The Maritime Heritage of Dragør Old Town and Harbour - A ‘skipper-town’ from the era of the great tall ships in the 18th and 19th centuries
Minister for Culture Agency for Culture and Palaces
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It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that large and fast sailing ships made their mark on world history by forging lasting and stable links within Europe and with other continents as well. The sailing-ship traffic led to a blossoming of trade and to the growth of harbours and of seafaring communities; a maritime culture came into existence. Dragør is a unique instance of a well-preserved built environment owing its origins to a maritime community of this period, when Denmark was among the leading seafaring nations in Europe.
Dragør Old Town and harbour represent an element of world cultural heritage that reflects the way ordinary people lived during the heyday of the tall ships in the 18th and 19th centuries. The town and harbour together still make up an exceptionally well-preserved physical cultural environment today which clearly displays evidence of the living conditions and cultural organisation of an earlier maritime community that had been built up and flourished around sea transport. Dragør can thus be described as a ‘skipper town’, meaning a historical settlement with a maritime culture that specialised in an early form of entrepreneurial tramp shipping.
Dragør is strategically located on the coast of Øresund, one of the straits linking the Baltic with the North Sea and the oceans beyond. From the Middle Ages and up to the present days it has been one of the world’s busiest sea passages; Copenhagen was founded on its shore at an early date, and a number of small coastal towns emerged on either side of the sound. Those on the east coast now belong to Sweden, but until 1660 both shores belonged to the Danish kingdom.
Dragør Old Town and harbour are located, with clear boundaries, in a particularly flat and open landscape of salt marshes forming the south-eastern corner of the island of Amager, 12 km south of Copenhagen. The Old Town is densely built and consists of low houses, yellow-washed and mostly adjoining in rows, while the old harbour has an open character with a few buildings that have purely maritime working functions and context.
Dragør’s earliest settlement was erected in the Middle Ages, from 1342 onwards, when the Danish king, known as Valdemar Atterdag (Valdemar IV) awarded privileges to the Hanseatic towns around the Baltic and in the Netherlands, allowing them to trade in Dragør at a large-scale market where a wide range of goods were exchanged and from which salted herring could be exported to the rest of Europe. The background was that Scania, with the major market locations of Skanör and Falsterbo, had been sold by German mortgage-holders and had come into the possession of the Swedish king. The Danish king saw the opportunity to raise income from establishing a new market in Dragør. The market took on dimensions corresponding to the Champagne markets in France. It is estimated that up to 20,000 people attended the market each year during the autumn period when the herring catch from Oresund was at its height. Dragør was owned by the king and retained the status of ‘King’s Harbour’ and trading place after the first permanent buildings were constructed, forming a centre from which fishing and shipping activities were conducted. Archaeological investigations have shown that the medieval settlement encompassed a larger area than that of the present Old Town of Dragør, which now in some places covers a medieval culture layer that has a depth of approximately 2 metres.
Later there was a phase of immigration of Dutch farmers to the neighbouring village of Store Magleby, brought there in 1521 on the initiative of King Christian II of Denmark. The Dutch immigrants were skilled farmers and market gardeners, but they also had experience of sea transport and trade from their home country. Growth of the population that had settled in the village of Store Magleby led to several from the later generations of the Dutch families there moving to Dragør and starting to make a living from sea trade. The farmers and market gardeners in Store Magleby made a prosperous living from their produce, and they were able to invest in sailing ships based in Dragør. The Dutch families thus came to own a large part of Dragør’s fleet of sailing ships and were able to make their mark on local culture in terms of religion and administrative and judicial matters, as well as with regard to everyday living customs and forms of clothing.
The 18th and 19th centuries were the heyday of sailing ships in Denmark, as in Europe as a whole. In the 18th century Dragør was reckoned to be the Danish harbour with the 2nd largest ship-tonnage, after the capital, Copenhagen, and in the 19th century it was the 3rd largest. The buildings in Dragør Old Town and harbour, as they can be seen today, stem from this period and the town is unique in the authentic pattern of its layout and its homogeneous architecture.
The era of the town’s prosperity ended abruptly, however, when sailing ships were overtaken by steam ships. The foundations of the local economy crumbled, but the houses and other buildings in the town and harbour were preserved, precisely because there was no longer an economic basis for major renewal or change. At the beginning of the 20th century an awareness grew up around the value of preserving the authentic town environment, and that has been carried forward up to the present day. Today the historic houses represent an attractive housing context in which modern people can live modern lives within the framework of the old houses. So the historic settlement now survives as an intact old town and also as a living modern habitat.
