Realeneiland, Amsterdam


Realen­eiland is the most northern of the three Western Islands, created during the first quarter of the 17th century. In 1617 the city started to sell cheap lots here to herring fisher­men from out­side the city, later followed by ship­yards, rope­walks, tanneries and saltworks. Origi­nally called Achter­eiland (Back Island), this island was later named after the Reael merchant family, who owned land there. Jacob Reael (1590-1639), brother of Reynier Reael, was one of the alder­men who had steered the islands’ creation through the city council. The island is sur­rounded by Zout­keets­gracht, Wester­dok, Realen­gracht and Smalle­pads­gracht.

Warehouse De Lepelaar on Realengracht, Amsterdam

Warehouse De Lepelaar (the Spoonbill) on Realen­gracht (November 2020).

Reynier Reael (1588-1648)

The influential Reael family held many important functions in Amsterdam. In 1620 many lots on Realen­eiland were bought by Reynier Reael, who was married to Maria Oetgens (1591-1652), daughter of an Amsterdam mayor. Oetgens had used his prior knowledge of the intended extensions to buy large swathes of land before­hand and got extremely rich selling them later. The rest of the island was owned by the city. Merchant and alderman Reynier Reael was also a member of several government committees. In 1622 he became one of the admini­strators of the Dutch West India Company (WIC). Around 1624 the island was named after him.

The Meagre Company, by Frans Hals and Pieter Codde, painting from 1637

Militia Company of District XI under the Command of Captain Reynier Reael, known as “The Meagre Company”, by Frans Hals and Pieter Codde from 1637. Captain Reynier Reael sits left, carrying the officer’s staff, next to the flag bearer (Rijks­museum).

Reynier Reael was also captain of a militia company and can be seen on a famous painting by Frans Hals. Hals (who was from Haarlem) was asked to paint this militia group’s portrait, but soon found himself at odds with the guardsmen. The Amster­dam painter Pieter Codde had to step in to finish the seven figures on the right.

View from Nieuwe Teertuinen towards Realeneiland across Realengracht, Amsterdam

View from Nieuwe Teer­tuinen towards Realen­eiland across Realen­gracht. On the right the Drie­haringen­brug, on the left the Smalle­pads­gracht. The white and black ware­houses on the left belonged to a wine merchant, now apartments (June 2022).

Streets & Bridges on Realen­eiland

There are eight streets on Realen­eiland:

  • Realen­gracht – Realen Canal. The only canal in Amsterdam with two wooden draw­bridges.
  • Vier­winden­straat – Four Winds Street. Probably named after a gable stone on a house on the island.
  • Vier­winden­dwars­straat – Four Winds Traverse Street. In 1625 this street existed, but was nameless as yet.
  • Jan Mens­plein – Jan Mens Square. Jan Mens (1897-1967) was a Dutch writer, son of a diamond cutter, who started writing after losing his job. He is best known for his trilogy “De kleine waarheid” (The Small Truth) from 1960-1964, later made into a succes­ful TV-series. His mentor was writer Theo Thijssen.
  • Zout­keets­gracht – Salt Shack Canal. Named after the salt shacks which dominated this canal in the 17th and 18th century. Course salt was refined here for domestic use. There was also a flour and bread factory here since 1864, first called called “Amster­damsche Meel- en Brood­fabriek”, in 1871 renamed to “Stoom­meel- en Brood­fabriek Holland”. Demolished in 1961 and replaced with homes. Many gable stones here show types of fish.
Stoom Meel- en Broodfabriek Holland, Zoutkeetsgracht, Amsterdam, by Jacob Olie, 1896

Zoutkeetsgracht 2-18, Stoom Meel- en Brood­fabriek Holland, photo by Jacob Olie from 1896 (Stads­archief Amsterdam).

