Former open prisons for vagrants in Flanders seek Unesco recognition


Flanders and the Netherlands are requesting Unesco cultural recognition for former vagrants' colonies that span the border

© Alan Hope
© Alan Hope


It used to be the case that any new arrival in Belgium would be warned by a more experienced expat colleague to always carry two things when out and about: an identity card and a sum of money (20 francs in my day) to prove you weren’t a vagrant. Otherwise, the legend went, you could be locked up.

The story wasn’t quite accurate, but it was close. It arose from a law introduced in 1866 which indeed made it possible for the police to lock up vagrants – defined as someone with no fixed abode and no visible means of support and who did not exercise a craft or trade.

The law was only repealed in 1993, and right up to then vagrants were detained in open prisons euphemistically referred to as “colonies”. The colonies were located in Merksplas and Wortel in Antwerp province, and in Bruges for the few female vagrants.

Now the first two locations, less than seven kilometres apart and close to the Dutch border, have applied to be included in Unesco’s register of world heritage.

In Dutch, the word is landloper – literally someone who walks the countryside and thus very close to the original meaning of the English word “tramp”. The term has none of the negative connotations of “beggar”. Tramps travel from place to place, working in exchange for food and shelter, and as day-labourers were a valuable part of the rural economy for centuries.

George Orwell writes of his experiences as a tramp in Down and Out in Paris and London, and the British author Henry Green was a tramp for a time. In the US, where they are were known as hobos, their numbers have included the musician Woody Guthrie and actor Robert Mitchum.

Visiting rights

Much of the former colony at Merksplas is now under renovation, including the farmyard, barns and the chapel. There is a museum under the chapel, which is open to the public every second and fourth Sunday, or for groups by appointment. Two other buildings are included in the Unesco bid – one is now a centre for illegal aliens, and one is a former school for the children of prison officers.

At one time the Merksplas colony housed 5,000 vagrants, with another 500 in Wortel. They were picked up for vagrancy and brought to Merksplas to work on the land. The prison regime was relaxed, and the men were paid for their work. After a time, they would have saved enough money to buy their freedom – since they were no longer penniless, they could no longer be considered vagrants.

Many, however, returned regularly, and when the law was scrapped in 1993 – the penal law being no longer considered an appropriate instrument for dealing with poverty and homelessness – 10 men decided to stay behind in Wortel and live in the building, which has been renovated and now serves as a minimum-security prison for 150 detainees.

The presence of so many workers, willing or not, has changed the landscape of the area, explains Karel Govaerts of the non-profit that runs the grounds. An area of about 200 hectares was cleared for farming, a pine forest of about 100 hectares was planted and a number of lakes were created as a result of the extraction of clay. The landscape was listed in 1999, and now any changes have to be approved by a committee. The tourism department of the municipality of Merksplas has a number of organised walks in the area, with names like the Vagabond Path and the Escape Route.

The original measures against vagrancy were introduced while Belgium was still under Dutch rule in the early 19th century, and the Unesco application also includes similar sites in the Netherlands, including Willemsoord and Veenhuizen.

Supporters of the campaign met in Drenthe this month – 20 years to the day after the vagrancy law was repealed in Belgium (the Dutch kept theirs until 2000). Inclusion on the Unesco world heritage list – which includes the Flemish begijnhoffen, the centre of Bruges and the Grote Markt in Brussels – doesn’t come with any funding, but it’s more than simply symbolic, says Govaerts.

“It’s an enormous recognition of the value of the heritage, which will make it a lot easier if we’re looking for sponsoring or for funding elsewhere,” Govaerts explains. “People will be much more ready to give something because they have that recognition that this is really worthwhile heritage.”