Western Islands, Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s Western Islands

North of the Jordaan and Haar­lem­mer­buurt neigh­bor­hoods are Amsterdam’s three (man-made) Western Islands: Bickers­eiland, Prinsen­eiland and Realen­eiland, a small and quiet world with a distinct flavor all of its own — seemingly stuck in time — close to the city center. On a surface area of 22 hectare (54 acres), the islands were histo­rically dedi­cated to ship­yards and ware­houses, combining industry and housing. These days they are often used as the backdrop for movies because of their many nostalgic panoramas.

Amsterdam Western Islands marked on the map

Amsterdam Western Islands marked on the city map.

Sloterdijkerbrug, Amsterdam, seen from Nieuwe Teertuinen

View of the Sloter­dijker­brug seen from Nieuwe Teer­tuinen, looking towards Prinsen­eiland. This is the only double wooden draw bridge in the area which is still in its original state and is a municipal monument (February 2021).

History of the Western Islands

At the start of the 1600s, the Western Islands were still marsh­land with reed and bushes — many unsavory characters hid there, making the area a dangerous one. In 1610, to allow for bigger ships, the city started to deepen the Nieuwe Waal, the water between the Western Islands and the IJ, nowadays closed off by the Wester­doks­dijk (Western Dock Dike), open water back then.

Map of the Western Islands, Amsterdam, from 1625 by Balthasar Florisz van Berckenrode

Map of the Western Islands from 1625 by Balthasar Florisz van Bercken­rode. Prinsen­eiland and Realen­eiland sparsely used, Bickers­eiland still empty. Land speculation by Oetgens and Cromhout caused delays and prolonged negotiations (Rijks­museum).

As a part of Amsterdam’s Third Expansion (Derde Uitleg), three arti­ficial islands were created between 1611 and 1615. They were origi­nally named Voor­eiland, Midd­eneiland and Achter­eiland (Front, Middle and Back Island). The new islands were meant to be used for storage and businesses connected to shipping, homes were only allowed and constructed there for the workers.

Painting of Shipyard St. Jago on Bickerseiland, Amsterdam, by Pieter Godfried Bertichen

Shipyard St. Jago on Bickers­eiland, by Pieter Godfried Bertichen, 1823 (Rijks­museum).

Initially businesses were put here which were too noisy or dangerous to have in the city, like shipyards, tar cookeries and salt works. The Third City Expansion also provided for a wall, way out into the waters of the IJ, with three bastions, the rows of poles in the water extended as well to defend the shipyards. Homes here were built mostly on the western side of Bickerseiland and on the eastern part of Realeneiland.

Insider Trading

Land speculation by some city board members (mayor Oetgens and his brother-in-law Barthold Cromhout, who knew about the intended expansions beforehand) led to a scandal in the council in 1614 — it would have cost the city an enormous amount in buyouts if it had succeeded. An independent committee was asked to look into the deals. Still, because of the ensuing drawn-out negotiations, building on these three new islands was delayed for years — it only took off between 1623 and 1647 — and Oetgens and Cromhout still made a lot of money from their less than pretty deals.

The Front Island was eventually called Bickers­eiland (Bickers Island), after owner Jan Bicker, descendant of an important regent and merchant family, who had initiated and steered the islands’ construction through the city council. The Middle Island was eventually called Prinsen­eiland (Princes Island), possibly after the first three princes of the House of Orange. The Back Island became Realen­eiland (Realen Island), after Amsterdam alderman Jacob Reael, who also promoted the islands’ construction in the council and who owned land there.

Former warehouses on Prinseneiland, Amsterdam

Former warehouses on Prinsen­eiland, converted into apartments (February 2021).

Trade & Warehouses

In the eastern part of town, Amsterdam’s Eastern Islands were dedicated to the trade of the VOC (Dutch East India Company), with its own ship­yards and ware­houses. But the ship­yards and ware­houses of the Western Islands were mostly dealing with the WIC (Dutch West India Company) and trade with the Levant (the Eastern Medi­terranean region) and the Baltic Sea area. The ware­houses stored herring, grain, tobacco, salt, anchovies, cat hides, pitch and tar. Many street names on the Western Islands point to these goods, like Bokking­hangen (Buckling Hang), Zout­keets­gracht (Salt Store Canal) and Nieuwe Teer­tuinen (New Tar Gardens). Gable stones and warehouse names also still mirror these activities.

