Next to Campbell’s wharf, and on the site now occupied by the Rawson Institute for Seamen, stood, for many years, the Naval Office. A little south of the house there was a clump of rock standing out of the water, and in between this and the shore a boathouse was erected. The Naval Officer was the forerunner of our Collector of Customs.
The post was held by a number of distinguished colonists, including Dr. Balmain, Dr. Harris, Robert Campbell, Captain Glenholme, and, from 1814 to 1827, when the title was altered to its present form, by Captain John Piper. The “Sydney Gazette” of April 18, 1827, says:—“The Naval Office has given up the ghost in favour of the Custom House, a much more national term.” Captain Piper was a popular man, a good-natured man, and, I fear, a poor businessman. The inevitable followed a financial crash, due, it is stated, to the captain giving too much credit, and he was suspended from his office. I should hesitate to tell the following story of the gallant captain if I had not the authority of an archdeacon behind me.
Some years ago the late Archdeacon Greenway, recalling some memories of his youthful days. said:—”The Custom House was near Dawes Battery, on the hill above Cadman’s. Captain Piper was Comptroller of Customs and Harbourmaster. He was a dashing Scotch officer, the only man who drove a coach with four horses, and a typical specimen of the full-blooded sporting characters of the early part of the century.
His dinners were functions much sought after, and an old Scotch piper was always in attendance on the worthy captain, while a band discoursed national and other spirited airs when the conviviality was on a large scale, which was often. But the Fates were against the gallant officer, and sooner than sink unhonoured and unsung, a shadow of erstwhile glory, he determined to die as he had lived, with the elements roaring round him and the Muses stealing rapturously through the turmoil.
So he manned his crew and his band—they being one and the same—and right well they rowed him to the rolling seas outside the North and South heads. ‘Ship your oars,’ ordered the captain; and they were in quick and lively, for Piper was an army disciplinarian. ‘Now then. lads, God Save the King.’ The band played on the blue Pacific, the boat rocked and tossed in the billows, and with music in his ears and resignation in his soul, Captain Piper commended his spirit to the Unfathomable, and his body to the fishes, and plunged overboard.
But, alas for his determination, a stalwart boatman leaned over and got a boathook fastened to him so neatly that the eccentric officer could only flounder most ingloriously. So they bundled him into the boat and did not strike up another tune until they had landed him, damp and shivering, at Circular Quay. Soon afterwards he went to Bathurst, where he had land, and history records that he had many happy days.”