Veenhuizen Colony

Veenhuizen, Netherlands

Veenhuizen is a village with around 800 inhabitants in the province of Drenthe in the Netherlands. In the early 19th century, a reform housing colony (called Society of Humanitarianism) for the poor and homeless was established in Veenhuizen. In the late 19th century, the complex was turned into a penal colony. The National Prison Museum is located here.

The Society (Maatschappij van Weldadigheid) was a Dutch private organization set up in 1818 by general Johannes van den Bosch to help poor families, mostly from the big cities, improve their lot in the aftermath of the Napoleonic French occupation by granting them farming land. He petitioned William I of the Netherlands for its formation and bought uncultivated land in Drenthe for the poor to exploit.

Other similar colonies were Wilhelminaoord and Frederiksoord in the Netherlands, and Wortel in Belgium. As the colonies’ small farms yielded insufficient revenues, the Society of Benevolence sought other sources of revenue, contracting with the State to settle orphans, soon followed by beggars and vagrants, leading to the creation of “unfree” colonies, such as Veenhuizen, with large dormitory type structures and larger centralized farms for them to work under the supervision of guards. The colonies were designed as panoptic settlements along orthogonal lines. They feature residential buildings, farm houses, churches and other communal facilities. At their peak in the mid-19th century, over 11,000 people lived in such colonies in the Netherlands. In Belgium their number peaked at 6,000 in 1910. 

The three colonies in Netherlands and Wortel in Belgium were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site of 'Colonies of Benevolence' in 2021.

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