October 5, 2010


N 51 02 35 E 3 44 21

A nowadays largely gentrified, residential area in the middle of Gent, the Visserij ('Fishery') owes much of its character to the revival of the city's once-dominant textile industry. During the Middle Ages, Gent was the centre of one of the first industrial areas in Europe, but centuries of (mainly) religious wars devastated its once-flourishing textile trade and the manufacturing base that underpinned it.

As mechanisation revolutionised textile manufacturing at the end of the 18th century, Gent's surviving textile merchants began erecting new factories at such a rapid pace the city soon became known as the "Manchester of Flanders", turning into the a leading centre of the cotton industry, and employing some 12,000 people by 1816. At that time, most of these factories still relied on power generated by either wind or horse mills.

Then, some enterprising chaps struck upon the idea to utilise the change in water level caused by tides upon the rivers flowing through the city — a difference of as much as a metre, twice daily — to generate power with water wheels. The idea found application along a new canal being constructed parallel with the Beneden-Schelde (or, formally, Neerschelde), quite literally the lower arm of the Schelde river.

By the time the new Visserij canal was dug in 1752, the narrow man-made island it helped create had become a compact industrial zone. Though its name derived from the sea access it provided ever larger vessels the shallower river arm couldn't accommodate, it soon became more closely associated with the numerous factories that had filled it.

Many of these factories were connected to both the Visserij canal as well as the river (hence known as Achtervisserij, the 'hinter-fishery') by subterranean tunnels. Water wheels installed in these tunnels were powered by the water flowing into the canal from the river at high tide. At low tide, the water flow would reverse, returning from the canal through the tunnels, over the wheels, back into the river. The result was a regular, reliable power supplement to the wind and horse mills.

The activity and noise arising from the many factories and mills on this narrow strip in the centre of the city soon made the Visserij known locally as the "Rommelwater" — the 'cluttered waters'. No doubt the pervasive practice of relying on waterways to carry away refuse also helped inspire this bric-a-brac evoking nickname — particularly when steam power replaced the much more environmentally friendly mills and wheels by the end of the 19th century.

Between 1907 and 1909 quays were constructed along the banks of both the Visserij and the Achtervisserij, and the once-industrial island began acquiring the mostly residential character it's retained to this day. Among the few remaining reminders of its industrial past are some of the best-preserved beluiks in the city of Gent — unique residential cul-de-sac alley ways.

Erected by local industrialists, products of the city's rapid industralisation, the beluiks once provided the only affordable shelter for the masses drawn into Gent in search of employment. Though the surrounding waterways no longer act as open sewers, its beluiks no longer home to the working poor, many of the Visserij's structures remain some of Gent's most notable examples of industrial architecture.

(More images of the Visserij.)

With images from the collection of Philippe Bockstael.

Additional input by Nico Smets.

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