Discover how the world's largest contiguous warehouse complex was used – and why this has changed.
Welcome to our virtual city walk on the subject of trade in Hamburg’s warehouse district. Right now, it is more a boat trip than a walk, because we are on one of the six canals passing through the warehouse district. The German name for this canal is Kehrwiederfleet and we are now travelling due east.
In the past, these waterways were very important transport routes through the warehouse district. The goods that were to be stored here first arrived on seagoing vessels in the large port basins adjacent to the warehouse district. From there, the goods were transferred to barges. These were smaller ships that had no masts and no engine. Therefore, they had to be moved with pure muscle power. With the help of long sticks, the Ewerführer – that’s the men that operated these barges – were able to punt their boats here. If you look closely, you’ll see rings in the brickwork. There one could also hook oneself in and pull the boat along. And as the barges didn’t have a mast, this also allowed them to travel under the many bridges that exist here.
We are now entering a canal named Brooksfleet and here we can see some of the hatches in the storehouses. If you look up, you will see a total of seven floors – a fairly typical number of storeys in the buildings of the warehouse district.
Now, imagine it is the year 1920 and we are on one of those barges I mentioned. The unloading would begin now. The boat is full of sacks, crates, barrels or bales to be transferred to one of these levels. At the top of the buildings you can see green oriel-like structures. In the past, rope winches were placed underneath, pulling up the goods from the boats up to the hatches.
Now we are on one of the floors in Block E of the warehouse district – the storehouses here are marked with letters. Such a floor can carry about 4,000 pounds per square metre. And that’s a good thing, because if the business was really thriving here, the floors would have been stacked up to the ceiling. Typically with coffee, tea, cocoa, spices, carpets or hides.
Inside the warehouses, real professionals took care of the goods: These were the “Quartiersleute” in German, a good translation of this would be “warehousemen” in English. These warehousemen always worked in four-person companies, and this is where the German name “Quartiersleute”, literally “quartermen”, comes from. These guys knew a lot – if not everything – about how to store, weigh, sort, clean, dry or ventilate, depending on the kind of care the different goods stored in here required.
In 1888, the first section of the warehouse district was opened. Storing goods here had two major advantages: On the one hand, these buildings, with their thick walls, offered protection against heavy temperature fluctuations – which is of course ideal for perishable goods. The other unbeatable advantage was that goods stored in the warehouse district kept there duty-free. In 1888, Hamburg had joined the German customs association. But the city’s authorities insisted on setting up a free port for its merchants – otherwise Hamburg wouldn’t have joined. And in this free port, the duty-free storage and processing of goods was still possible, according to customs the merchants had been using for hundreds of years. To complete the set-up, the warehouse district was then built as the key storage area of the free port of Hamburg. By the way, do you know what nickname the merchants in Hamburg still have today? They are called “pepper sacks”, or “Pfeffersäcke”, the Hamburg word for moneybags.
Even though you can see a waterway down below while looking through this hatch, we are actually looking out of the side of the warehouse that faces the street. That means that goods lowered from here on this hook could then be loaded onto coaches or trucks. The basic principle of these storehouses has always been to have one side facing the water and the other side facing the street. The stream you can see down there is the Zollkanal, or “customs channel”, separating the warehouse district from the city of Hamburg.
We have now landed on the opposite side of the place where, a little earlier, we just arrived by boat, or should I say, by barge! And here we are now standing in the middle of a street. The address here is Brook No. 5. You see, there are not only letters for the warehouse blocks, but also proper house numbers.
The exciting thing about this address is that it is where the company Weber & Möller is located. This is the last quartermen’s company in business in this area – and it continues to be run primarily out of a sense of tradition.
The whole area of port logistics looks completely different today from the way it looked a hundred years ago or even in 1960, the year this picture was taken. The most crucial development in this respect has been the arrival of the container. In 1968, the first container ship arrived in Hamburg. In the beginning, a lot of people laughed at the oversized tin boxes. But in the end, they ensured the transportation of goods at a much lower cost. And it also meant that everything that had to do with the handling and storage of these containers needed more much space than before. And in Hamburg’s case, this meant that the new facilities that were needed were built primarily on the other side of the river Elbe, south-west of here.
Speaking of tradition, we have now walked from Brook street eastwards onto Pickhuben street. And this is Hällssen & Lyon, the first and, naturally, the oldest tenant in the warehouse district. This is a tea trading company which, back in the day, used to have their tea sacks delivered by barge to the storehouses. Nowadays, that tea is transported by truck to a large warehouse in the south-east of Hamburg.
What remains here are new types of use: A coffee roasting house, a café and even a coffee museum can now all be found here.
The warehouse district is run by the city-owned company Hamburger Hafen Logistik AG, or Hamburg free harbour storage building corporation – that’s a long one, I know. This organisation always keeps a very close eye on renovations and redesigns concerning the regulations regarding monument preservation – as since 1991, the entire area has been listed as a historical monument.
We have returned to Brook street and are now standing in front of the world’s largest Oriental rug storage. Carpets are not perishable goods, but they are as susceptible to temperature fluctuations. And, as mentioned before, the thick walls here ensure relatively constant temperatures throughout the year.
In contrast to the earlier coffee or tea storage buildings, this is an area where the warehouse district still exists in the form of its original purpose. Nevertheless, it has to be mentioned that of the 200 carpet traders which originally did business here, only around about 50 are left, so this type of use is also in decline.
Up until 2002, this meant leaving the free port area and entering the German customs territory. The small buildings on the left and right-hand side of the bridge give us a hint: Customs controls took place here quite regularly. The same is true of smuggling, by the way, because some saw the free port as providing a good opportunity to stock up cheaply on duty-free liquor and cigarettes.
The low-rise, elongated building next to the Kornhausbrücke bridge houses the German Customs Museum. In there, various methods of tricking customs – from the Middle Ages up to the present day – are presented; however, we are told that customs officials all over the world also know all about these same methods!
Another tactic is, of course, good old-fashioned bribery. Rumour has it that this also happened at the check points here, usually introduced by the casual question: “Do you smoke?” If everything worked smoothly, usually a lot more than one cigarette changed hands!
In the area of the warehouse district, the free port regulations were lifted in 2002. Among other things, in order to make it possible to build HafenCity, or Harbour City, which is adjacent to the south. Since then, more and more businesses have moved into warehouses whose work is far removed from the original purpose of the former storage units. So today, we can say that this area has completely reinvented itself within the last 10 to 15 years. If you are interested in learning more about this, I highly recommend that you check out the tour entitled “The warehouse district today”.
Author: Johannes Huhmann, Waterkant Touren
Speaker: Alexander Böhm