Industrilandskabet på Nyholm


  • Caspar Jørgensen Specialkonsulent i Slots- og Kulturstyrel­sen


The industrial landscape of Nyholm – at the naval dockyard in Copenhagen

The artificial islet Nyholm at the northern part of the Copenhagen harbour facing the Sound was the result of land reclamation from around 1690. It was extended southward from around 1780 and has been used for a number of purposes by the Danish Navy as an active part of changing techno-economic paradigms. The purpose of this article is to compare the new technologies used with the built environment and buildings to figure out how entangled they were.

From 1690 until 1927, the area was used as a shipyard with four slipways where ships of the line, frigates and other warships were constructed under open sky. The shipyard worked in wood until approximately 1865 and thereafter in iron. From around 1726, a number of single storied, half-timber buildings were established, forming a slightly irregular three-winged facility around the slipways. They were used as workshops and storehouses. In addition to these, the guardhouse and rigging shear from about 1750 still stands. The shipyard was organised as an artisanal workshop, but with an unusual large number of artisans, and the ships were built according to scientific principles under military order and discipline. In his description of Copenhagen from 1748 the architect and officer Thurah marvelled “over the fact that such a large num-ber of people who are assembled daily in these places, with such good order and without the slightest confusion, can be navigated.” The machines Thurah mentioned were the rigging shears and the dry dock at Christianshavn built 1739, both hand-operated.

An innovation such as copper sheathing of the ships, introduced in 1789, does not appear to have necessitated any new buildings; but the use of dried timber was the primary reason for the construction of long rows of timber seasoning sheds on the northern and especially southern part of Nyholm. The southern area, which had been used as a timber pond, was filled up in the 1780s to accommodate these timber sheds. The first group of gunboat sheds was also placed here in the 1790s, which likewise aimed at increasing the durability of the boats. 

After the Danish Fleet was significantly reduced as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, the loss of Norway and the subsequent economic crisis, construction activity at Nyholm was not resu-med until the 1860s. A shipbuilding workshop was erected from 1865 to 1887 as part of a new techno-economic paradigm, the shift from wooden ships to iron ships and a partial mechanisation of production. It became a large three-nave hall, which accommodated two large furnaces to heat steel parts so that they could be ma-chined further, as well as various machines that could shape the iron into the frames, frame brackets, plates and rivets. A steam engine powered the machines. In addition, there was a system of tramways that went through and around the workshop and connected it with slipway 1 and 3, as well as the workshops at Frederiksholm – the island to the south. It is worth noting that in the early years, the first tramway was used in the construction of the dry dock on the Dock Island and was connecting the timber sheds at Nyholm and a sawmill at Frederiksholm. In addition, handcarts were still used for transport. The construction of the ships themselves took place on the “old” open-air slipways, although the slipways were extended and converted from timber to brick constructions several times. In addition, gas lighting and a network of light cranes were established.

It is difficult to get an overview of the various European naval yards and such an attempt is not made in this article either. It is only  noted that the layout in the form of a three-winged facility around the slipways, established at Nyholm 1730-50, was repea-ted as late as when Danish shipbuilders Burmeister & Wain built their new yard on Refshaleøen close to naval dockyard in 1873. Wain was the former chief engineer of the machine shop of the naval dockyard. There was the difference however that B&W’s plant was strictly regular, and the shipbuilding workshop was located at the end of the slipways, as was common at the time, whereas it was located along slipways 3 and 4 at Nyholm.

Another innovation was the introduction of mines and torpe-does. The first new facilities built for these purposes were relatively simple buildings erected between 1878 and 1894 including a storehouse and a workshop, but equipped with tramways and a crane rail in the ceiling for the transport of the relatively heavy torpedoes. In 1910 and 1915, the storing capacity was expanded with new magazines on the harbourfront to the west, reducing the use of the narrow and shallow Søminegraven (Sea Mine Canal), on which the first buildings had been placed. The new torpedo magazine was connected to the old workshop by a tramway and by roads, as well as different cables for electricity, telephone, district heating, gas and water pipes. A new torpedo workshop was constructed between 1938 and 1954. It was directly connec-ted to the 1910 torpedo magazine to the west. Unlike the older workshop, which was two stories high and had a gallery for work benches, it was a  single story building covered by a north lit roof, a type of building and roof that dates back to the 1820s in England and was presumably introduced into the Copenhagen textile industry in 1848. However, the type did seemingly not become more widespread in the mechanical engineering indu-stry until after the Second World War, although there are older examples in the metal industry such as the plant of Brd. Henze from 1881 in Copenhagen and the forge of Godthåb Hammer-værk in the northern region of Denmark from 1915.

In addition, a half timber torpedo boat storehouse was built to the east onto the Søminegraven in 1879. A number of torpe-do boat sheds made of metal was placed to the south onto the Tømmergraven (the Timber Pond/Canal) as well. The metal sheds were purchased at the Germania plant in Neuwied West Germany 1882-90. The location of the buildings is interesting because it follows the pattern of locating the old canon boat sheds, which, as mentioned, were introduced around 1790 and placed directly onto the water in the form of a canal. That is away from the harbour front, which was reserved for the big ships and their equipment.

To make room for the new torpedo workshop, the last timber sheds were demolished in the 1930s. The torpedo boat sheds to the south were taken down as late as 1965, but several of their slipways can still be seen stretching into Tømmergraven. 

The Marine Barracks were built in 1908-10 in the area where timber sheds had previously been situated east of the Guard House. In 1938, after the shipyard had been moved to Dokøen, the Naval Officer’s School was erected on the site reusing parts of the foundation of the shipbuilding workshop. 