View from Prinseneiland towards Realeneiland, Amsterdam

View from Prinsen­eiland towards Realen­eiland, with a ware­house on Realen­gracht (June 2020).

Construction of the Westerdok & Railroad

On the nearby Haar­lem­mer­straat you can see the West-Indische Huis (West India House), the former office of the WIC. In 1834 the Wester­dok (Western Dock) was created, to counter­act the conti­nuous silting up of the waters around the islands. With the construction of first the Wester­doks­dijk and later the Wester­doks­eiland, the new islands were not subject to ebb and flow anymore, as they were now closed off from the IJ (which back then had an open connection to the Zuiderzee).

Detail of a map by W.B. Clarke from 1835 of Amsterdam's Western Islands

The Western Islands with the Wester­doks­dijk, created in 1834 to prevent the silting up of the water­ways around the islands. Access was now through the Westerdok Locks (Doksluizen). Detail of a map by W.B. Clarke from 1835 (London University).

When the railroad west­ward to Haarlem got a raised railway embank­ment here, the Western Islands were also separated from the Haar­lem­mer­buurt (Haarlem neigh­borhood) and the Haar­lemmer Hout­tuinen (Haarlem Wood Gardens), where all the wood was stored used for ship­building en homes.

Construction of the railway along Eilandsgracht, Amsterdam, in 1872

Construction of the rail­way embank­ment along Eilands­gracht in 1872 (Stads­archief Amsterdam).

Jacob Olie

Jacob Olie (1834–1905) was a city photo­grapher who lived at Zand­hoek 10 on Realen­eiland. To him we owe many wonder­ful photo­graphs in black and white of Amsterdam in the 19th century. Photography was just a hobby for him — he was a carpenter and civil engineer, as well as teacher at (and later principal of) the first craft school in the Netherlands. He was buried on the Nieuwe Ooster cemetery, his lost gravestone found again and now restored.

Nieuwe Teertuinen with Sloterdijkerbrug, Amsterdam, in 1890

Nieuwe Teertuinen (New Tar Gardens) with Sloter­dijker­brug (Sloterdijk Bridge) across the Prinsen­eilands­gracht (Princes Island Canal), photo by Jacob Olie from 1890. He lived at Zandhoek 10 on Realen­eiland. (Stads­archief Amsterdam).

End of the Harbour

Until the end of the 19th century the area was a bustling and busy neigh­bor­hood, but after that the new ships became too big for this small harbour extension. The development of a bigger and more modern harbour in the eastern part of town marked the end of nearly 200 years of ship­building related activities on the Western Islands. Luckily much of the old industrious past’s atmosphere has been preserved.

View from Galgenbrug between Bickers Island and Princes Island, Amsterdam

View from the Galgen­brug (Gallows Bridge) between Bickers­eiland and Prinsen­eiland (May 2021).

From Slums to Gem

When the ship­yards closed, empty ware­houses were soon neglected and the area was badly main­tained, the factories adding noise and pollution. During the Second World War much was demolished to provide wood for burning. Some 100 families stayed, even when the neigh­bor­hood almost became a slum. Artists, squatters and drug addicts took over the abandoned ware­houses. Many properties on Bickers­eiland were bought in 1965 by project developers who wanted to create big offices there.

In 1970 a committee of locals prevented these plans, sometimes with grim sabotage. Eventually, in 1973, two young architects created an alter­native plan for the island and much of the neigh­bor­hood was saved. Since 1990 the islands underwent many changes and became a magnet for well-to-do citizens, artists and musicians.

View from Galgenbrug towards Prinseneiland, Amsterdam

View from the Galgen­brug (Gallows Bridge) towards Prinsen­eiland (June 2020).

More Later

I will cover each of Amsterdam’s Western Islands in separate blog posts in the future, each with explanation and more pictures.

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