Think King’s Lynn, think the Custom House. This iconic building was revolutionary. Nothing like it had been seen before with its classical Doric, Corinthian and Ionic columns, pilasters, pediments, cupola and arches. The Custom House is described by renowned building historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, as "one of the most perfect buildings ever built".
It was shockingly modern at the time, sending a message that Lynn was ”open for international business” – state of the art, refined and European. John Turner chose local man Henry Bell to design the new Exchange which opened in 1685 where deals were done on wine, coal, wool, timber and corn. Customs occupied only the top floor. The arches were then open on the north and east sides. When a bell in the tower was rung, trading started. Nevertheless, the latter were not happy at being distanced from the Common Staithe where deeper water moorings were and by 1717, the Custom Service occupied the entire building bricking up the open arcading to make windows. A huge shock occurred in 1741 when a hurricane blew the original cupola off.
This was then H.M. Customs headquarters for almost the next 300 years. Henry Bell (1647–1711) was regarded as “an ingenious gentilhomme” capable of putting his mind to any skill. He was the son of a wealthy Lynn merchant family and after a university education at Cambridge he went on the obligatory European tour where he saw classical buildings in Italy. He designed many buildings in west Norfolk, but the Custom House in King's Lynn is best known. When the listing of historic buildings was introduced the Custom House was given as the example of the standard needed to attain grade I status! In 1989 the government of the day decided to strip the state of ownership of many buildings and sell them. A private buyer acquired this unique building by sealed tender and there followed 10 years of increasing neglect until the Borough Council negotiated a 50 year lease. In 1999 the Custom House was restored with the help of a Lottery Fund grant and a maritime museum opened on the first floor with the Tourist Information Centre on the ground floor