Heritage of Goeree-Overflakkee
(ENGELS) Island in the heart of the Delta
Goeree-Overflakkee is a beautiful island with a fascinating history. It belongs to the South Holland islands, although many people consider it part of Zeeland. The latter is undoubtedly due to its geographical location and dialect.
Until the mid-eighteenth century, Goeree and Overflakkee were two separate islands. That came to an end in 1751. It was then, at the initiative of the States of Holland and West Friesland, that the Statendam was built. From that moment onwards there was only one island: Goeree-Overflakkee. Water plays an important role in the history of the island. Water was an enemy, but also a friend. One can still see many traces of that history on Goeree-Overflakkee.
The South Holland islands in the late sixteenth century. Zacharias Heyns, Duvelandia et Vornia, 1598. (Regional Archives of Goeree-Overflakkee)
Islands, salt marshes and shoals
The westernmost part of the island, Goeree, is of a respectable age. There are remains of Roman settlements and even found traces from the Iron Age. In the late Middle Ages, a vast peat bog with channels lay behind the remains of an earlier beach ridge. Erosion of those channels and floods created a jumble of islands, salt marshes and shoals. Permanent residence was not possible on the islands. But people were present on the salt marshes and shoals in the summer months. They were engaged in fishing, grazing sheep and mining salt. The surface subsided because of the salt mining. Eventually, when a salt marsh or shoal was exhausted, the land was returned to the elements.
After the St Elisabeth Flood (1421), the silting up of marshes and plates accelerated and the owners increasingly turned to land reclamation. The oldest polders, Dirksland and Herkingen, had already been diked before the flood (in 1416 and 1420). They were followed by Grijsoord (1438), Middelharnis-Sommelsdijk (1465) and Ooltgensplaat (1483). Fertile polders with a village. Four islands, surrounded by wide channels. When those channels silted up, accretions arose and new reclamations followed. Thus the diked salt marshes and shoals grew towards each other, eventually becoming current Goeree-Overflakkee. With a total of approximately one hundred large and small polders, the island is largely man-made. The dyke pattern, which shows the structure of the island, is still visible in the landscape.
Villages and ports
During impoldering a dyke was built around a shoal or salt marsh. The creeks, remnants of the channels in the undiked area, began to serve as part of the polders’ outlets. Where the creek hit the dike, an outlet sluice was built that could discharge the excess water at low tide. Villages were also often built in these favourable places. And together with the village, a port was built with sufficient depth since the outlet created a channel. A port was of vital importance, as it formed the connection with the outside world.
Sommelsdijk as a key-shaped village. Detail of a map from the Caert-bouck van de H. Geest en Kerkelandenn, drawn by Abraham Meulwerf in 1616. (Regional Archives of Goeree-Overflakkee)
Villages were not always created in later polders. The youngest village on Goeree-Overflakkee is Stellendam. It was founded in the late eighteenth century. The other villages date from before 1550. The island has one city: Goedereede, which was granted city rights in 1312. Most fifteenth-century villages on the island were built as ring dike villages. The layout of the villages resembles the shape of a key. Such a “key village” consists of a church ring with a moat, a Voorstraat between the ring and the sea dyke and back roads behind the Voorstraat and the ring. Houses were built on Voorstraat, the ring and on the sea dyke.
The convenient location of the islands and the availability of many ports, prosperous places like Goedereede, Dirksland, Sommelsdijk and Middelharnis developed. The young polders also yielded good harvests. Additionally, fishing also flourished. They owed their prosperity to the water, but the water also posed a danger. The polders were regularly confronted with floods. Particularly harmful were those of 1530, 1570 and 1682. One can still see the traces of where the dikes burst because of the occurrence of a kolk lake.
