Blog TWHS Visits


The former Colonies of Benevolence will be on the agenda of this year's WHC meeting. This Dutch-Flemish serial transnational proposal had been referred in 2018 due to doubts about the selection of included sites. Subsequential discussions with ICOMOS and the World Heritage Centre, who advised to “take a little more time” than usually after a Referral, has led to a reduction of the proposed locations from 7 to 3. On the Dutch side, Ommerschans and Willemsoord are omitted and Frederiksoord and Wilhelminaoord are combined. In Flanders, only Wortel is left.

Small former farm in Wilhelminaoord

I had already visited the Dutch part (notably Veenhuizen) in 2011 and the Belgian part in 2016. With the full, amended nomination dossier now available I decided to have a closer look at the Frederiksoord-Wilhelminaoord component. It is also about the only (T)WHS related place which I have not reviewed before that I can reach at the moment – I am eagerly awaiting the lifting of the non-essential travel ban to Germany for example, for some more low hanging TWHS fruit.

I arrived early on a Sunday morning in Wilhelminaoord, where I parked my car to begin the 11km long “Monuments walk”. It nicely covers the Frederiksoord-Wilhelminaoord component and its main monuments. They are really prepared here for WH status and more international tourists: every building of some interest has an information panel in front of it. The panels give a comprehensive explanation of what you’re looking at, both in the Dutch and English language. Up until now, the area has only been popular with Dutch pensioners.

Frederiksoord-Wilhelminaoord was a so-called ‘free’ colony: poor city-dwellers were given a small farm and identical-sized plots of land. Communal buildings such as schools, churches and workshops were located centrally. Along the main road between the two towns, the Koningin Wilhelminalaan, many of the original small farm houses can still be seen. They often have been converted into cosy-looking family homes.

Civil servant houses in Frederiksoord

Wilhelminaoord has a well-preserved Colony Church. I was pleased to find it open – only 3 visitors were allowed in at the same time due to the Corona virus measures, but at this early hour there was noone anyway. This protestant church was built in 1851. Church attendance was mandatory in the Colonies, to promote moral standards among the poor. Furthermore, Wilhelminaoord has preserved a weaving mill, which offered alternative employment to colonists who could not do the hard agricultural labour anymore and also two homes for the elderly.

Frederiksoord was the town where the administrators of the Colonies lived. The lower-ranked among them lived in similar small houses in a row. The pretty mansion ‘Huis Westerbeek’ was used by the company director.

Forestry School (1887), Frederiksoord

The Nomination Dossier frames the Colonies as a panoptic institution – the colonists were permanently observed and disciplined. Alcohol was forbidden for example, and to prevent them from going to the next town the colony had its own currency which wasn’t valid in the outside world. The ‘panoptic’ approach apparently is visible in the landscape as well: roads and supervisors’ buildings were strategically placed to keep an eye on everyone. What surprised me however how forested this area is. The walk goes via forest lanes for about a third of its route – which makes it a very pleasant walk but I wonder how this former production forest fits into the story of permanent visibility.

Els - 17 May 2020

Leave a comment


Clyde 17 May 2020

Ah ok. Pity, though because the new museum really gives a good overall idea about the Colonies' importance. The official website and all the information boards in Belgium still include Merksplas. Guess they'll have to change them then, if they ever get inscribed.

Els Slots 17 May 2020

Yes I am sure about Merksplas. It is not part of the nomination dossier anymore. There are also news reports in the Flemish press about it (it was deemed not authentic enough):

Clyde 17 May 2020

Very interesting. Thanks Els. Are you sure Merksplas has been left out? Seems like Veenhuizen is the best one on the Netherlands side.