Cheese and Catharina

If the Dutch are about anything, they are about cheese.

Lisette claims that “Kaas”, the Dutch word for cheese, is the first Dutch word that she learned. Certainly, it is central to Dutch life. Some of the oldest evidence of cheese-making is found in Holland, and Julius Caesar commented favourably in his logs on the “cheesy comestibles” that came from the region.

Today, the Netherlands produces over 660 million tons of cheese each year, of which, three quarters is exported, making it the biggest exporter of cheese in the world. The famous varieties of Gouda, Edam and Massdammer make up the bulk of this, but there are many other regional cheeses available. Important cheese towns are, of course, Gouda and Edam, but also Alkmaar which served as a trading centre, and now houses the national cheese museum.

Catharina Elisabeth's "home patch" - Alkmaar, Wormerveer, Zaandam and Purmerend.

Catharina Elisabeth’s “home patch” – Alkmaar, Wormerveer, Zaandam and Purmerend.

Transporting cheese

The Dutch have long transported goods by canals, using mostly sailing barges  until the development of the internal combustion engine. The title of the chapter in Letty Swart’s book on the barge skippers of Wormerveer, that details the Verwer family and Catharina Elisabeth translates, aptly, as “Water was there before the road” (Water was er herder dan de weg). The Verwer family founded a business of freight handling, trading mostly in cheese, in the Alkmaar area in 1777. Starting with Kees (Cornelius) Verwer, the business was carried on by his son Maarten then by his son, Pieter (1862-1935).

'Expeditie P. Verwer' family company 'pop up' office at Alkmaar Kaasmarkt  - perhaps with Catharina Elisabeth adjacent, loading cheese.

‘Expeditie P. Verwer’ family company ‘pop up’ office at Alkmaar Kaasmarkt – perhaps with Catharina Elisabeth adjacent, loading cheese.

In 1882 Pieter married Catharina Elisabeth Koster (1861-1956) and between 1883 and 1893 they had four children Anna, Pieter, Maarten and Guurtje. We have since been fortunate to make contact with Maarten Verwer, who is Maarten’s grandson, and Joop Verwer, who is Pieter’s grandson. Maarten (1892-1962) and his wife Johanna had one son, Maarten, and four daughters. This Maarten was the longest serving skipper of our Catharina Elisabeth, and, in turn had a son Maarten, who is the Maarten with whom we are now in contact. To our English way of thinking, the Dutch are very economical with names!

Outline of the Familie Verwer as annotated by Joop. The key people mentioned in the text are highlighted.

Outline of the Familie Verwer as annotated by Joop. The key people mentioned in the text are highlighted.

Catharina Elisabeths

The original barge Catharina Elisabeth was commissioned in 1891 by Pieter. She was a 36 ton paviljoentjalk, 15.5 m long and powered by a 12 hp motor when not under sail.

Historic picture of a paviljoentjalk - a sailing barge which may have a motor

Historic picture of a paviljoentjalk – a sailing barge which may have a motor

In 1915, Pieter commissioned our Catharina Elisabeth, and she cruised from their home town of Wormerveer.

Catharina Elisabeth in the Verwer's home town of Wormerveer

Catharina Elisabeth in the Verwer’s home town of Wormerveer

She was built explicitly for the trading of cheese and had cheese racks installed in her hold. She also carried flour for bakers, and sacks of this can be seen in various photos of her. Cheese was loaded into her hold at Alkmaar during the Friday cheese market (which is still held today),  on the wooden stretchers, and then offloaded in Zaandam or Purmerend to supply the warehouses. One of these was a small company, Albert Heijn, which has now become one of the Netherland’s largest supermarket chains.

Loading cheese into 'Catharina Elisabeth' at the Alkmaar Kaasmarkt. Bottom right, in the steering position, you can see the horizontal ship's wheel, and "M Verwer Zanstreek-Alkmaar"

Loading cheese into ‘Catharina Elisabeth’ at the Alkmaar Kaasmarkt. Bottom right, in the steering position, you can see the horizontal ship’s wheel, and “M Verwer Zanstreek-Alkmaar”

From 1916 onwards, with Pieter as her first skipper, then with his son Maarten, up until WWII, the main trade was in carrying cheese. Catharina also was associated with a less salubrious cargo. As Dutch houses are built on land with a very high water table, sewage was always a problem. Human waste was collected and stored in barrels.These smelly barrels were loaded onto unpowered barges “tonnenschuitjes” which were then towed to disposal sites by powered barges, including our Catharina. Perhaps it was cheese one way and ‘nightsoil’ the other.

Catharina moored at the Alkmaar Kaasmarkt

Catharina moored at the Alkmaar Kaasmarkt

After the war, gradually the trade in cheese began to drop away as competition with road traffic became more intense. Maarten and his wife Trien worked to arrange cargo with other businesses and continued to make a living with Catharina Elisabeth for their daughter Afra and son Maarten (the Maarten with whom we are now in contact).

Our correspondent, Maarten, with his sister and Catharina Elisabeth's son Maarten, the second skipper of our barge. Alkmaar in the mid-1950s.

Our correspondent, Maarten, with his sister and Catharina Elisabeth’s son Maarten, the second skipper of our barge. Alkmaar in the mid-1950s.

In 1952, the Verwer family company celebrated its 175th Anniversary, and in the picture, the original Catharina Elisabeth is in the centre.

Catharina Elisabeth, 91 years old, in the centre. The extended family at the 175th Anniversary of the Verwer family company.

Catharina Elisabeth, 91 years old, in the centre. The extended family at the 175th Anniversary of the Verwer family company.

Catharina Elisabeth passes to new owners

Competition for trade increased and in 1961, Maarten had to sell the 184 year-old business, and Catharina Elisabeth. So, 46 years of carrying cheese was over for Catharina.   For the next few years, she worked around the Amsterdam Drydock Company, presumably carrying tools and materials for ship building and repair around the docks. After that company went into receivership, she was rescued by Herke Boskma and his wife and began her third career as a recreational vessel. Thus, via Marianne and Paul, she now passed into our care.

We’re thrilled to have charge of such a storied vessel, reflecting an important part of Dutch culture, and a legacy of a great trading family, the Verwers. We intend to take great care of her and celebrate her history, particularly this year, her 100th.