In local folklore, the earliest structure on this site was the pirate Peter Easton’s fortifications, constructed circa spring 1612. By 1618, poet and colonist Robert Hayman managed the community’s first settlement in this area, then called the “Bristol’s Hope Colony.” Hayman summered ten years on these grounds, spending his spare time cultivating a rose garden and writing poetry. These poems, collected as Quodlibets and published in 1628, are considered the first works of English creative writing written in the “New World.”
The first customs house in Harbour Grace was reportedly in the vicinity of the Two Sisters rock formation, on the tip of Bears Cove.
The Water St location served as the customs house from at least the year 1800. George Kemp, MP for Poole, made a special request to the British Government that a customs house be erected in Carbonear for the benefit of the numerous importing and exporting firms in Conception Bay, as the distance to St. John’s proved inconvenient. The government granted this request around 1800, but decided the customs house would be in Harbour Grace, to the disgust of G. & J. Kemp, who did the most business in Conception Bay. This customs office was a wooden, one-storey, thatch-roofed structure.
In 1867 the Newfoundland Legislature passed the Supply Act, which granted $6,000 to construct a new customs house in Harbour Grace, in the same location. Writing in the Harbour Grace Standard newspaper, a resident complained the building was now an “old, crumbling apology for a Custom House,” in need of replacing before it fell down.
George Tapp, a resident from St. Philip’s, built the new brick and slate-roofed structure for the government in 1870. The Gordon family lived upstairs immediately after its completion. The Customs House was the centre of business and international trade for all Conception Bay ports and reinforced the commercial character of Harbour Grace. Vessels leaving Newfoundland would be subject to government tariffs. Customs duty taxes would be collected on imported goods and animals.
Later, the Customs House was a tuberculosis clinic and an office for the Department of Social Services. Under the stewardship of the Conception Bay Museum Association, the building was designated a National Exhibition Centre in 1974 and a museum in 1975.
The Customs House is designated a Municipal Heritage Site by the Town of Harbour Grace.
Pictured: (1) “Customs House, Harbour Grace,” by J. M. Ball. Ten Historic Towns: Heritage Architecture in Newfoundland (Newfoundland Historic Trust, 1978). (2) “Customs House,” by Alec Brown. Harbour Grace Heritage District Report (Heritage Foundation of NL, 1992).