19 – Building up society: research, pillarisation and social hierarchy

The Board of the Wieringermeer (Noordoostpolder works) wanted to make the Noordoostpolder into a rationally organised agricultural area with hyper modern farmers. A prosperous and harmonious farmers’ community had to be created, based on the social relations as they existed elsewhere in the Dutch countryside. To achieve these objectives the Board had various tools, including the selection policy (see window 18), the Villages plan and the Issuance plan.

A traditional rural society

In 1938 the Dienst der Zuiderzeewerken (Zuiderzee Works Service, ZZW) had drawn up a villages plan, which provided for the construction of a polder centre surrounded by five villages. Most field workers were to settle in the villages, according to ZZW. The Board did not agree with this idea. In its view, farmers wanted to have their main hand live on their premises. The Board also feared that the villages would become hotbeds of social unrest. This would put the traditional relations between farmers and field workers under strain. Eventually, the Board decided that staff residences would be built for the ‘first workers’ of each company larger than 20 hectares. These staff residences placed outside the villages in blocks of two to four. Furthermore, not five but ten villages were built around the Emmeloord polder centre. This was beneficial for field workers who lived in the outlying area (see also window 17).

Floorplan of workers’ houses.

Houses for field workers, 1953.

In the execution of the villages plan the Board ignored the advice of its own sociological adviser, Prof. E.W. Hofstee. He maintained that research had shown that field workers preferred to live in villages, and not on the farmer’s premises. The sociologist S.J. Groenman, who was employed by the Board, agreed with Hofstee. The Board considered their views ‘revolutionary’. But Practice proved Hofstee and Groenman right. Field workers preferred to live in the villages because they wanted to be less dependent on their employer. After all, the staff residences were rented to the farmers and not the field workers. So a worker who lost his job also lost his house, which went to the new worker. In 1957 the Board decided to rent the staff residences directly to the main resident.

According to sociologist Evert Willem Hofstee (1909-1987), from 1946 professor at the Wageningen University of Agriculture, field workers preferred to live in the villages.

Walks of life

From 1942 onward the Board worked on a General Issuance plan for the agricultural firms in the Noordoostpolder. In this plan the number, size, location and type of company were laid down. The Board aimed at a number of large farmers coming to the polder. They were to have a pioneering role socially, economically and culturally. In the polder there had to be room for small farmers too. However, close attention had to be paid to the profitability of their firms. Company size had to be as varied as possible, so skilled and ambitious small farmers would have the opportunity to improve their position.

A lessee of a fruit farm signing his lease deed.

In 1947 Finance minister P. Lieftinck approved the General Issuance plan ‘for the time being’. The plan provided for the issuance of c. 1,600 firms, varying in size from 12 to 48 ha (see also window 18). Under pressure of parliament it was decided that a quarter of the firms would have a surface area of 12 ha. That way, less wealthy farmers and famer’s sons would also be able to lease a farm. The Board had concerns about the foundation of many small firms in the polder, but had to yield for the wishes of national politics.

Small farm

Older polder inhabitants today speak highly of the sense of solidarity that was said to characterise the reconstruction years in the Noordoostpolder. In later years, social antagonisms arose. Larger farmers often felt superior to their smaller colleagues, partly due to the selection process. Sometimes smaller farmers did not feel at home with the larger ones. Often, the security of one’s own class was sought. Field workers were at the bottom of the social ladder.

The small farm.


The Board aimed for a balanced build-up of the polder community. The population structure of each village had to reflect the structure of the Dutch population. The Board did feel, however, that in the build-up of the society, community spirit was more important than belief. The Board did not have an entirely free hand in this. Questions were asked repeatedly in parliament about the religious composition of the polder population. In 1953 the minister of Water Management J. Algera promised to see to it that ‘the structure of the population of the Noordoostpolder would largely reflect the relationships in the entire country’. This was not entirely successful: in 1959 Catholics comprised only 28 percent of the entire polder population, as opposed to 38 percent nationally.

The public primary school in Marknesse was initially also attended by children of protestant and Catholic origin, c. 1949.

The Board supported polder inhabitants who wanted to break down the barriers between the pillars, for instance through the setting up of associations. Again, the influence of the ‘old country’ made itself felt. An attempt to create a joint pressure group for agriculture had to be abandoned under pressure of the pillarised national organisations. The Catholic ABTB and the protestant CBTB each founded its own department in the polder. However, pillarisation did not lead to great tension. The expectation of the Board that the large farmers would have a pioneering role came true. Although belonging to different pillars, these ‘pioneers’ usually worked together well.

Lucas Huizinga (1917-2012) from Marknesse worked for many years in the exploitation of the Noordoostpolder in the 1940s. Digging ditches and spreading fertiliser day after day.


The aim of the Board to create a harmonious polder society was not entirely successful. This was not due to the fact that the Noordoostpolder became pillarised. The dreaded social antagonisms manifested themselves mainly within the pillars: between the farmers and between farmers and field workers. Catholic polder pioneer Lucas Huizinga recounted: ‘In the beginning, when we came out of mass and went to the adjacent room for a cup of coffee, the large farmers were sitting there, the smaller farmers there, and the field worker was not allowed in at all!’.

76 of the 103 lessees of the first issuance in 1947 and a number of front men from agricultural organisations gathered in the village hall of Emmeloord, 20 December 1947. As of 1 November 1947 the first agricultural firms were assigned to farmers who had been selected by the government.

In the 1960s pillarisation and social antagonisms decreased sharply in and outside the Noordoostpolder. Due to the increasing prosperity and democratization of society the old classes vanished. Also, mechanisation led to scaling-up in agriculture. Small firms were swallowed by larger ones. The class of field workers gradually disappeared and the staff residences in the Noordoostpolder were given a different use. Conflicts between the various denominations also decreased. For instance, ABTB and CBTB have now merged into LTO-Noord step by step.