In search of the Wieringen letters

Diary of a type tourist

David Quay
Forum – Letter Exchange Journal
Febuary 2012

Holland is criss-crossed with thousands of kilometres of inland waterways. Rotterdam claims to be the largest port in the world – amazingly it acts as Switzerland’s main port! In the nineteenth-century thousands of boats plied the inland waterways and seas of Holland. Boats came in all shapes and sizes. Up to the end of the century and into the beginning of the twentieth they were flat-bottomed sailing boats powered by wind, with a shallow draught and without a keel. Each boat carried ‘zwaarden’ swords, lee boards in English, on each side, one was let down to act as a keel depending on which way the boat leaned into the wind. Boats had distinct functions; tjalken and klippers carried goods on the inland waterways and canals; botters and aken (single aak, plural aken) fished the Zuiderzee (Zuyder Sea) and North Sea. Their sides were marked with the initials of the fishing village they came from: UK for Urk, EH for Enkhuizen with a number identifying the boat in the fleet. As the boats fell into disuse many were broken up, but those that survived have been or are in the process of being restored and repaired, and sometimes they carry the old lettering and name.

In the last ten years of living in the Netherlands I have been photographing the lettering on ships and boats, first in and around the harbours of Amsterdam. Later by train I visited harbours elsewhere in Noord-Holland – Den Helder, Enkhuizen, Hoorn and Ijmuiden. Then south to Vlaardingen, Schiedam, Dordrecht and Rotterdam with its Maritime Museum. The Maritime Museum in Rotterdam has a fine collection of old working boats from ‘sleepboten’ (tugs that pull), to ‘duwboten’ (tugs that push), and ‘binnenvaartschepen’ (inland ships), many of these (from after the turn of the 19th century with their diesel motors) show their names proudly on their sterns cast in relief.

Enkhuizen besides its harbour also has a fascinating museum, the Zuiderzeemuseum (Zuyder Sea Museum). The museum has two sections, an open air fishing village showing the past life of fishing folk, and a museum holding a collection of old wooden fishing boats. One particular fishing boat inside the museum, an aak, has the letters WR painted on both sides of its bow together with the number 54. In this case WR stands for Wieringen. The WR letters and numbers used to be beautifully and delicately painted. Usually the boat was varnished first and the lettering painted on top so the white would not discolour. In the small harbour belonging to the open-air museum I found two other boats with the Wieringen letters but very crudely over painted. The letters themselves are fairly formal but the numbers are free and spontaneous as if they are a reflection in the water. After noticing this I kept a lookout for more of these examples.

My first sight of what I later discovered were the Kobus letters. The WR 54 I first photographed at the Zuiderzeemuseum, it is now moored in the habour in Spakenburg.

For the last three years I have taken a five day sailing trip on an ‘oude tjalk’ (old sailing barge) further afield to Harlingen, Urk, Medemblik, Kampen, Stavoren, and West-Terschelling on the Frisian Island of Terschelling. More recently I went by car to places that are more far flung and difficult to get to like Spakenburg, Elburg, Huizen, on the old Zuiderzee, that no longer have fishing fleets; and to Vlissingen, Zierikzee and Bruinisse in Zeeland, that still retain fishing fleets.

With the exception of Den Oever I could not find any other harbour with its own strong lettering tradition, although I found some fine individual examples. I got as far as Greetziel in German East Friesland. Here I found a fleet of shrimp fishing boats with letters on the curved stern of each boat shallowly carved and then in filled with paint. I eventually tracked down the wharf in Ditzum on the River Ems where the boats are built and repaired. A German friend of mine phoned them, he was told that one man still carves the letters when needed but speaks only Fries. I hope to visit there sometime this year.

Flatly carved letters from Greetziel in German East Friesland

On the last visit to the Zuiderzee Museum, in spring 2009, I contacted the curator André Groeneveld, and I asked him if he knew more about the lettering on the Wieringenaak in the museum collection. He promised to find out more, and a few days later I received an email from Kees Hos in Den Oever giving more information about the Wieringen letters, along with a photograph showing another prime example of the Wieringen letters number WR 78 on an aak kept in the museum depot.

One of the finest examples of the Kobus letters probably painted by Jacobus Kobus himself. The Wieringer Aak WR 78 lays unrestored in the Zuiderzee Museum – the letters have never been over painted.

Den Oever is situated in the extreme northeast of Provincie Noord-Holland on what was once the island of Wieringen, but due to ‘inpoldering’ land drainage this is now part of the mainland. Den Oever also sits at one end of the Afsluitdijk, a great causeway that stretches thirty-two kilometres over the sea to Zurich in the Province of Friesland. Completed in 1932, it turned the Zuiderzee into a fresh water lake renamed the Ijsselmeer, resulting in the closure of many small fishing villages now cut off from the sea and access to the great shoals of herring that provided their livelihood. Enkhuizen, Hoorn, Urk, Medemblik, Kampen, Stavoren all fell victim. Jan de Hartog’s classic Dutch novel, ‘Herrinneringen van een Bramzijgertje’ tells that, with the closure by the Afluitdijk, the last spark of ‘the Golden Century’ (1600–1700) spluttered out. Den Oever along will Den Helder however still retain sea access and both have thriving modern fishing fleets.

