Sociëteit Het Meisjeshuis

Delft’s Meisjeshuis building, the old orphanage for girls, reopened in spring 2005 after restoration. It is now being used for a variety of purposes, many of which ensure that a large part of the building remains open to the general public.The history of the Meisjeshuis dates back to the middle ages. At that time, the Nurses’ Home of the Holy Spirit (Heilige-Geestzustershuis) stood on the current site of the Meisjeshuis, on the corner of Oude Delft and Nieuwstraat, in the centre of Delft. The nurses’ home was founded around 1390 by Willem Nagel, a prominent Delft resident. The nurses here took care of the sick and infirm both in the nurses’ home itself and in the homes of those who they cared for. The work of the these nurses supplemented the care provided by two hospitals in the centre of Delft: Oude Gasthuis on Koornmarkt, established in 1251, and Sint-Jorisgasthuis on Noordeinde, founded around 1400.

The nurses’ way of life and dress-code, black habits and white stockings, gave every impression of nuns although this was not the case. Unlike true nuns, the nurses did not take the holy vows and were not exempt from taxes. Three custodians (bewaarders), appointed annually by the city council, took care of general affairs in the nurses’ home. The custodians arranged the appointment of a matron (mater), who was responsible for daily management of the nurses’ home, and a steward (rentemeester) who was responsible for finance.

Conversion to an orphanage

Because the building was not a convent, it could in principle continue to exist after Delft joined the revolt against Spain in 1752 and the conversion to Protestantism. However, this period saw an end to the original use of the building. In 1577, the custodians advised the city council to designate the building as an orphanage for ‘poor girls’. This proposal was accepted and on 1 May 1578 the nurses’ home became an orphanage. The seven remaining nurses were allowed to stay.

Every year, as before, the city council appointed three custodians or trustees as they were subsequently called. The trustees were responsible for electing a steward who managed the assets of the orphanage and a housekeeper (binnenmoeder) who was responsible for managing household matters. As well as the trustees there were also three female governesses (buitenmoeders or regentessen) who were involved in teaching the girls and assisting the housekeeper with purchasing. A substantial amount of tuition was the responsibility of a schoolteacher or mistress (meesterse).

A chaste life

A maximum of 18 girls could be housed in the building. The girls were undoubtedly better off here than in the large orphanage on Oude Delft in the former convent of St Barbara (Sint-Barabaraklooster) which housed several hundred children. At first, the Meisjeshuis only offered shelter to girls with no living parents. If space allowed, children who had lost one parent were also admitted. Girls were only admitted if they were between the ages of 6 and 10 and born to wedded parents. They left the Meisjeshuis at the age of 18, or earlier if they found work. Most girls went on to work as servants, nannies, seamstresses or shop assistants. When they left the orphanage, girls received two shirts, a pair of new shoes and a bible.

The house rules from the middle of the nineteenth century provide a detailed picture of daily life in the Meisjeshuis. The girls rose at 6 o’ clock in the summer and 7 o’ clock in the winter. After washing and dressing, they went to the housekeeper and wished her good morning. An hour and a half after getting up, the girls went to the dining room for breakfast. Lessons began an hour later in the sewing room. Lunch was at 1 o’ clock and lessons resumed at 2 o’ clock. The evening meal was served at half past seven for the youngest girls and at 9 o’ clock for the older girls. One hour later, all girls were expected to go to bed. On Sundays and public holidays, girls had to be home before 8 o’ clock in the evening. The responsibility for tuition was no longer completely in the hands of the governesses: the house rules refer to the schoolmaster and Sunday school teacher.

The new building

Between 1767 and 1769, the Meisjeshuis building was pulled down and rebuilt. In the archives of the Meisjeshuis, now kept in the city archive, are two magnificent watercolours showing the building before and after rebuilding. The old building was a low and sober complex, nothing like the new building. Whilst it was a nurses’ home, the site contained various buildings such as the ‘house of fathers’ (patershuis), a hospital and a peat store. It also had a vineyard. The inventory of 1627 noted that the southern part of the complex had been rebuilt as a residence and subsequently rented out. In 1767, the whole complex, including the adjacent house (‘Het Wolfje’) on the southern side was replaced by new development designed by Nicolaas Terburgh, who also designed the façade of Delft’s Lutheran church. The new building did not just have more exuberance, it also had space for more residents: up to 32. The pupils could now stay until they were 25 years old.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the complex was further extended by the purchase of two properties on the southern side of the Meisjeshuis, which were adjacent to the Boterbrug (‘Butter Bridge’). The first of these properties was bought in 1853 and the second, the corner house, in 1889. Both properties were demolished and the space was subsequently used as a garden, which was fenced some years later. It still remains like this today and characterises this idyllic part of Delft.

Loss of role

The orphanage lost its role during the course of the twentieth century. Because of better healthcare, the number of children losing their parents at a young age decreased and many one-parent families were able to find sufficient support through the welfare system. After the Second World War, the number of girls in the orphanage was around 15. The governesses decided to relocate these remaining girls to a building on Oostsingel (just outside the old city centre of Delft). In 1954, the Meisjeshuis was sold to the city council of Delft and the orphanage’s funds, which had been substantially increased after the sale of the building, were transferred to a local association providing assistance to young people in Delft (Stichting Hulp aan Delftse jongeren), which continued the tradition of caring for the young.The city council of Delft converted the Meisjeshuis building to offices which were then used to house the city council’s personnel and pension departments. The attic was used to accommodate an ethnographic collection which can now be found in Delft’s Nusantara Museum. Additional space in the Meisjeshuis building was rented out to various other organisations. In 1986, the building became the home of the city council’s department of welfare, education and culture. The department remained here for 14 years and left the building in 2000 after reorganisation within the city council. A new future for this listed building was then sought. The Meisjeshuis Association (Stichting Meisjeshuis) bought the property and had it restored. From 2005, the front part of the property has been used by the provincial association for cultural heritage (Erfgoedhuis Zuid-Holland), which is responsible for the maintenance and use of cultural heritage in the province of Zuid Holland, including listed buildings, museum collections and archives. It is also responsible for carrying out surveys of protected buildings in the province.

Two associations for knowledge and learning (Stichting Delft Kennisstad and Kennisalliantiee Zuid-Holland) occupy other parts of the building. Also located in the building is the Meisjeshuis Club (Sociëteit Het Meisjeshuis), whose aim is to promote and strengthen the image of Delft as a knowledge city. As a consequence of the various activities organised by the club, many people have the opportunity to see for themselves how beautifully the building has been restored and to see that it is used very much in keeping with the character of the property.

Gerrit Verhoeven | Translation by Dominic Stead


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