Baasrode museum tells history of once-thriving shipyard

Summary

The Scheepvaart Museum in Baasrode, East Flanders, offers visitors a unique peek into Flanders’ maritime heritage

Romeo and Juliet on the Scheldt

The East Flemish town of Baasrode was once the main shipyard on the river Scheldt. But over time, demand for small river boats collapsed, and many local shipyards started closing their doors. Some local residents, however, fought to preserve their piece of industrial heritage.

The fruit of their labour is today on view at the Scheepvaart Museum (Maritime Museum), together with the workshops where labourers toiled long days to turn wood and steel into ships.

Today, it’s quiet in the former workshops of the Baasrode yard. But at one time, the machines that cut, bent, pierced and welded steel must have made a deafening noise. Steel plates lie scattered over the floor; some of them are shaped to serve as a ship’s hull.

Workers’ overalls and caps still hang in the lockers, and the tools on the tables give the impression that ships were made here just yesterday. The only evidence that the Van Praet-Van Damme shipyard has been closed for almost 30 years is a thick layer of dust. 

These workshops were built at the end of the 19th century, and they were never really modernised. This means that Baasrode is likely one of the oldest preserved shipyards in Europe. 

Today, it admittedly looks like a relic from a time when automation was still to be invented, but this was once a modern company. Take the conveyor belt that hangs from the ceiling. It dates from 1895, an unprecedented novelty for the time.

Two family companies

The Scheldt river had always been central to life in Baasrode. Antwerp is not far away, and a good tide was all it took to reach the city. The village has a long tradition of shipbuilding and grew into one of the largest shipbuilding centres in the Low Countries in the 18th century precisely because of its location next to the Scheldt and its proximity to Antwerp. 

Ships are in my genes

- Jan Annemans

In the second half of the 19th century, two shipyards were all that was left of the once-blossoming industry. The Van Praet and the Van Damme yards were both family companies that had been passed down from generation to generation. Van Praet eventually bought up the neighbouring Van Damme yard in 1955. 

But just a few decades later, the curtain closed on the industry in Baasrode as demand for small barges slowed and then completely dried up. Seemingly from one day to the next, all the workers left their jobs. The workshops remained abandoned, like a piece of history frozen in time.

Transforming the Baasrode site into a museum was no easy feat, but a small group of dedicated volunteers succeeded in saving the shipyards for future generations. “The museum was founded in 1980 to celebrate 150 years of Belgium,” explains Jan Annemans, the driving force behind the project. “In the beginning, the collection was on display in the former town hall of Baasrode since the yard was still active. Later we moved to the current location, the master’s house in the yard.” 

A bitter feud

In 1991, five years after the yard closed, the province purchased the site – not to make a museum out of it, but to tear it down. After a long legal battle, the whole yard was eventually listed as a monument.

Annemans was driven by more than just a passion for marine and industrial archaeology in helping found the Scheepvaart Museum: his family history is linked to the Baasrode shipyard. His grandfather was a master shipbuilder at the Van Damme yard, while his mother’s family were ship owners with their own fleet. “So ships are in my genes,” he says.

The wooden ship in the Baasrode courtyard also tells a family story. It’s a replica of a palingbotter, one of the types of ships built at the yard. Palingbotters were used to import eels from the Netherlands to Baasrode. From there, local merchants brought the eels to the fish market in Brussels – every day, on foot. 

“One of these ships was the Rosalie, named after my grandmother,” Annemans explains. “We are building a replica with the help of a Dutch company. Within three years, the Rosalie will be sailing once again.”

A range of items that tell the story of Baasrode's marine industry are exhibited inside the master’s house. An extensive collection of miniature ships, for example, shows the different kinds of vessels that were built at Baasrode.

On the walls, visitors can find two paintings and a wedding picture with yet another special backstory. The Van Praet and Van Damme families were neighbours, sure, but also bitter rivals. Anyone who had worked at Van Praet would never be hired at Van Damme, and vice versa.

At one point, love got in the way, and a certain Maria Van Praet married one Cesar Van Damme. Yet you won’t find many smiling faces in the wedding photo. Romeo and Juliet, but on the Scheldt.

Photo by Toon Lambrechts

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