Kees Hos wrote that the boat numbers were painted by ‘Kobus de Schilder’, Jacobus Bakker from Den Oever. He was a house painter who, at the beginning of the 20th century, gained a masters diploma from the Rotterdam house painters school. The numbers were freely painted without using a template or stencil. Kobus always knelt on the deck and from that position actually painted the letters and numbers upside down. His numbers were so recognizable that the folk of Wieringen always referred to them as ‘Kobus letters’. In old photographs one can see that earlier numbers were very distinct: the three had a straight top bar, the five had a more outspoken quif and the seven and nine were also different. The older fishermen of Den Oever find today’s badly painted letters unacceptable. After Kobus Bakker retired his son-in-law took over the house painting business but he didn’t carry on with the boat lettering. However Kobus’ daughter, Mevrouw van de Hulst continued drawing the letters stopping only seven years ago – she is now in her eighties!

Photograph of Den Oever harbour probably between 1910–1920 showing the letters of Jacobus Bakker.

I visited the harbour of Den Oever a few weeks before I went to see Mevrouw van de Hulst. Many of the fishing boats in the harbour showed evidence of the influence of the Kobus letters. I talked with one of the skippers, just in and unloading his catch, whose boat bore WD 274, and I asked who had painted the letters? He said it was done at the ship engineering company Luyt at the end of the harbour. As it was a Sunday I would have to come on a weekday to find out more. Weeks later on my second visit, and before I met Mevrouw van de Hulst I went to the drawing office of Luyt. One of the engineering draughtsman showed me his version of the Kobus letters drawn in a CAD programme. The letters were still recognizable as Kobus’ letters, but had lost a much of their subtlety. The letters where originally hand-cut out of sheet steel, now they are lazer-cut. Some skippers make their own by welding an outline and filling it in with white paint.

Ships letters produced by Mahinefabriek Luyt are drawn in the technical department by draughtsman J Meijer using autocad, they are then sent out for lazer cutting before being welded onto the ships sides, perspective and angle are all taken into account. Translated into metal the letters loose some of their fluidity.

Letters made using a welding tool and then filled in-filled with paint.

Mevrouw van de Hulst daughter of Jacobus Bakker.

Mevrouw van de Hulst lives in a small house behind the harbour, a stately woman, who was very proud of her father’s work. She showed me both sides of a large cardboard panel on which her father had drawn his Kobus letters very freely, this appears to be the only existing reference and has not been seen by Luyt! I photographed them secretly as she made another pot of tea! She pooh-poohed Luyt’s version of her father’s letters and I knew I would be on delicate ground if I asked more questions. One of the last sets of letters she drew was for the TX 33. She said that with the letter combination TX it was very hard to find a good balance in the spacing of the capital letters. Kees Hos painted the letters for ‘The Lady’ as he calls Mevrouw van de Hulst, and he still continues painting his version of the Kobus letters where needed on the old wooden fishing boats. He is the proud owner of the Wieringenaak. The letters on the sail are one-third bigger and placed 20cm above the second reef, so that you can read them when the sails are double reefed. Kees prepares ‘sjablonen’ stencils with which he traces the outline onto the boat before filling in with paint — keeping the tradition of the Kobus letters alive.

One of the last sets of letters Mevrouw van de Hulst drew was for the TX 33. She found it very hard to find a good balance in the spacing of the capital letters combination TX.

Kees Hos continues painting his version of the Kobus letters.

Kess Hos prepares ‘sjablonen’ stencils with which he traces the outline onto the boat before filling in with paint.

Last September I again made a third visit to Den Oever on ‘Vissersdag’ Fishermans Day, when all the fishing fleet is in harbour and bedecked with flags. All along the quayside fresh mussels and raw herring (actually the herring is fermented just like sauerkraut) can be eaten, and washed down with lots of beer, accompanied by traditional music and dancing. Here you can still see the legacy, if rather crude version of the Kobus letters, on many of the modern fishing boats. It was stormy that day and the rain streamed in from the Waddenzee. I found the boat of Kees Hos, it seemed deserted but when I banged on the hatch Kees’ friendly face appeared and he invited me into the tiny squashed living quarters. With three other ‘maatjes’ and his wife, we sat drinking Fisherman’s Friend while his wife poured strong black coffee, and the rain drummed on the deck above. Wieringen still has a strong oral tradition of story telling. We each told of our lives, they of the sea and I of my early childhood in the suburbs of London. What I really wanted to know was how original were the Kobus letters, were they part of a tradition that still existed? Unfortunately they could not shed any more light on this, it was the end of the trail.


With special thanks to Kees Hos for so many suggestions and for guiding me through the labyrinthine minefield of local Wieringen social politics.
With thanks to André Groeneveld curator at the Zuiderzeemuseum for his help in locating Kees Hos, and to the Zuiderzeemuseum for allowing me to use their photo of the WR 78. Finally thanks to Freda Sack for editing this article.

For further information about Wieringen Aaken:

The WR 54 is available for hire: