Safe house. Postcard from Boschplaat, Terschelling.
By Frank van Steenbergen, March 19, 2019
The Safe house at Terschelling. (Credit left and right: Frank van Steenbergen. Middle: Jurjen Veerman Shutterstock)
The North Coast of Terschelling Island, the Netherlands is the rough edge to what otherwise is one of the more smooth and caring countries of the world. It is an area with shifting sea shoals, restless sand dunes, and often extreme stormy weather. In the past in an era with far larger insecurity than we have now, shipwrecks were disasters that were ‘to be expected’.
It was the tragic disaster with the German coaster Wilhelmsburg that prompted the construction of a small safe house. on the deserted beach of Boschplaat away from any habitation for at least 6 kilometres. The Wilhelmburg had gone down with 282 economic emigrants to Australia, part of the enormous wave of 5.2 Million people that left Germany in the mid-19th century. Only 25 passengers survived, but otherwise the beach was littered with bodies and the trunks with the few belongings that people had chosen to take to their new destiny.
The safe house, also called ‘drenkelingshuisje’ was built after the example of similar such shelters built on remote coasts such as in Newfoundland, Norway, Britain and elsewhere on the Dutch islands. Within the house there were clothes and basic food to help those drowned but lucky enough to make it to the coast. There was a long rope connected to a signalling post that would alarm a rescue operation. Outside there was an iron hive that could be lifted in case someone made it to the safe house. In clear weather the raised hive could be seen from far and would alert help as well. The last original house, built and rebuilt, collapsed in 1962. The current house is a replica and a reminder of times less secure.
It is not known how many drowned people were saved by the little houses, how effective they were in terms of what we now call Disaster Preparedness, but what is sure is that they signalled the compassion and care that is abundant with us.