Forgotten Crafts: Peat Diggers

Could you imagine having a job that required you standing in a wobbly boat bending over to dig out heavy mud out of the water for sixteen hours a day, six days a week and sleeping in a damp, dirty tent for six weeks a year? Would you do that to earn a salary that could barely feed your family? Peat diggers did! If your ancestors are from the province of Groningen or Drenthe, it is not unlikely that you will find that one of them was working in the peat industry. Both provinces had large reserves of peat. So, what is peat anyway and why would people go through the trouble of digging it up: hard, backbreaking work?

Digging For Fuel
Peat is formed when dead plant material –especially from mosses– accumulates over time. When compressed and dried, it becomes turf, which makes excellent fuel. It burns slow and heats well without much smoke. Peat is also used as potting soil and as a raw material for producing activated coal, a key ingredient for certain medical and chemical industries.

There are two types of peateries: bog and fen. Fen is an alkaline or neutral soil type made of a moss called sphagnum. It can be easily exploited when drained: the dried peat can then simply be dug out with a spade. Bog is an acidic soil type that is much harder to exploit. Since it cannot be drained as easily as fen, the peat must be dug out from underneath the water with a special spade. Diggers could only do so by standing in the water or in a boat.

The Swamp Gold Mine
Since turf has long been the main fuel, the peat industry dates back as far as the 15th century. During this time peat digging was mainly done on a small scale near monasteries or small cities to both provide fuel and reclaim land from the marshes.

In the western Netherlands –where cities grew fast– the relatively small amounts of peat in the marshes around Amsterdam were used up by the 17th century. The peat extraction had left deep scars in the landscape still visible today: the lakes of Vinkeveense Plassen, Nieuwkoopse Plassen, and Haarlemmermeer are the result of massive peat extraction.

When the West ran out of peat they turned to the Dutch Outback. In the 17th and 18th century the northern and eastern parts of the Netherlands were little more than a really big swamp with some small towns and cities built on what little dry land could be found. For centuries this part of the country had been seen as completely irrelevant and backward. But now, all of a sudden it became a gold mine, for large parts of swamp in Groningen and Drenthe contained huge amounts of peat.

Peat Bosses
Rich citizens of the big cities founded peat-investing companies, the so-called veencompagniën. The capital raised was used to buy big pieces of marshland in the East of the Netherlands, dig canals to drain the peat and invest in the necessary tools to extract it. The actual exploitation of the peateries was outsourced to small independent merchants called veenbazen (peat bosses) or turfboeren (turf farmers). These veenbazen were often farmers or shopkeepers that exploited the peat for an extra seasonal income. The veenbaas would lease or buy a piece of marshland from the veencompagnie and pay them toll for the use of the canals. The veenbaas was responsible for hiring workforce and selling the turf.

Turf Makers
The veenbaas would usually employ two or three turf makers. A turfmaker had a steady job with the veenbaas. He was responsible for stamping down the wet peat the diggers had spread out on the land, then cutting it and preparing the dried turf blocks for shipping. Often he was helped in these tasks by his wife and children. Being a turfmaker was the best job you could get in the industry after being a veenbaas. It was a steady job, that paid well and the work was not as backbreaking as digging.

Peat Diggers
Each turfmaker would lead a group of two to six seasonal workers called veenarbeiders or turfstekers (peat workers or turf diggers). They would alternate the two main tasks: digging and spreading out the wet peat on the drying field.

Digging up peat in a fen was a heavy duty but at least it was dry. But if you had the bad luck to be working in a bog you would be either standing in cold water up to your hips or standing in a wobbly boat bending over to dig up the heavy peat. And that 16 hours a day, 6 days a week.

Peat digging paid relatively well though: around 1 guilder a day which was more than the 60 to 70 cents workers in other industries got. But since the work was seasonal it hardly delivered a salary that would last a whole year. Many diggers had other jobs as well like farming, cutting reed, weaving mats and other low paying jobs. As a result poverty among peat diggers was widespread.

Many diggers weren't native to the area. They would travel from Friesland or other rural areas to the big marshes of Bourtangerveen, Bargerveen, or De Peel. Some even came all the way from Germany. The workers usually headed back to their home country in July to harvest their own crops. Some would stay through the summer to work as seasonal harvesters or mowers.

The Peat Colonies
During their six weeks of labor, workers would sleep on the bog or fen in self-made huts of turf or tents provided by the veenbaas. Needless to say that these shelters were cold, damp, and dirty. This combined with the poor meals and heavy work made peat digging a risky business. Many workers caught a disease and died on the job. Others would develop chronic conditions like rheumatism and gout.

Besides the diggers the peat industry attracted other people like the peat bosses, turf makers, peat shippers and a whole range of shops to cater them. These people settled along the canals through the marshlands creating little villages of properly built houses. These towns, such as Heerenveen, Hoogeveen, and Helenaveen became known as veenkoloniën (peat colonies). Once an area ran out of peat, the land was made suitable for farming and farmers would occupy the towns, leasing or buying the new farmland from the veencompagniën.

Beaten By Coal
By the end of the 19th century, the peat digging industry had been replaced by coal mining. Just one area was actively exploited until 1992: the Bargerveen. Now the remaining original marshland has become a National Park which features an interesting open-air museum about the peat industry: the Veenpark Museum.