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CUSTOMS HOUSE, CIRCULAR QUAY, SYDNEY HISTORIC BUILDING POSTCARD

The postcard was sent, dated in manuscript, on 19.4.(19)13 to a Robert Bruce, Washington D.C, U.S.A. and was received on May 20, and answered June 1. The contents of the message had nothing to do with the illustrated side, and the printed banner had an Australian shield with an emu on the left and a kangaroo on the right. The green ‘HALFPENNY’ and the red ‘ONE PENNY’ ‘Roo on Map of Australia’ stamps were postmarked by a roller cancel, in which neither the place nor the date of mailing were seen (Figure 1).

The colour illustrated side showed a four-storied building with a white shield centered on the third floor and the scene in front of the building showed a horse-drawn carriage at left, a tram at right , as well members of the public standing or walking in the foreground. It was described as Customs House, Circular Quay, Sydney on the left and the postcard’s maker was not legible on the right (Figure 2).

The Customs House is an historic Sydney landmark located in the city’s Circular Quay area which was constructed initially in 1844-45, when the building served as headquarters of the Customs Service until 1990. Ownership was then transferred from the Commonwealth Government of Australia to the City of Sydney Council in 1994 when it became a venue for exhibitions and private functions. It was refurbished in 2003, and became the new home of the City of Sydney Library.

Its history is of considerable interest for Aboriginals of the Eora tribe are said to have witnessed from the site in 1788 the landing of the First Fleet. The convict, David O’Connor was hanged on the site in 1790, and it is said that his ghost haunts the Customs House to this day, offering people rum. The driving force behind the construction of the original sandstone edifice on Circular Quay was Colonel John George Nathaniel Gibbes (1787-1873) the Collector of Customs for New South Wales for a record term of of 25 years from 1834 to 1859. Gibbes persuaded the Governor of N.S.W. (Sir George Gipps) to begin the construction of the Customs House in 1844 in response to Sydney’s growing volume of maritime trade. The building project also doubled as an unemployment relief measure for stone masons and laborers during an economic depression which was afflicting the colony at the time.

A two-storey Georgian structure was designed by Mortimer Lewis and featured 13 large and expensive windows in the facade to afford a clear view of shipping activity in Sydney Cove. Colonel Gibbes, who dwelt opposite Circular Quay on Kirribilli Point, was able to watch progress on the construction from the verandah of his private residence, Wotonga House (now Admiralty House). The Customs House opened for business in 1845 and replaced the cramped premises at the nearby The Rocks vicinity. It was partially dismantled and expanded to three levels under the supervision of the then Colonial Architect, James Barnet, in 1887. Various additions were made over the next century, particularly during the period of the WW1, but some visible vestiges of the original Gibbes-Lewis building remain.

The site at Circular Quay was chosen in 1843 to house the Customs Service for the rapidly growing N.S.W. colony. The Service was responsible for all imports and exports, excise on locally manufactured goods, immigration control, control of narcotic substances and morally corruptive goods such as books and films. During the war years this included items of enemy origin, or having socialistic or communistic tendencies. Accordingly, areas for storage, administration and public business were included in the original design of the building. As trade increased, two new wings were constructed from 1883 and 1889, These wings provided accommodation for the Shipping Office and the Maritime Board.

These demands increased again with the approach of Federation in 1901 and the Commonwealth Government required more floors to be added to cope with the massive political change. More revisions were made between 1915 and 1917, on account of additional pressures brought about by the war. Few major structural changes occurred between 1917 and 1995, which reflected the movement of international shipping away from Circular Quay to other areas of the city and the State of N.S.W.

In June 1990 operations of the Customs Service were relocated and the site has undergone refurbishment as a commercial, performance, tourism and museum space. An additional view of a more modern Customs House ca. is seen in Figure 3.

 
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