Turfvaarten in Brabant, 1264 - 1743

drs. K.A.H.W. Leenders

Verschenen / published in:
Bijdragen tot de geschiedenis Brabant 78 (1995) 21 - 31.


Around 1250 AD a major portion of the western part of the Dutch province Noord Brabant and the northwestern part of the Belgian province Antwerpen was still covered with extensive moors. The colonisation and exploitation of these peat-reserves in the period 1264 - 1743 was accompanied by the development of an extensive network of canals. This network was mainly used for transportation of turfs from the moors to harbours on natural rivers. From there the turfs were shipped to the towns of Brugge, Gent and Antwerp. Streetdung was transported back to help reclaimation of the sandy soils that appeared from underneath the peatcover.

To understand the structure of the network we used the concept of the canal-system. A canal-system is the whole of the main canal, secondary canals and technical infrastructure that is needed to transport turfs from the moors to one export harbour. We found 20 canal-systems. Their main canals had a length of 320 km (200 mi). The ships of these narrow canals (4 to 6 meter or 13 to 20 feet wide) could transport 43 m3; (16th century) to 68 m3; (18th century). In years with a successfull turfproduction, one canal system could transport 70.000 m3; of turfs to the export harbour.

In 1743 the last turf canal lost its original function. From 1763 onwards during 89 years the water of this canal turned the wheel of an iron-mill. Other canals were tidied up to provide the sugarrefineries of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom with fresh water. The turf canals are witnesses from an industry that changed the landscape profoundly and that stimulated the colonisation of the region. Their remnants carry information about the history of the region and they are often still an important visual dominating element in the landscape.

Version august 2, 2023 KL

© Copyright : K.A.H.W. Leenders