Customs and the much-vexed question of “Through Rates”

Cargo Ship at Sligo Port

Prior to the emergence of the Irish Free State in 1922, it was the practice that “through bookings” of livestock and goods from Irish Ports including Sligo via rail and boat was accepted by railway companies in England without additional customs charges or duties.   This would have included the Midland Great Western Railway Company that operated the Sligo to Dublin railway line at that time.  This practice of “through bookings” more usually referred to as “through rates” in the Minutes of Sligo Chamber Meetings was an important factor benefiting trade movement of goods and livestock between Sligo and England, Scotland and Wales.  Having “through rates” allowed businesses in Sligo trade economically at competitive rates in supplying goods and livestock to all parts of the United Kingdom.

Indeed, Ports were of such importance at that time that the Final Text of the Articles of Agreement of the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland signed in London on December 6, 1921 contained the following text at Article 9 of the Treaty, a Treaty that in total contained only eighteen articles:

9. The ports of Great Britain and the Irish Free State shall be freely open to the ships of the other country on the payment of the customary port and other duties”

The emergence of the Irish Free State in 1922 brought about changes in custom practices at ports including Sligo Port.   These changed practices appear to have resulted in delays and in extra costs for Sligo traders.  It is remarkable to read that such difficulties occurred in the 1920s with the secession of the Irish Free State from the United Kingdom against the background of similar difficulties being encountered at Ports on the Island of Ireland almost one hundred years later in 2021 following Brexit and the secession, this time by the United Kingdom, from the European Union.

We first read about the impact of the new Customs regulations in the Minutes of the Sligo Chamber Meeting in May 1923, F. Nally, Vice-President, in the Chair.  A discussion took place at the meeting regarding the great inconvenience and loss to the trading community in the releasing of goods under the new Customs Regulations in place following the emergence of the Irish Free State.  “The meeting having expressed its opinion that the present Customs Staff in Sligo is not sufficient to cope with the trade of this Port, it was:

Moved by:          Mr. A. P. Jackson

Seconded by:     Mr. A.C. Cook and Resolved:-

That this General Meeting of the Sligo Chamber of Commerce desire to bring under the Notice of the Ministry of Finance the inefficiency of the Sligo Customs Staff and its inability to deal adequately and speedily with the importation of goods – especially non-dutiable goods.  It would respectfully emphasise that unnecessary delay occurs in examining and releasing goods, causing inconvenience and loss to the trading community.

Irish Tax & Excise Office

The present location of the examining Office and the Custom House is inconvenient owing to the distance apart and should be remedied.

Passed unanimously”.

In a comment that resonates with the new customs regulations in place today post Brexit, the Chamber members were of the opinion that the new customs conditions compared most unfavourably with the system they replaced.  Copies of the Resolutions passed were sent to the Local and Dublin Press, the Minister of Finance and Senator A.P. Jackson.

Sligo Quays

The matter of “Through Rates” for Sligo Port quickly deteriorated further.   At the Chamber meeting of the 21st of September 1923, H. Campbell Perry, President, in the Chair, Mr. F. Nally pointed out that within the past four weeks “Through Rates” had been considerably reduced to several Ports in Ireland from the principal towns in England, however the rates to Sligo had not been reduced.  The following Resolution was:-

“Proposed by:    F. Nally

Seconded by:     R.S. Gorman and Resolved:-

That this Meeting of the Sligo Chamber of Commerce (Incorporated) having discussed the subject of “Through Rates” recently been considerably reduced to the Ports of Cork, Waterford, Dublin, Dundalk, Drogheda, Greenore, Belfast and Londonderry from the principal towns in England feel that the Port of Sligo has not received due consideration in the matter and we desire to bring the question under the Notes of the Rates Advisory Committee and also the Irish and English Goods Traffic Conference with a view to removing the disabilities by which Sligo trade has been affected.

Passed unanimously”.

Great Southern & Western Railway Co. Steam Train

The matter continues to be referred to in Chamber Meetings in 1924, 1925, 1926 and 1928 without any evidence of progress.   The meeting of the 9th of November, 1925, H. Campbell Perry, President, in the Chair, notes that on the question of the through bookings of parcels from Great Britain to Ireland via Liverpool and/or Glasgow and direct steamer to Sligo, the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company and the London North Eastern Railway Company cannot see their way to put the reduced rates asked for into operation.  And so it continued into 1926 when at the Chamber Meeting of the 31st of May, H. Campbell Perry, President, in the Chair, it was proposed by Mr. H.C. Lyons, seconded by Mr. A. H. Henderson and Resolved:-

That we the Members of the Sligo Chamber of Commerce in General Meeting assembled desire to urge upon the London Midland and Scottish and the London North Eastern Railway Companies the necessity of having through parcel passenger traffic rates established between inland English Stations and Sligo via Liverpool thence per Sligo Steam Navigation Coy’s direct Steamer to Sligo.  We request the Companies to give the matter their sympathetic consideration.

Passed unanimously”.

There does not appear to have been any sympathy forthcoming, with the Chamber Meeting of the 16th of November, 1926, H Campbell, President, in the Chair, noting replies from the two Railway Companies stating that the matter had been fully considered and they were unable to comply with the request.

In a theme consistent with that of Balanced Regional Development which is critical to Sligo Chamber today in 2023, the importance of regional balance on National Boards considering the matter of “Through Railway Traffic” and the interests of Ports is reflected in the Chamber Meeting of the 22nd of October 1928, H. Campbell Perry, President, in the Chair.  The Department of Industry and Commerce is setting up a Board in connection with the question of Through Railway Traffic between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State.  Sligo Chamber is in favour of the formation of such a Board to deal with the matter, however the Chamber decides to send a letter advising that it is their opinion “that the greatest care will require to be exercised in the selection of the proposed Board so that the interests of all Ports should be fairly and adequately represented”.

Even with the determined and continued representations made by Sligo Chamber, there does not appear to have been any success in achieving a resolution, and in similar circumstances to how companies had to react to new trade rules post Brexit, Sligo trade to England in the 1920s must have had to adapt in the years that followed to the changed economic circumstances brought about by new customs regulations and duties following the emergence of the Irish Free State.

The “much-vexed question of Through Rates”, as it was referred to in the Sligo Champion newspaper at the time, was first discussed at a meeting of Sligo Chamber on the 11th of May, on this week in 1923.

Researched and written by Conor McCarthy

Supported by the Sligo Chamber Centenary Committee:

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The next Article in the series commemorating The Centenary of Sligo Chamber and entitled

Following the numbers (1 of 2)” will be released on the 25th of May, 2023.

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