Mumbai Customs House - designed by architect George Wittet

New Custom House, Mumbai

Above image: The New Custom House, Mumbai, India, by George Wittet (1878-1926), Consulting Architect to the Government of Bombay. Source: Kamath 69........................ 

In Mumbai the Custom House, Mumbai  had been very much there before 1878 as the English became well established in this costal city and started developing into a  big commercial, trade and maritime  center. In 1878 itself  the Sea Custom Act, 1878 was enacted to check the import, export activities, etc. 

In the colonial period  under the direct administration of the British Crown, London (Raj) with Bombay  becoming a hub of trade and commercial activities on the west coast,  there arose a necessity - an urgent need  to have a new custom house built.  This would facilitate  "the transaction of Custom business on completion of new Alexandra Docks" (then under construction). The foundation stone having been laid in  1913, it took a while to open the new building in  1924. It came up on the  reclaimed foreshore filled during the excavations for the docks.  

It was on this huge land architect George Wittet  made  pioneering efforts to have laid out what was called ''the Ballard Estate'' to accommodate ''43 blocks of  handsome  office buildings'' with built-in facilities, well planned broad  thoroughfare,  etc.  A painstaking job by the architect  and today it is an important economic zone ever active commercially.  Wittet used  reinforced concrete in this vast unstable land for foundation work, etc for  better stability and strength. 

One of the fine buildings in those days,  the New Custom House was built in Indo-Saracenic architecture  meticulously blended with  the Gothic revival and Neo-Classical styles quite popular  in Victorian Britain. The  public and government buildings were intentionally   designed on a grand scale dominated by Neo-classical features (quite common during Edwardian era). The purpose was to showcase  to the world the growing domination of the British empire, their invincibility, enviable position  and hegemony. (the image is from the archives of the Mumbai Port Trust). Being clever as they were, the British building had a blend of native architectural features so that they could win the trust of the natives. 

New Custom House, Mumbai designed by Wittet

While it is really funny and a misnomer to call the 100 year old building a new custom house,  the Old Custom House of 1802, despite time factor and vagaries of climatic changes, still stands grand in style. It has neither lost its sheen nor its utility.  Both the  office of the Collector of Mumbai (1922), in charge of local administration and  the present Custom House at Ballard Estate, still adore the place

Prior to 1911 the Fort Custom House and the Branch Custom House at the Princess Docks housed the Mumbai Custom department.  The two-story Old Custom House had a plethora of departments under its roof such as  Port Health Office and Office of Collector of Customs and Commissioner of Customs, Import, Export, Preventive Services, etc. Th most important one being imperial opium department, a money spinner. The English made a big bundle out of Opium export to China to improve their silver and gold foreign reserve. King’s warehouse in the Fort Custom House  had special provision to keep gold safely.(under the Customs dept.)

old custom house (first bldg).

With the passage of time and growth of  of international trade towards the end of 19th century and beginning of 20th century, two additional docks were built to create more space. They were  the Victoria Docks in 1888 and the Alexandra Docks (now Indira Docks) in 1914.

In July1907 a  decision was taken to  close  the Fort Custom House and build a new Central Custom House  on the consolidated reclaimed  foreshore site (Ballard Estate). Only in November 1911 the approval  came up and  Rs. 22 lakhs  had been allocated  including the cost of the main building and the old building. As it happened to be a coastal area, structural cost was very high roughly ie. 15 lakhs and the engineers had to dig 30 ft below the mud formation in the harbor  to build the overlying structure.

The work on the New Custom House was completed in 1913, but it was handed over to the  the Customs Department in 1922 only when it had shifted from the Old Custom House. Between 1913 and 1922, the New Custom House was temporarily converted into make-shift    military hospital (one can see the evidences  in the white tiles on the walls of staircase next to the entrance) due to WWI.