Justification of Outstanding Universal ValueThe ships from Dragør sailed chiefly to ports in the Baltic and Northern Europe, but they also undertook long-range voyages to the American continent and to Asia and Africa. Sailing ships from the town were also active in the Danish West Indian colonies in the Caribbean.
Dragør Old Town and harbour provides rare evidence of interaction between maritime trade and the management of shipping, on the one hand, and the development of the town’s layout and architecture on the other. The dense town centre, where the seamen and their families lived, has an unusually regular and well-organised structure, reflecting the discipline and clear division of work that was necessary on board a sailing ship. It was essential that each man had his function and was part of a close cooperative working system. When they were on land the captains, the mates, and the able seamen lived close together in the town, with their families, in very similar houses. The most prosperous did not live apart, isolated from the ordinary seamen, as they did in several other parts of Denmark and elsewhere. The harbour was largely an unbuilt-up working area which was used communally. Fellowship on the sea and in the town was conditioned by practical necessity. It is significant that the harbour and its buildings were communally owned by the town, and that part of the income from the communal seafaring and harbour activities went into the town’s communal coffers for the poor and for schools. The management and development of the harbour was the responsibility of the townspeople, and the residents refused on several occasions to let the State take over the harbour.
Criterion (ii): The densely-developed Old Town has a very special pattern of streets, buildings and ground plots. The buildings consist essentially of double rows of adjoining houses flanking east-west running streets, which are crossed by north-south running lanes. The houses are individually constructed but built onto each other in rows. The clearly organised pattern is different from other 18th and 19th century examples of haphazard housing clusters, which are normally sited in accordance with natural features of the landscape or infrastructure. No overall plan for the construction of the town is documented, either in royal records or in any other official form. Dragør’s town plan and architecture were created solely through local building tradition. Theoretically the town plan could be the product of reminiscence stemming from the medieval market with its divisions into small plots. Archaeological evidence that might support this has so far only been found in a few places in the town.
Criterion (iii): With its unusual town layout and house-building customs, Dragør Old Town and harbour are unique testimony to a maritime culture that thrived in the 18th and 19th centuries. A culture that marks the global history of civilisation and forms the basis for the modern world. No other comparable European town of this scale seems to have a similar clear regular and functional structure and a corresponding clear delimitation to the landscape and also a simple homogeneous building style. The original maritime cultural tradition of building and maintenance of houses, which were originally the product of necessary codependence, have been upheld and transformed into a living intangible cultural heritage tradition and part of a living urban environment in a modern society.
Criterion (iv): Dragør Old Town and harbour is a unique case of an architectural and technical ensemble that illustrates the great era, when sailing ships were used for sea-trade; it eloquently displays the essential interplay between town, harbour and landscape. The 18th and 19th centuries were an important stage in the development of worldwide trade and economic interaction – the beginning of globalisation of the world’s economies and of cultural interchange. Town and harbour represent together both density and openness but constitute a unified ensemble. Furthermore there is a close connection to the neighbouring cultural landscape of meadows, former used for grazing. Physically the disciplined functional organisation of maritime culture is reflected in the regular and rational urban layout and simple style of the town. The dense housing area in the old town to day reflects the former homogeneous social maritime organization, and the open harbour area in the same way reflects a common use.
Criterion (v): Dragør Old Town and harbour also form an example of a traditional housing pattern that represents the maritime sailing-ship culture in the 18th and 19th centuries. The houses in the densely populated old part of town continue to be a physical expression of a close and organised community – just like on board the sailing ships. The old harbour buildings have kept their maritime associations, since they are now used to house the maritime and pilots’ museums and the local sea-sports clubs. The passage through Øresund had many shallow stretches that could be a danger to sailing ships. This meant that it was essential to have cooperation and interaction between people and authorities involved with the sea, the coastal landscape and the town’s economy and housing; it was in Dragør in 1684 that one of Europe’s first official pilot services was established, and a local salvage association was set up to take care of ships that ran aground in Øresund. The pilot station is now a special maritime pilot museum.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrityThe majority of the buildings in the town and around the harbour are privately owned and are maintained on an ongoing basis; characteristically they have a distinctively high degree of authenticity. They exhibit respect for traditional building customs in terms of types of use, building materials, techniques and human dimensions. The Old Town maintains an atmosphere of particular intimacy because of its narrow streets with short distances between the houses. The local building tradition has a distinctively homogeneous and simple style. The houses predominantly consist of yellow-washed brick-built 1½-storey structures with red tile roofs and tar-covered footings. Details such as windows, doors and dormers often have distinctive similar features as regards form, size and surface treatment. The details reflect the skilled craftsmanship that was also essential for the maintenance of the sailing ships.
