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A little history of Hamburg in three statues

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Johann Wilhelm Bentz, aka Hummel

Johann Wilhelm Bentz, aka Hummel

Water made Hamburg what it is: a merchant city that built its wealth on sea trading, on port and canals.

The city’s statues reflect that fundamental relationship to water. No kings or emperors here; the only prominent monument to a head of state is a statue of Bismarck, and even then, the locals were cheeky enough to install a carved mountain goat on top of Bismarck’s head. There are also statues of luminaries like the writers Lessing or Heine. But the main statues are of people associated with water: a pirate, a water-bearer, a sewer engineer.

Klaus Störtebeker

Klaus Störtebeker

Klaus Störtebeker, or rather his life-size statue, stands defiantly in Hafen City. This is where he was beheaded, along with his ship’s crew, in 1400 or 1401, for the piracy that threatened the city’s wealth. Legend has it that he made a deal with the authorities: “free as many as my men I walk by after losing my head to the executioner.” Carrying his head, he walked past eleven of his crew before he tripped (they were all beheaded nonetheless).

All children know this founding myth of Hamburg. It evokes the sea, the Hanseatic League of Baltic merchants who made the city prosperous. It evokes the free life on the sea and the disdain for land-lubber authorities. But the statue is also there because it was the city that won – not the pirates. And it also underscores a received truth about Hamburg: the harbour is sacred, it is the lifeblood of the city. Whatever new development is planned for the city, it is always introduced with a comment that “this will not adversely affect the harbour”.

If everyone here knows about Störtebeker, few recognize the name Johann Wilhelm Bentz. Yet his statue is everywhere in Hamburg, a popular emblem of the city, known by all as Hummel. Bentz (1787-1854) was a water-carrier, plying his trade in the unsanitary slums of the city, of which little is left. As he made his rounds, children would taunt him with calls of “Hummel, hummel!” (bumblebee, bumblebee!), to which he’d respond “Mors, mors” (arses, arses!).

One of the innumerable Hummel statues

One of the innumerable Hummel statues

The original Hummel statue was erected towards the end of one of the few remaining streets of the old slums, Bäckerbreitergang in the Neustadt area, in 1938. The statue depicts one of the naughty kids with his pants down – little mors, indeed. While depicting amusing street life, the statue was also intended as a reminder of the importance of fresh water in the fight against disease; cholera devastated the city in the 1892 epidemic.

The third figure, in contrast to Störtebeker and Hummel, is almost completely unknown. Under the Baumwall train station is a statue of English engineer sir William Lindley, who arrived in Hamburg in 1834. Lindley originally came to build a railway between Hamburg and Bergedorf, but after the great fire in 1842, Lindley was asked to stay and help rebuild the city.

He tackled the water and sewer systems, using London’s new system as his inspiration. Within three years Lindley had constructed an 11 km long network of brick-built vaulted sewers, a first in continental Europe, as well as water supply lines.

William Lindley

William Lindley

Next to Lindley’s statue is a little stone kiosk, through which one can access the main sewer trunk, the Geest-Stammsiel. In 1877 the crown prince, later emperor Wilhelm II, used this access point to navigate the sewers by boat, praising the “surprising purity” of the air. The sewer is said to still contain the berthing dock built for the Prince’s visit; but unfortunately the kiosk is not open for public visits.

In the 1840s Lindley set draining the Hammerbrook area, creating canals, and Hamburg’s first modern suburb, now industrial or office. Immediately south is the island of Rothenburgsort, which Lindley selected for the waterworks. Water from the Elbe (upstream of the city) was first decanted in basins and then pumped up to Hamburg’s first water tower. Lindley left Hamburg in 1860, but his waterworks continued to be developed, so that the sewer network he designed was completed by 1910, and makes the backbone of the modern system.

Despite that, sanitation continued to be poor, especially in the slum areas. In response, the city started work on the large filtration plant at Kaltehofe that was used until 1990 to treat water from the Elbe (groundwater now supplies the city). Writes Duncan Smith:

A visit to Kaltehofe can be a poignant experience. One can’t help but recall the more than 8500 victims of Hamburg’s worst outbreak of cholera in 1892, who perished just a year before the opening of the plant that might have saved them. And then there is the plant itself, which after filtering out bacteria and impurities from the waters of the Elbe for over a century was finally decommissioned in 1990. The twenty two former filtration beds are now gradually silting up, the tiled roofs of their little red-brick valve houses slowly falling into disrepair.

But if few know about Lindley, everyone has seen the fountain in the town hall courtyard. In the centre is a large statue of Hygea, the Greek goddess of health. After the epidemic, the city fathers reassessed their priorities, selecting her in symbolic response to the epidemic, over an earlier choice of Mercury, the Roman god of commerce.

In modern Hamburg, many take clean water supply as a given, and are unaware of the debt they owe Lindley. But everyone is aware of water, still omnipresent in the city. British artist Oliver Voss acknowledged that with his installation the Lady of the Lake. Said Voss:

Hamburg and the water belong together. People live by, and from, the water. My team and I wanted to demonstrate this relationship in a fun and entertaining way. We also hope she will encourage more people to rediscover and experience our city by the water – after all, if the Inner Alster is the living room of Hamburg, of course someone should make themselves comfortable in it!

the Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake (too bad it was a temporary installation!)

Source: Duncan JD Smith 2010. Only in Hamburg: a guide to hidden corners, little-known places and unusual objects. Christian Brandstätter Verlag.


Written by enviropaul

December 10, 2015 at 2:31 am

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