Paying Tribute to the Hard Life of Peat Dredgers

Sculpture ‘Verveners’ by John Rijnen
Sculpture ‘Verveners’ by John Rijnen

It’s been a while since my last update. Don’t worry. All is well. The delay was due to my change in habitat. Moving can be draining attention and creativity, but can also create opportunities for exploring the new neighbourhood. And that is exactly what I will share as this first post. One of the first dredging related discoveries was a sculpture on a roundabout nearby. Probably most passers-by will not notice it or at most will be puzzled by the strange flat figures. To us, as dredging community, we immediately recognise the typical posture of manual dredging. Intrigued by the unexpected discovery of dredging art at this location, I went on an investigation on the background of this statue.

Sign at sculpture ‘Verveners’
Sign at sculpture ‘Verveners’

The sign at the sculpture did reveal some details on the name, date and artist of this monument1. Obviously, the topic of this statue was a tribute to the people who have been working as peat dredgers and contributing to the wealth of the town. It is also a reference to the origin of the current geography of the municipality: lots of lakes and ponds that are a recreational area for the population and a resting place for nature, that were unbelievably all excavated manually over ages.

The most characteristic feature of the sculpture are long poles2 in combination with the posture for back breaking manual labour. The long pole has a hoop at the lower end with some kind of fishing net attached. The hoop is used to scrape sediment (in this case peat) from the bottom and collected in the pouch. Mud and peat are sticky enough to stay in the net for vertical transport, but the flexibility and openness enables easy discharge. For peat dredging the material was scooped up on shore and dried3. For maintenance dredging, the material was brought on board and discharged at a convenient disposal location4. The Dutch dredging industry cherishes this and remembers it with all kinds of small statues found in many offices.

Paper weights about manual dredging with a ‘baggerbeugel’ (Credit: Hendrik Jan de Kluiver)
Paper weights about manual dredging with a ‘baggerbeugel’ (Credit: Hendrik Jan de Kluiver)

Manual dredging shaped much of Holland’s geography, either the canals and lakes or the reclamation of marsh into pasture land. It has been identified as a typical Dutch tradition. But is it?? Preparing this post, I’ve discovered it is not. Several references say that we did not invent the ‘baggerbeugel’2. Before we started to use it, it has been applied already for ages in East Anglia5, which had a very similar landscape. Already from the tenth century, peat has been excavated from the Fenlands and later on from the 14th century, they started manual dredging already. Only later on in the 16th century Holland started to take over this practice. And in good Dutch tradition, we refined the trade and even exported consultancy on these projects back to England!

Stills from an instructional video on peat dredging (Credit: modified from Open Beelden Project)
Stills from an instructional video on peat dredging (Credit: modified from Open Beelden Project)

Peat dredging is a laborious procedure and later on, this industry was mechanised. There is a nice video explaining about peat dredging in the Netherlands. Especially the hydraulic dredging starts at 08:10 into the video. All processes in a regular dredging project are identifiable: a) dredging, b) discharge, c) bulldozering, d) compacting, e) drying and f) further transport of the merchandise.

Viewing a video is one way to experience manual dredging. In the dredging garden of the National Dredging Museum6, there is an exhibit to experience this trade first hand.

Visitors experiencing manual dredging in the National Dredging Museum
Visitors experiencing manual dredging in the National Dredging Museum

References

  1. De oude tol, Rotondekunst
  2. Baggerbeugel, Wikipedia
  3. Vervening, Wikipedia
  4. Barges, IADC
  5. A Tale of Norfolk Peat Cutting, Norfolk Tales, Myths & Beyond
  6. Bagger Praktijk Tuin, Nationaal Baggermuseum

See also