The interplay between the Old Town, the harbour, the landscape and the sea has been preserved as a whole and with great integrity. The town and harbour encompass a contrast between density and openness, but together they make up a variegated whole. A large number of the buildings in the town and harbour are listed buildings, and the whole town is covered by a local preservation plan. The town and harbour together with the landscape and the water make up an intact entity. The salt marshes to the south of the Old Town, now a nature reserve, were earlier used by the townspeople for grazing cattle, horses and geese and for bleaching cloth. The women in the seamen’s families used to add to the family income while the men were at sea by weaving at home and producing cloth for sale.
The authenticity and integrity of the town has been thoroughly documented by the Danish National Museum, in a publication from 1979 entitled “Historiske huse i Dragør” (Historic houses in Dragør) – which consists of a register of all the old houses in the town and includes a presentation of the development of the town, its layout and architecture. Moreover, the town plan adopted by Dragør Kommune in 1989, “Lokalplan 25” for Dragør Old Town is a document of major significance, since the plan, in addition to setting out regulations for preservation, includes instructive building guidance that is based on traditional building customs.
Comparison with other similar properties
While Dragør is unique, it is also an eminent representative of the category of European sea-trading towns that developed and grew during the sailing-ship era in the 18th and 19th centuries. No other location with a town plan or architecture similar to that of Dragør has been found, however. A comparative analysis has been undertaken, covering a total of 20 European sea-trading towns, all of them situated in coastal areas of Northern Europe, mostly around the Baltic, since that provides the general regional context for Dragør. Those 20 towns include 8 that are already inscribed on the World Heritage List. In all those cases, however, the towns in question have been inscribed on the World Heritage List in relation to forms of cultural heritage other than buildings closely related to mercantile sea-trading: Karlskrona (Sweden): naval fleet harbour. Visby (Sweden): medieval fortified town. Rauma (Finland): Nordic wooden house architecture. Lübeck (Germany): authentic Hanseatic town and buildings. Stralsund (Germany): Hanseatic town and fortifications, gable houses, brick buildings). Wismar (Germany): Hanseatic town and fortified town, gable houses, brick buildings). Riga (Latvia): historic architecture from the Middle Ages and later art nouveau architecture. Tallinn (Estonia): unique well-preserved town centre and fortifications.
The comparative analysis also included a number of sea-trading towns that are not on UNESCO’s Heritage List: Sønderho (Denmark): ‘skipper town’. Nordby (Denmark): ‘skipper town’. Marstal (Denmark): ‘skipper town’. Troense (Denmark): ‘skipper town’. Thurø By (Denmark): ‘skipper town’. Skanör-Falsterbo (Sweden): medieval herring-market site within the Scanian market. Brantevik (Sweden): ‘skipper town’. Marstrand (Sweden): fishing and trading port. Risør (Norway): trading and sea-trading town. Kristiansand (Norway): fortified town. Skudesneshavn (Norway): fishing. Culross (United Kingdom / Scotland): export of coal and salt.7 towns were selected for closer comparison, since they were of particular interest in relation to Dragør with regard to size, distinctive overall character, scale of buildings and degree of influence from later development: Sønderho (Denmark), Marstal (Denmark), Marstrand (Sweden), Skudesneshavn (Norway), Rauma (Finland), Stralsund (Germany) and Culross (United Kingdom / Scotland).
From this comparative analysis Dragør Old Town and harbour stands out as a worthy and unique representative of the maritime culture of the sailing-ship era. The Old Town buildings form a strongly integrated entity within which no significant parts are missing or have been destroyed (integrity). The old harbour has its preserved original pier structure and small-scale dock-areas.The town has an unusual grid pattern of streets and a distinctive building and plot-layout in comparison with other exclusively maritime towns. The physical structure and density of the town reflect to a rare degree a close-knit work-based social and cultural community. The original boundaries of the town are clear and not affected by intrusive modern developments or constructions. The town has preserved the residential use of its houses and its maritime functions. The scale of buildings has been preserved so that the original human dimensions and intimacy have been maintained. Finally, Dragør’s houses and architecture exhibit the distinctive features of a special local building tradition, within which original characteristics are preserved (authenticity).