  • Zandhoek – Sand Corner. Sand was stored here and moved with boats, used as ballast in vessels and for raising terrains in the city. City photographer Jacob Olie (1834-1905) lived at Zandhoek 10. Dutch writer and holo­caust survivor Eli Asser (1922-2019), known for his song lyrics in the Dutch series “Schaep met de 5 pooten” and “Citroentje met suiker”, lived at Zandhoek 2 from 1958.
  • Taan­straat – Tan Street. Named after the tanners who made sails, nets and ropes water resistant by immerging them in the tan extract in large kettles. Because of the inherent fire hazard these tanneries were only allowed on this street. The Taan­huis (Tan House) stood here in the 17th century.
  • Taan­dwars­straat – Tan Traverse Street.
Realengracht, Amsterdam, seen from Realeneiland in the direction of Prinseneiland

Realen­gracht seen from Realen­eiland (near Taan­dwars­straat) in the direction of Prinsen­eiland. In the distance Drie­haringen­brug. The barns of shipyard De Walvis (the grey buildings on the left) were rebuilt in old style (June 2022).

Bridges on Realen­eiland:

  • Zand­hoeks­brug – Sand Corner Bridge, between Realen­eiland and Bickers­eiland. In the 19th century replaced by a steel version, in 2007 a replica of the original wooden bridge was put back.
  • Drie­haringen­brug – Three Herring Bridge, between Realen­eiland and Prinsen­eiland. Named after a decoration on a house on Vier­winden­dwars­straat.
  • Petemayen­brug – Godmother Bridge, to the north from Realen­eiland towards Bokking­hangen in the Zee­helden­buurt (Sea Heroes neigh­bor­hood). The origin of the name is unknown — pete­moeien was also an expression used for “old ladies”. Replaced in 1896 by a steel bridge, then in 2007 by a wooden replica of the original.
Petemayenbrug, Amsterdam, from Zandhoek to Bokkinghangen

Petemayen­brug from Zand­hoek to Bokking­hangen, across Zout­keets­gracht (July 2022).

Filling Realeneiland

Various 17th century maps show that Prinsen­eiland was the first to be filled, Realen­eiland remained empty the longest. The city struggled to fill the island with businesses and offered the lots at reduced prices to herring packers, ship­yards, carpenters and ship builders. Already in the design phase of the island there were quays along the Zout­keets­gracht and Realen­gracht. Only the western half of the island had wood storage spaces, which were basically slopes along the water were logs were stored.

Detail of a map from around 1774-1779 of Western Islands, Amsterdam

Detail of a map from around 1774-1779, published by Covens and Mortier, showing the Western Islands and the shipyards on Bickers­eiland and Realen­eiland. SSW on top (Stads­archief Amsterdam).

Ropewalks, Tanneries, Carpenters, Saltworks & More

The northern part of the island was desig­nated as an area for salt­works and salt storage. Saltworks heated a concen­trated brine solution to make the salt crystallize, to be later refined for domestic use. It was stored in shacks, which stood on both sides of the Zout­keets­gracht in the 17th and 18th century.

There were several ship­yards on the island as well. Reael handed out many terrains to ships carpenters, free of rent for the first 12 years, provided they gave him a ship in return. Against the city’s wishes he also had homes built here. In 1664 the Tar Company of Joseph Deutz — a descendant of one of the richest Amsterdam families — created a large wharf on the island. Around 1860 the shipyards on this island were replaced with sugar refineries and in 1890 the last ship was built here.

Zoutkeetsgracht, Amsterdam, seen in the direction of the Petemayenbrug

Zoutkeetsgracht seen in the direction of the Pete­mayen­brug (July 2022).

In 1625 the city allowed some herring smokers to settle near the Blaauw­hooft bastion at the edge of the IJ, north of Realeneiland, where the current Barentszplein is now. The Reael family built a herring packing plant on Zand­hoek in 1648, on the side of the island along the (then still open) water.

Tanneries were needed to make sails, nets and ropes weather­proof and moisture resistant. This was done by cooking them in big kettles in a mixture of oak bark, quebracho (axe-breaker, a hard tannin rich wood) and betel palm — this is what gave the yellow-brown color to old sails and nets. Some­times iron sulfate (koper­rood) was added to obtain a more red-brown effect. The word tan comes from the Latin word tannum, itself derived from the Celtic word tanno (oak).

Shipyard entrance on Vierwindenstraat, Amsterdam

Shipyard on Vier­winden­straat (July 2022).

