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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 14

The Customs Duties

The Customs Duties.

To trace to their origin the import and export tariffs of this country we must go beyond the time of Richard I., if not so far as the Roman occupation. A "prisage" on imported wine is recorded in Exchequer documents of the monarch just named, and in 1297 a grant of Customs dues on exported wool and leather was made to Edward I. in aid of his war with France. The wine duty being at so much per ton became known as "tonnage," and import duties on other goods being imposed at so much a pound of their supposed value these were termed "poundage." Hence the récurrent term "tonnage and poundage" in subsidies granted by Parliament to successive sovereigns. Poundage was at the rate of 5 per cent, from 1373 to 1787, which fact may be profitably contrasted with the exorbitant and barbarous percentages charged now-a-days under what is supposed to be an enlightened and popular Government. For instance, take the following principal articles of modern Customs :—

[The figures in the first three columns of the following Table are taken from the Statistical Abstract: the fourth is calculated thereon; the fifth is taken from the Finance Accounts for 1883-84; and the sixth shows the rate of duty on the articles named. The quantities being for the year ended December 31, 1883, and the revenue for that ended March 31, 1884, the calculations are not strictly accurate, but they are near enough for the purpose.]

Quantities Imported in 1883. Real Value. Quantities retained for Home Consumption. Proportionate Real Value. Revenue in 1883-4. Percentage of Duty on Value.
£ £ £ £
Cocoa and Chocolate lb. 22,698,161 753,762 12,888,470 428,001 59,380 14 Cocoa.
Coffee cwt. 1,407,134 4,936,465 281,804 988,616 202,600 20½ Coffee.
Currants cwt. 1,026,584 1,423,062 969,403 1,343,797 337,190 25 Carrants.
Raisins cwt. 588,309 1,057,934 452,453 813,629 147,498 181/8 Raisins
Spirits, Foreign & Colonial gal. 9,836,937 1,914,568 8,239,985 1,614,484 4,365,383 2702/8 Spirits, Foreign & Colonial
Tea lb. 222,262,431 11,542,931 170,780,777 8,869,293 4,230,341 47¾ Tea.
Tobacco, Manufactured lb. 3,121,174 1,065,861 1,459,411 498,380 8,891,944 432 Tobacco, Manufactured.
Tobacco, Unmanufactured lb. 56,475,199 1,794,966 49,092,803 1,560,329 8,891,944 432 Tobacco, Manufactured.
Wine gal. 15,559,795 5,451,953 14,287,317 5,012,520 1,293,833 251/8 Wine.

These are only the percentages actually received by the Government from wholesale dealers, who take the goods out of bond for consumption. For profit and risk of capital so advanced, as also for loss of time, labour, and other expenses consequent on the system, wholesale dealers and retailors must make additional charges, all of which are concealed in the selling price of taxed goods, so that consumers are made to pay in this unconscious manner very much more than Government receives. If the people only knew how greatly they are pillaged and injured by this system of raising the revenue all the forces of the Government would not suffice to maintain it for a single year. For their better understanding of what they are paying in taxes when they suppose they are only paying for the goods they buy, it may be well to put the above rates per £100 into a more familiar shape by showing what they mean as to every supposed shilling's worth bought by retail. Thus: Out of every shilling paid over the counter for Cocoa, lid. is for the tax; for Coffee, 1½d.; for Currants, 3d.; for Raisins, 2½d.; and for Tea, 4¼d.. with fraction of a farthing additional in each instance. The Spirit duty makes the price of a nominal shilling's worth of spirits 4s. 4¼d. The Tobacco duty raises the price of the shilling's worth to 6s. 8¾ d., supposing both to be genuine and duty paid, i.e., unadulterated and unsmuggled, whilst that on Wine takes only the fraction of a farthing more page 172 than 5d. from the shilling. As to Tobacco, it may be interesting to smokers of the common sort to know that of the 3d. paid for an ounce, 2½d. is for the Government, and a halfpenny only for the Tobacco. The charges beyond the Government extracts from the shilling amount to at least 25 per cent, on them, i.e., to threepence on every shilling of duty, and to a farthing on every penny. The £45,164,224 raised by Government in the last financial year by means of Customs and Excise Duties, must represent a burden of at least double that amount upon the country, directly and indirectly, and probably very much more in actual cost, to say nothing of the prevention of gain consequent on the system. The Sugar duties were happily abolished in 1874, and the sooner the rest of the relics of barbarous fiscal legislation are made to follow suit the better it will be for every man, woman, and child in the three kingdoms.

Curiosities of the Customs.

Our persistent exposure of the wasteful abuses at the small Customs' Ports, has at length produced some result : the establishments at Campbeltown, Padstow, and Wisbech (which Sir J. Lubbock's return of 1874 showed to be costing about 72,000 per cent, upon the amount of duty collected), have now been "grouped" with the larger staffs at Greenock, Plymouth, and Lynn respectively. Those at Aberystwith, Kirkwall, Scilly, Beaumaris, Lerwick, Milford, and Borrowstowness (which collected about a halfpenny per day a-piece), have been "grouped" with Carnarvon, Wick, Falmouth, Llanelly, and Grangemouth. With the last-named port has also been coupled Alloa (where £130 was annually collected for the Revenue, at a cost of £800, or 615 per cent.), and with Plymouth has been "grouped" Fowey (where £1,143 was spent on getting in £85—i.e., 1,345 per cent.), with Greenock Ardrossan is bracketed, Ardrossan celebrated for collecting £116 at a cost of £721, or 622 per cent. The 56 gentlemen who lived in clover at these and other ports, collecting 3s. a man per day and writing one form and half a letter a-piece, have been whitted down to six we presume, or all pensioned off, which is more likely. Then again Skibbereen, with its roaring revenue of £281 costing £509 to get in, has been joined to Cork; and Grangemouth now that two other Lilliputian "Ports" have been "grouped" with it, may be expected to collect a little more than £921 for a little less than £2,486, or 269 per cent. Lastly, there are those 12 Harbours of bliss, where the 46 gentlemen filled up two forms a-piece per day and collected an average of £1 each before going home. What has become of them? Lyme, Youghal, Chepstow, and Woodbridge appear no more at all on the Customs' List. Runcorn and Fleetwood have been joined to Liverpool, Teign-mouth to Exeter, Faversham to Ramsgate, and Montrose to Dundee, &c., &c.

We part with these "curiosities," not without a sigh, for they have long given piquancy to our pages, helping our lecturers to point many a moral and adorn many a tale. And, in conclusion, we ask the reader to note that the frightful and wanton waste of public money by the Customs System has been so little heeded by Parliament that even these, the most glaring, instances were allowed to go on fully ten years after Sir John Lubbock's Return before application of a remedy. We suppose Mr. Courtney was the man who at length stopped this leakage of the taxpayers' money, for we believe he effected several similar reforms whilst at the Treasury.