What Have The Dutch Ever Done For Us?

By Londonist Last edited 10 months ago
What Have The Dutch Ever Done For Us?

In 1667 the Dutch fleet came up the Thames and sank the best part of the Royal Navy in the Medway, but that was as far as they got. An invasion by stealth, however, had already begun. Here are just 10 of the things the Dutch have for centuries been sneaking into London without us noticing.

1. Hops

Borough Market's curtain of hops.

“Fuggle is revered as the classic English aroma,” says the British Hop Association. So it's no surprise to find this hop variety providing a living green curtain on the glass walls of Borough Market, around the corner from the elegant 19th century Hop Exchange where London brewers once purchased the aromatic ingredient.

What may be a surprise is the fact that hops are not indigenous. In the 15th century hops arrived as an import from the Netherlands with hopped beer, which added flavour and lengthened the brew's life. It was made only by immigrants for some time before it caught on.

The first hop gardens appeared in Kent in Henry VIII’s reign, and when the railways arrived they provided jolly hop-picking holidays that some East Enders can still remember.

2. De Hems

A Soho legend, De Hems claims to be the only authentic Dutch pub in London. It was named after a sea captain who managed the pub during the second world war when it was popular with Dutch escapees and resistance organisers.

It claims to sell 90 different kinds of beer, and, on a night out, friends might decide to go Dutch. A few pints of Lindeboom, Leppe or La Trappe may produce sufficient Dutch courage to approach an attractive stranger, though an excess may dampen expectations, as conversation rapidly deteriorates into double Dutch

3. Gin

Beefeater gin distillery in Kennington. Photo: Tom Bolton

Nothing could be more English than gin — gin houses, gin palaces, gin rummy, gin sling, gin-and-it, Hogarth’s Gin Lane. But mother’s ruin is of course Dutch. It started life as a medicine, with juniper berry oil added, and it was available only at pharmacies. Soon it began to be made commercially and when it arrived in England Londoners took to it like ducks to water.

London Gin, produced from the late 19th century, is enshrined in a 2008 EU regulation, which states, among other things, that no flavourings can be added after distillation.

4. Jellied eels

At Nathan's in East Ham. Photo: Stephanie Sadler

Eels are a London staple, and there are still half a dozen fishermen on the Thames licensed to catch them. However, for about 300 years it was Dutch eels that dominated the city’s fish market at Billingsgate. Their schuyts, or eel boats, were a common sight on the river where they had the unique privilege of being allowed free moorings by the fish market and could land their catch exempt of tax.

Some say this privilege was granted under Queen Elizabeth I, others that it was because the Dutch continued to supply eels to the city during the Great Plague, but there is no record of any agreement with the governing City of London. The custom did not survive the second world war, but a 1931 British Pathé film titled The Eel Men shows the clog-wearing eel sailors on a schuyt in London.

5. The Royal Exchange

When Britain was the commercial capital of the world, the Royal Exchange in the City was its hub, and as many as 500 merchants might be found talking all at once in a babel of languages. Thomas Gresham, a wealthy London Mercer, had it built in 1565 by a Flemish architect, Hans Hendrik van Paesschen.

Gresham had taken the idea from the Antwerp Exchange, which it resembled. Stone, slate, ironwork, glass and other materials were imported from the Netherlands, and Gresham received dispensation to be allowed to employ foreigners for its construction. Today’s building, the third on the site, is no longer used for trading, and it's hard to imagine the sales people in its modern, elegant boutiques including Tiffany, Omega and Paul Smith, touting for business.

6. Fire hoses

17th century fire engine in St Magnus the Martyr.

Gresham’s Royal Exchange burnt down during the 1666 Great Fire of London, but it might not have happened if the 'sucking worm engine' had been at hand. This was the first fire hose, invented and manufactured in London in the following decade by two Dutchmen, the artist Jan Van der Heiden and Jan Lofting. The latter had a mill in Islington where he also invented a horse-powered machine for knurling thimbles.

An example of a 17th-century fire engine, with a credit to the Dutchmen, can be seen by the Monument in St Magnus the Martyr, the first City church to succumb to the flames. The thimble knurler has not survived.

7. Bricks

Bricks at Hampton Court. Image by M@.

If it weren’t for the Low Countries, Brick Lane might not exist. After the Romans left, so the story goes, Britons lost the knack of making bricks, and it wasn’t until nearly a thousand years later that the art was revived. That was when bricks began arriving from Flanders as ballast in ships that were exporting wool.

In ‘Flemish bond’, bricks are alternately laid as headers and stretchers. Yellowish-brown London stocks were introduced in the 19th century, and are now sought after — not least by villains who knock down walls at night to nick them. Anybody who wants to cement their love of bricks should contact the British Brick Society.

8. Big Ben

The tower commonly known as Big Ben, pictured with Jan Smuts, a statesman of Dutch descent. By M@

Imagine the BBC radio news without the bongs of Big Ben — it would be like the Proms without Land of Hope and Glory. The bell that tolls the hour in the Elizabeth Tower clock keeps time with a 299kg pendulum that swings back and forth every two seconds.

The pendulum was the invention of the Dutch mathematician Christian Huygens, and despite atomic clocks and computer chips, his handiwork keeps on ticking.

9. Heated greenhouses

A whole load of Dutch stuff came across the North Sea along with William III of the house of Orange-Nassau and his queen, Mary. Botany was her bag, and her taste and style influenced the English garden look. In honour of her husband’s title she had 1,000 orange trees planted at Hampton Court where she also imported some 2,000 species, many collected by the Dutch East India Company, for her Exotiks garden, which has been revived.

The monarchs appointed Hans Willem Bentinck superintendent to the royal gardens, and at Hampton Court a Dutch carpenter, Heindrik Floris, built three 'stove houses', thought to be the earliest heated greenhouses in England.

10. A generation of royal artists

Charles I, Charles I and Charles I. By Van Dyck, via Wiki Commons

In late 2017 the Royal Academy and Queen’s Gallery are exhibiting some of the hundreds of the paintings and drawings that Charles I amassed before his execution. The last painting the art-collecting king glimpsed before stepping on to the scaffold was the ceiling at Banqueting House, by the Antwerp artist Piers Paul Rubens, which he had commissioned to show that the Stuarts were simply divine.

One of Rubens’ most successful pupils was another Antwerp man, Anthony Van Dyck. As Court Painter to Charles, his images of the king and royal family broke new grounds. Peter Lely, from Haarlem, arrived in London the year Van Dyck died, and became known for his portraits of naked Nell Gwyn and the Windsor Beauties who decorated the sex-charged court of the restored monarch, Charles II. All three Dutch artists, who gave us abiding images of the Stuart monarchs and their court, were knighted.

Words by Roger Williams, author of the Thames Trilogy among many other books. Images by the author unless otherwise stated.

Last Updated 03 July 2017