The ‘dead cities’ of the Zuiderzee

Map showing the Zuiderzee area. Appears under a creative commons licence at

Continuing on the theme of travel, in this post I concentrate on a book with the curious title The dead cities of the Zuyder Zee which I found at Erddig. Before the construction of the Afsluitdijk in 1932, the IJsselmeer was open to the sea – although by the time it was closed off, much of it had begun to silt up, leaving the communities which depended on the sea for their livelihood completely destitute. However, during the Dutch Golden Age, cities like Hoorn, Enkhuizen, Volendam, and Stavoren had thrived as bustling trading and fishing harbours. Where siltification was less pronounced, such as at Kampen, the sea still provided some source of income, while Amsterdam benefited greatly from the construction of the Noordzee Canal and trade with the Dutch colonies.

When for three months in 1873, the Frenchman Henry Havard sailed around the Zuiderzee in his rented ‘tjalk’ to investigate the reasons for the rise and fall of these cities, prosperity lay far in the past. Silt brought in twice a day from the Noordzee and Waddenzee had filled the harbours, making them inaccessible for most but the shallowest vessels. Havard spoke to local people and keenly observed customs, dress, surviving buildings, and the history of each city. He waxed lyrical about the picturesque interplay of light, cloud, sea and landscape, captured for his book by the painter Jacob Eduard van Heemskerck van Beest. It is largely a cultural history of a vanishing way of life – what Havard found was ‘dead cities’ steeped in tradition, which he saw as a significant contributor to the general decline of the area.IMG_0627

Originally published in French as Les villes mortes du Zuyder Zee in 1875, it was swiftly translated into English by Annie Wood and announced in December of that year by The Spectator. The magazine reiterated again to its readers ‘the novelty, interest, and picturesqueness of its subject, and to the author’s animated, pleasant, and suggestive style’. The copy at Erddig is the new edition, published the following year, and was purchased by Philip II Yorke of Erddig.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Zuiderzee communities were destitute and struggling to survive, living in their delapidated houses and wearing their quaint clothes. By the early twentieth century, however, some of these cities had become tourist attractions, visited by curious travellers who at the end of the day would return to their commodious hotels in the Dutch capital. According to a note on the half-title in the Erddig copy of The dead cities, Philip and his wife Louisa used it as a ‘guide book on their tour of Holland in June 1914’, only a month before the outbreak of the first World War.


Interior of a fisherman’s hut in Volendam. Plate from a digitised copy of the Dead Cities of the Zuyder Zee at

In the table of contents, Louisa (whose comments I’ve noted before) wrote beside the chapters for Monnikendam and Volendam: ‘Most interesting places L.M.Y.’, while the tiny island community of Urk was described as a ‘fascinating place’. They inserted a copy of the ferry timetable showing the route between the different cities and towns on the coast.






  • Bert Vreeken, review (31.1.2013): De dode steden van de Zuiderzee, at
  • Digital copy:
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2 Responses to The ‘dead cities’ of the Zuiderzee

  1. Coby says:

    Hi, zou dit boek ook in het Nederlands vertaald zijn?
    Lijkt me interessant.xc