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Exploring Hamburg’s Warehouse City

by Duncan J.D. Smith

The origin of the Free Port of Hamburg lies in a charter of 1189 granted by Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I, in recognition of support for his participation in the Third Crusade. Hamburg merchants were given the right to impose custom duties on ships using the Lower Elbe, whilst their own ships were exempted all the way to the North Sea. By the time Hamburg joined the Hanseatic League in 1241, it was one of the most important ports in Northern Europe.

A Free Port

At the unwinding of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, Hamburg became a sovereign state within the German Confederation. With the establishment of the German Empire in 1871, however, and the country’s subsequent move towards protectionism, the city could not be both a customs free zone and a part of the empire. Consequently, it was required to join the German Customs Union (Zollverein), in return for which it received the right to construct a free port. Here the old merchants’ privileges would remain effective, notably the duty-free storage and processing of imported goods.

The view from an old warehouse towards the International Mritime Museum.

City of Warehouses

Hamburg’s integration into the union took effect on 15th October 1888. Emperor William II was on hand to unveil a commemorative plaque, which can still be seen embedded in the flood barrier at Brooks Bridge (Brooksbrücke). Beyond the bridge, where once stood the densely populated residential districts of Kehrwieder and Wandrahm, the new free port was constructed. It took the form of a series of canals lined with huge, brick-built warehouses, constructed in three phases between 1885 and 1927. Known as the Speicherstadt – literally ‘Warehouse City’ – the self-contained area was cordoned off from the rest of the city, and physically separated by a waterway that allowed ships heading inland to avoid the free port.

Although half of the Speicherstadt was ruined during the Second World War much of it was later restored. By the 1970s, however, it was gradually abandoned in favour of the container terminals of Waltershof and Altenwerder. With the decreased economic importance of free ports in an era of European Union free trade, the Speicherstadt was removed from Hamburg’s free port zone in 2003. Consequently many of the old warehouses have gradually been converted for use as offices, studios, cafés and museums. The latter include the the German Customs Museum (Deutsches Zollmuseum) at Alter Wandrahm 16, the Kaffeemuseum Burg at St. Annenufer 2, and the Miniatur Wunderland model railway at Kehrwieder 2–4.

Coffee and Carpets

Today there is much to explore for visitors to the Speicherstadt, indeed they flock here by the boatload to see the photogenic red-brick façades and green copper roofs of the old warehouses. To escape the crowds, three locations can be singled out here. Firstly, for a classic view of the Speicherstadt visit the courtyard of the Sandthorquai-Hof (1881) at Neuer Wandrahm 2/Pickhuben 6, where a former loading bay provides an overview of three canals, three bridges, and at least five rows of warehouses. Secondly, head to St. Annenufer 2, where there hangs a rusting nameplate inscribed Quartiersmann (Warehouseman). Such warehousemen once accounted for the majority of the workforce in Speicherstadt, and were responsible for the storage, inspection and refinement of bulk raw cargoes from overseas (Colonialwaren) – including coffee, tea, cocoa, nuts and spices – on behalf of the city’s merchants.

Finally, visit the privately-run Speicherstadtmuseum on Am Sandtorkai, which recalls the duties of the warehousemen with objects such as gripping claws, tea chests, and sample takers. The collection is housed inside a typical Speicherstadt warehouse founded on timber piles, with a red-brick façade and a fireproofed wooden interior. A stroll along Am Sandtorkai, where some of Hamburg’s three hundred Asian carpet salesmen now ply their colourful trade, gives one a feel for how the Speicherstadt must once have been.

Warehouses to Containers

Just outside the Speicherstadt is Hamburg’s rapidly-developing Hafencity. Another former historic dockland, its warehouses are also being re-purposed. They include the superb International Maritime Museum at Koreastrasse 1, with its thousands of relics, models and documents, and the much-discussed Elbphilharmonie, a landmark concert venue located in the Platz der Deutschen Einheit.

Also of interest here is the Hamburg Harbour Museum (Hafenmuseum Hamburg) at Australiastrasse 50a in Kleiner Grasbrook. It documents the inevitable transition from traditional warehousing to containerisation that effectively killed the Speicherstadt. It is housed in one of the so-called 50er Schuppen warehouses erected between 1906 and 1912, when the growing preference was to warehouse goods for shorter periods, and instead to forward them as quickly as possible. The museum’s barges, cranes, sack barrows, and harbour railway were a vital part of this process.

Adapted from the book Only in Hamburg: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Unusual Objects by Duncan J.D. Smith (published by The Urban Explorer).


Also in this series by Duncan J.D. Smith:


About the Author

Explorer and travel writer Duncan JD Smith first got the history bug when his grandfather unearthed the grave of a Roman soldier. He opened his own museum aged eleven and went on to study archaeology at Birmingham. After many years in travel publishing, in 2003 he relocated to Vienna, where he writes and publishes his Only In Guides, a series of city guides for independent cultural travellers. Duncan is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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Hamburg is featured in the Winter 2019 issue of Timeless Travels magazine, as its Curious City (also by Duncan J.D. Smith). Find out more about the content of the issue, or purchase a digital copy for just £3.95. Don't forget the whole Timeless Travels Collection (24 magazines) is available for just £49.99 - that's just £2.08 each!


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