The building of new and stronger sea dykes in the 1950’s. (Regional Archives of Goeree-Overflakkee)
The island grew through new accretions and impoldering. It made the ports increasingly difficult to reach. The solution was to dig port channels, which provided access to open water and thus to “the other side” (South Holland), Zeeland and Brabant. For centuries bargemen sailed mainly to Rotterdam and Dordrecht.
The port channels, which in some cases had to be extended once again, were sometimes as long as several kilometres. For example, the port channel of Dirksland measures more than 5.5 kilometres. There are also port channels in Goedereede, Stellendam, Middelharnis, Ooltgensplaat and Oude Tonge. These lines in the landscape tell the story of the steadily growing island and the need to make water transport permanently possible. A port channel demanded constant attention to keep the port navigable and ensure the polder’s outlet. In view of this, a lock was built in the port of Dirksland in 1790. This lock, Dirkslandse Sas, is a national monument and, together with the lock keeper's house, it is one of the most beautiful spots on the island.
Keeping the port navigable was also achieved by regularly sluicing surplus water. At high tide, the lock chamber dug behind the port filled up with water, which was then forcefully drained into open water at low tide. That way the silted up channel was cleaned. There are still water-filled lock chambers in the ports of Goedereede, Sommelsdijk, Ooltgensplaat and Oude Tonge. One can see filled-in lock chambers in Dirksland and Middelharnis.
Goedereede as a port city. J. Peeters and G. Bouttats from Thoneel der Stede ende Sterckten van ’t Vereenight Nederlandt, 1674. It is supposed to reflect the situation of some 100 years earlier.
Fishing and agriculture
Middelharnis was the most important fishing village on the island for centuries. The early twentieth century saw an end to fishing. One can still see fishing warehouses, small fishermen's houses and a small shipyard around the port. In the course of the twentieth century Stellendam, Goedereede-Havenhoofd and Ouddorp became important fishing villages. The ports shipped mainly agricultural products. Especially in the autumn, during the sugar beet campaign, there was a hive of activity in and around the ports. Each port did have one or two “root quays”. This is where the sugar beets were temporarily stored before they were loaded onto the vessels with wooden wheelbarrows. At some places along the ports and port channels, one can see old warehouses and warehouses for agricultural products such as potatoes, onions and, especially in Ouddorp, chicory. Ouddorp had several chicory drying houses. There is still one left: Ceres (1905). During the sixties and seventies the agricultural ports lost their significance for commercial shipping. Most of the ports now have a recreational function.
Fishing fleet in the port of Middelharnis in the late nineteenth century. (Photo collection of the Regional Archives of Goeree-Overflakkee)
For centuries Goeree-Overflakkee was very conveniently located for shipping. As a result, the island, despite the fact that it was only accessible by boat, was not isolated. One can only speak of isolation in the course of the twentieth century, when road traffic became predominant. An important connection to the island was the tramway. The Rotterdam Tramway Company (RTM) operated this line from 1909 to 1956. This improved mobility, not only between the villages, but also with "the other side", because of the ferry between Middelharnis and Hellevoetsluis. In 1964, the island was given its first fixed link to the mainland: Haringvliet Bridge. Later more followed as part of the Delta Works.
“Ceres”, chicory drying house from 1905. Ouddorp had five such "factories". The "Ceres" is the only one left. (Photo by Hans Villerius)
Disaster and Delta Works
The disastrous flood of 1 February 1953 was a flood of unprecedented scope. Many dykes burst. On Goeree-Overflakkee, where only Dirksland, Melissant and Ouddorp remained above water, nearly five hundred people drowned. Oude Tonge was hit hardest with 304 casualties. Several memorials, wooden “gift houses” and street names still remind us of this great natural disaster. The Delta Works were built to prevent another such disaster. The dykes were raised and strengthened and several dams and lock complexes were built that connected Goeree-Overflakkee to the mainland.
Flooding in Oude Tonge, 1 February 1953. This village was very badly affected by the disaster with many deaths. (Photo collection of the Regional Archives of Goeree-Overflakkee)