Sources - Waterboards - The Netherlands

Description of sources 

Dijkboeken or hoefslagboeken

Books, called dijkboeken or hoefslagboeken, register the obligations concerning the maintenance of a dike. The dike was parcelled out in small parts and the land owners and/or land users were listed in the register along with the specific part they had to maintain. A transcription of the 1470 dijkboek concerning the dike surrounding the Zwijndrechtse Waard provides a good example of these books (Van der Gouw, 1971). Van Bemmel’s extensive treatment of the dijkboeken concerning the Lekdijk (2009) is a recent and most welcome contribution on the nature of this source. 

Precadastral sources

The archives of some of the waterboards have land registers or precadastral sources from the medieval or early modern period. They list all the land owners with the surface area of the land for which they had to contribute in the costs of water management. These books or registers have different names, according to the region. In Zeeland this type of source is called an everingboek, ommeloper, overloper or veldboek; in the south of Holland it is called a morgenboek; and in the province of Groningen a zijlschotregister. These books were periodically updated. Precadastral sources of waterboards have been described and commented upon extensively in volume 4 of Van Synghel (2001). This volume includes articles on the ommelopers in Flanders and Zeeland, the morgenboeken in Rijnland and the zijlschotregisters in Groningen. It is available (in Dutch only) on the website of the Institute of Netherlands History (ING).

Het Historisch Genootschap Oud Soetermeer published transcriptions of several morgenboeken of Zoetermeer and Zegwaart on its website (in Dutch only):  

Financial documents: accounts

The backbone of the financial administration of a waterboard is formed by accounts, in which the revenues and expenses are registered. The most important expenses usually concern the works, like construction and yearly maintenance of dikes, dams and wind mills. The revenues normally consist of the levy paid by the land owners besides other, minor categories. These include fines, for example, for grazing cows on a dike, for negligence in dike maintenance or for insulting the water authorities. Accounts can be more or less elaborate. Concise year accounts can be accompanied by very detailed and informative annexes, listing the names of the millers and their salaries, the number of the dike workers, the amount of brick and timber bought, the travels and dinners of the dike reeve and trustees and so on. If such detailed annexes have been preserved besides the year accounts, they give insight in the customary routine within the waterboard. Examples of studies based on year accounts of waterboards are Zeischka (2007; especially chapter 6, analyzing the accounts of several local waterboards in Holland) and Van Tielhof and Van Dam (2006; especially 224-5 and 234-9 analyzing the revenues and expenses of the large hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland). 

Regulation: keuren (by-laws) and resolutions

Keuren or by-laws were rules to guarantee smooth functioning of the water system and they were valid within the territory of the waterboard. Land owners were usually obliged by a keur to regularly repair the part of the dike assigned to them. Keuren might also prescribe that land owners had to be present in person on their part of the dike during the inspection, which was done by the water authorities two or three times a year. There were many negative rules, curtailing unwanted behaviour: it was forbidden to dump garbage in drainage canals, remove earth or clay from the foot of the dikes, ride carriages on the dike or damage sluices in order to fish or fowl. The larger waterboards often published their keuren in one volume in the seventeenth or eighteenth century (e.g. Keuren van het groot-waterschap van Woerden (1811).

Resolutions are decisions taken by the waterboard. They can involve new investments, conflicts with land owners or with neighbouring waterboards, financial problems, appointment of new members of the waterboard and so on. In the first phase of their existence, resolutions were made only as needed and if they were written down, it was in the form of an individual document and not as a series. The use of a register in which resolutions are written down (named 'resolutieboek' or 'notulenregister') indicates that the waterboard is consciously forming his own archive. Many waterboards only started to do this in the late eighteenth or in the nineteenth century, but some were (much) earlier.    

Documents on foundation and dissolution: octrooi and dijkbrief or schouwbrief

The foundation of those waterboards which owed their existence to new land reclamation projects, like bedijkingen and droogmakerijen, is documented by their oldest charter, called octrooi. Before starting a reclamation project (bedijking or droogmakerij), the entrepreneurs had to obtain permission from the authorities: often either the ambachtsheren or the sovereign (the count of Holland and Zeeland, the duke of Brabant, the bishop of Utrecht etc). After 1580 octrooien were mostly granted by the provincial estates or the estates general. The octrooi or charter specified the conditions under which the reclamation was allowed. The complete texts of some octrooien have been published, like the octrooi for land reclamation on the isle of Putten of 1527 and that for draining the Beemster of 1607 (Van der Gouw, 1967, 318-22; Bouman, 1857, 36-44). Van Zwet (2009, 79-84) described the content of the octrooien for the Beemster and several other large land reclamations in North Holland.

The foundation of other local waterboards (‘old’ polders) is often documented by a dijkbrief or schouwbrief, specifying rules about management and maintenance of a dike.  These documents often give the oldest date in the history of a waterboard. They teach us about the basic characteristics of management and maintenance of the works, about fines, and sometimes about land ownership (see, for example: Mijnssen-Dutilh, 2007, 110; 141).

Documents on the dissolution of waterboards predating the twentieth century are practically non-existent. Most waterboards existed well into the twentieth century and then merged into larger waterboards. These larger entities subsequently merged into still bigger organisations and this concentration process is still going on. In 2011 the waterboards Zeeuwse Eilanden and Waterschap Zeeuws Vlaanderen will merge into Waterschap Zeeland. Currently, 26 waterboards remain, from an original total of approximately 4000. 


The oldest maps of waterboards date from the sixteenth century, but until the nineteenth century most waterboards refrained from ordering a map of their territory as it was extremely expensive. Only large regional waterboards and entrepreneurs of new land reclamation projects (droogmakerijen and bedijkingen) ordered maps already in the seventeenth and sometimes even in the sixteenth century. At the start of a reclamation project, a map was often made to show to potential investors and after completing the project, a new map was made showing the final lots and the water works. Remarkable are the maps of the big Haarlemmermeer, accompanying plans for reclaiming the lake, a project that was only realised in the nineteenth century (Aten, Joustra, and Van Zwet, 2009). From the beginning of the seventeenth century, regional waterboards ordered maps of their complete territory, most likely for representative reasons. The maps had to impress high officials and other political relations as well as the neighbouring waterboards. They were made as large and beautiful as the waterboard could afford and copies were presented to relations (Hameleers, 1986; Van der Ham, 2004, 98-9).

More numerous are maps showing part of the territory of a waterboard instead of the whole. They were often created in the context of a conflict, for example about borders, and could even be used as legal evidence (Zandvliet, 1989). Also, many maps were made to facilitate decisions on technical changes and improvements of the existing water works. Examples are found in the fine selection of the maps of the regional waterboard of Delfland, published in one volume and each accompanied by explanation of the context in which they were created (De Wilt, 2000). In the nineteenth century all the water works and the borders of the waterboards were mapped in a huge project of the Dutch government, begun in 1865: the Waterstaatskaart (on the Waterstaatskaart, see: Blauw, 2003). These maps were accompanied by elaborate and very helpful descriptions. 


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