The drawings used in this article contains a relatively large amount of information about machinery and furnaces in the Shipbuilding Workshop. On the other hand, the information on the work machines in the buildings of the Torpedo workshops is very limited probably because of the secretive nature of the work and, or, because they are likely to be found elsewhere. However, in terms of the size of the workshop area, it was not until 1938 and 1954 with the construction of the new torpedo workshop that a major expansion of the workshop area took place. The reason for this is likely that up until this period the number of machines must have been limited.

The use of tramways at the naval dockyard was introduced in 1858 to connect the slipways and dock, as well as the shipbuil-ding workshop and the torpedo workshop. In the latter, crane rails were installed in the ceiling from the outset. Shortly after the municipal gas and water supply was established 1859, it was introduced at Holmen 1862. Electric lighting supplied with power from the dockyard’s own work was implemented in 1882. All the technological changes have not been fully covered  here, but the examples  mentioned suggest that the royal navy dockyard followed the changing technological paradigms and was among the first to do so in a  Danish context. However, that does not imply that the dockyard was transformed according to a mass production paradigm when it was introduced in Denmark around 1890. On the contrary, the dockyard can be considered a prime example of a (public owned) company with a highly specialised production; which suggests that specialty production was an option during the period of mass production. The rail-based hand-ope-rated transport system had been established as early as 1858, while a transport system connecting the various workshops at the leading private firm Burmeister & Wain was first built in 1899-1901. B&W’s system was based on overhead cranes, which had been considered used at the dockyard as early as 1862. Although it was a novelty to use cranes powered by electricity at B&W, the idea of mechanical connecting different workshops was the same. It is clear that the management of the Naval Shipyard could not aim for mass production, as is known from the American abattoirs and later car factories or the Army Rifle Factory in Copenhagen, simply because the number of naval units were too limi-ted. Further there is little doubt about the naval dockyard’s lea-ding position in the second half of the 19th century and earlier. It was not only William Wain, who changed from the naval dockyard to the private sector by becoming a partner of B&W in 1865. Another example is the then technical manager of the dockyard K.C. Nielsen who became managing director of the same firm in 1895 as one of several people who shifted from the dockyard to private sector. 

To summarise: It is apparent that the former shipbuilding activities still characterizes the landscape at Nyholm. With the one story workshop and store houses that surround the shipbuilding areas, which are covered by lawns today, and the larger Naval Officer School, whose outer walls partly follow the Shipbuilding Workshop. To the north is the Guard building from 1745 and the marine barracks from 1908-10 with the boiler house detached. Finally, the entire southern third of Nyholm is occupied by the mine and torpedo workshops and store house built between 1878 and 1954 on a land reclamation area from around 1780, intended for the storage of timber in the so-called timber screens or timber sheds. 

In several cases there is a close link between the new constructions from landfilling to buildings and the introduction of new types of ships or weapons systems. Because of the introduction of gunboats in 1786-87, the gunboat sheds at Nyholm 1793-95 were erected resulted. The shipbuilding workshop from 1865-67 and 1887, which probably imitated English models, was followed by the launch of the armoured artillery ship Lindormen in 1868 – the first ironclad built at the Naval Shipyard. The acquisition of the first Whitehead torpedoes in 1875 and of the first torpedo boat in 1879 led to the construction of the torpedo storages and workshop from 1878 and the torpedo boat shed from 1879, which, by its design and location, imitated the older gunboat sheds. With the increasing number of torpedo boats the pattern was repeated in 1882-90. Six torpedo boat sheds were purcha-sed in Germany, which, apart from the building material, corresponded with the older sheds. The new submarines got their own storage facilities as early as 1915. However old buildings were also reused. The torpedo boats did not receive newly construc-ted stores until 1910 when their main berth was moved from Søminegraven to the harbour front. Until then, they had used the old Østre Takkelagehus of the 1720’s as a storage facility.

Among the buildings which have been demolished, are the royal pavilion for attending launchings, a small forge south of the Guard building, the four slipways and the large shipbuilding workshop, as well as the timber sheds and metal sheds for torpedo boats, besides various small buildings.  The other buildings have been reused for other purposes, in most cases before becoming listed buildings. After 1875, Østre Takkelagehus and seve-ral timber sheds were used for storage or workshop purposes by the torpedo boat division. The so-called Plan Building was used as a coal bunker and later as a firing range. Especially after the construction of the Naval Officer School in 1938, more and more of the old buildings were used for teaching, including the Torpedo Workshop from 1938-54.

Where there was space, land was filled to make room for the slipways and half-timber buildings of the shipyard, and later for timber seasoning sheds around the shipyard. During and after the transition to steel ship construction, the new steel shipbuil-ding workshop was erected, but the slipways were reused although in an alternated form. Further when the need for timber storage was reduced, these areas could be adapted for barracks and the handling of mines and torpedoes. First, these new wea-pon systems were housed at the eastern side of Nyholm onto the narrow Søminegrav partly imitating the older gunboat sheds, later as the torpedo boats got bigger and more numerous, the next generation of buildings were turned west toward the Harbour Front. Finally, much of the land was converted for educational purposes. Although some buildings have been demo-lished during the various changes of operation, there has been considerable continuity in the development of the built environment. 

There appears to be a pattern, where the empty or leftover space has been filled and to a certain extent has attracted  the location of new functions, and where the new activities, whether shipbuilding or torpedo work, commenced in old buildings or in light structures, which were later developed into more refined purpose-built buildings, which could be further reused. The new technologies, the built environment and the buildings appear to be entangled.