Until 1673 there was also a peat market on the island. Near the Drie­haringen­brug (from Prinseneiland to Realeneiland) was a brandy distillery in 1676, named De Drie Gecroonde Haringen (The Three Crowned Herring). Distiller Jan Verwey had bought the house on the corner of Vier­winden­straat in 1740. In 1779 he sold the house and ware­house to well-to-do ship carpenter Haring Booy, who had it torn down in 1780 and had it rebuilt as a kind of second home, modeled more like a country home from the era than as a traditonal city dwelling.

Three herring above the doorway at Vierwindendwarsstraat, Amsterdam

Three herring above the doorway at Vier­winden­dwars­straat 1 (June 2022).

Fire Hazards

The activities on the islands were to be located here, at the edge of the city, because of the fire hazard they presented. There were regular fires in the ware­houses, wharfs and shacks, and in 1670 a fire on Realen­eiland lasted for three entire days and destroyed much capital. Because of this painter and inventor Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) was asked by the city council to develop a mechanical fire­hose pump, which he presented in 1672.

Zandhoek, Amsterdam, view from Zoutkeetsgracht towards Zandhoeksbrug and Bickerseiland

Zandhoek viewed from Zout­keets­gracht towards Zand­hoeks­brug and Bickers­eiland (January 2022).


On Zand­hoek was a Santmarckt (sand market) where sand was stored and traded. Reynier Reael had a row of thirteen captain’s houses built here between 1645 and 1646, the numbers 2 to 14. Once these houses looked out over the open water of the IJ, until in 1832 the Wester­doks­dijk closed this body of water off. These were simple but well-built homes — cellars and upper floor were rented out separately. Some have old-fashioned farmer’s doors (Dutch doors), where the top and bottom half can be opened separately.

Gables and gable stones on Zandhoek, Amsterdam

Gables and gable stones on Zandhoek (July 2022).

In the 18th and 19th century these houses were remodeled according to what was then trending, but during the 19th century they were badly maintained. After WW2 these houses were derelict and declared uninhabitable. In 1943 they were placed on a municipal monuments list to prevent demolition by the British American Tobacco Company (BATCO). They were located just behind these houses since 1906 and wanted to expand. The BATCO-factory closed in 1973 and moved to Deccaweg in the Sloterdijk Business Area. The city bought the entire factory terrain on Realeneiland in 1981, the polluted soil was sanitized in 1986 and homes were built here between 1990 and 1995.

BATCO on Realeneiland, Amsterdam, in 1983

BATCO on Realen­eiland in 1983, just before demolition (Stads­archief Amsterdam).

In the 1960s the first part of the captain’s houses was fully restored, including gable stones, followed by numbers 13 and 14 in 1978. Zandhoek 10 was the home of the family of city photographer Jacob Olie (1834-1905). The gable stone on that building — created by Hans ‘t Mannetje — is in honor of Jaap Oranje of the Diogenes restoration foundation. It features a quote from Cicero: “Amicus Certus In Re Incerta”, translated “Unsure times show you your true friends”.

Restaurant De Gouden Reael at Zandhoek 14, Amsterdam

Restaurant De Gouden Reael at Zand­hoek 14, corner Zout­keets­gracht (July 2022).

The Gouden Reael at Zandhoek 14

At Zandhoek 14 is a house with a gable stone of a Golden Reaal. This was a Spanish and Portuguese coin, which could be used throughout the world at the start of the 17th century. From the 16th to the 18th century these coins also circulated in the Netherlands. A version of these coins, minted during the reign of Charles V (1500-1558), was called the Imperiale or Golden Reaal, showing a bust of the emperor. Today it is a famous restaurant run by the Caron family. Website Gouden Reael (NL only):

Zoutkeetsgracht, Amsterdam, looking west from Petemayenbrug

Zoutkeetsgracht, looking west from Petemayenbrug (July 2022).

Toon Yland Plantsoen

Of note is also the Toon Yland Plantsoen in the northwest corner, a community-supported public garden. Gardener Toon Yland transformed this once barren terrain over the last 30 years into a bulb-rich garden, wonderful in spring.

Toon Ylandplantsoen at the northwest corner of Realeneiland, Amsterdam

Toon Yland­plantsoen at the north­west corner of Realen­eiland (July 2022).

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