish Customs Service, (London, 1972)
Dunn, The petitions of Thomas Watkins against Customer John Dowle 1598-1600, (BA Thesis, University of Bristol, 2006)
Dunn, O., London’s Merchant-Smugglers, ‘concealments’ in the customs books and the reaction of the Elizabethan government, (MPhil, University of Cambridge, 2010)
Gras, N. S. B., The Early English Customs System; A Documentary study of the institutional and economic history of the customs from the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Century, (Harvard, 1918)
Jones, E. T., Inside the Illicit Economy, Reconstructing the Smugglers’ Trade of Sixteenth-Century Bristol, (Bristol unpublished, 2011)
Lloyd, H. A., ‘Camden, Carmarden and the Customs’, English Historical Review, (Vol. 85, No. 337 (Oct., 1970) 776-787
Mills, M. H., ‘The Collectors of Customs’, in W. A. Morris and J. R. Strayer (Eds.), The English Government at Work, (Cambridge, Mass, 1947)
Nef, J., ‘Carmarden’s a “Caveat for the Quene”’ 1570, Journal of Political Economy (Vol.41, No.1, Feb., 1933), 33-4
Newton, A. P., ‘The Establishment of the Great Farm of the English Custom’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, (Fourth Series, Vol. 1, 1918), 129-156
Stapleton, L., ‘Halifax and Raleigh’, Journal of the History of Ideas (Vol.2, No.2, April.1941)
Williams, N., Contraband Cargoes, Seven Centuries of Smuggling, (Longmans, 1959)


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