Dutch History; Haarlem the home of the Hofjes

A hofje is a Dutch word for a courtyard with almshouses around it. They have existed since the Middle Ages. A hofje provided housing for elderly people (mostly women). They were privately funded and served as a form of social security. Hofjes are usually built in a U-shape with a yard or garden in the middle, and a gate as an entrance.

To be eligible to live in a hofje one had to meet four criteria:

Sex: almost all hofjes were founded for women.

Religion: many hofjes were founded for people of the same faith as the founder.

Age: from the 17th century a minimum age of 50 years was often used.

Social-economic background: hofjes were targeted at poorer people.


Beautiful small houses line the border of a rustic communal courtyard garden, normally with a water pump. At the top of the small houses, details tell the story of Haarlem’s history. Decorated façades with coats of arms tell us which wealthy person founded which Hofje. But why did so many people do this and why are there so many in Haarlem?


Hofje van Noblet © Guus Bosman on September 14th, 2004


Hofjes in Haarlem a Christian act.

Hofjes in Haarlem are the remnants of Christian charity aimed at older single poor women of a particular social class. Charities followed guidelines of the Christian Seven Works of Mercy; feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, bury the dead, shelter the traveler, comfort the sick, and free the imprisoned. Committing any of these acts would gain the giver entrance through the gates of Heaven. This is what prompted so many wealthy Haarlem citizens to found Hofjes in their name on their death.

Haarlem became a hub of Hofjes after a leper colony was founded outside the city walls in the town of Schoten in 1393. For centuries, lepers had to come to Haarlem to get a ‘proof of leprosy’, as a legal permit to beg and stayed in Haarlem. The Haarlem leper colony, Het Dolhuys, still exists and is currently a museum. Hofjes were built as almshouses to host the sick, and eventually, they turned into social houses for single or widowed women who couldn’t rely on the government for help.

Each Hofje had its own allowances but mostly occupants of the Hofjes were given a weekly allowance of about five cents, a monthly jug of butter, some meat, medical care and fuel for the stove. Some women even got lavish paid for funeral services.

The hofjes are managed by five board members called regents. Any community structure in Haarlem, be it a guild or a hofje, had a group of five regents or regentesses. It was the duty of the regents to care for the accounts and the behavior of the members. Many hofjes were quite wealthy, due to the high turnover of its members, who had to donate all of their possessions to the hofje in order to be accepted for living there.  The living conditions between the various hofjes varied substantially, with each religious order competing to keep the most luxurious one. Today most of the surviving hofjes receive their income from housing rents.


Hofje van Bakenes © Guus Bosman on September 14th, 2004


Hofjes in Haarlem.

There are more than 21 hofjes in Haarlem. The Hofje van Bakenes is the oldest one in the Netherlands, founded in 1395, located between the Bakenessergracht and the Wijde Appelaarsteeg.

The hofje was founded from the legacy of Dirck van Bakenes (or Dirc van Bakeness.) In his will, this wealthy city manager from Haarlem stipulated that a courtyard should be built that would bear his name. His widow Lijsbeth van Alphen Florisdochter and her sons Dirck and Jan founded the hofje and it had 20 individual rooms.

A lot has been renovated at the Hofje De Bakenesserkamer. As early as 1610, the thatched roofs were replaced by roof tiles because of a fire hazard. In 1657 the houses were enlarged and in 1663 a regent room was added. In 1953 the roofs, gutters, and walls were improved and in 1986 the houses were modernized with heating and sanitary facilities. Yet the historic character of the courtyard has always been preserved. Not only because of the beautiful facing brick, but also because of the water pump in the courtyard.

The women who lived in this hofje stayed here for a modest amount. In the 18th century, they paid 100 guilders at their arrival in the courtyard. They were allowed to live there freely, they received six pennies each week, free peat, firewood and an extra gift at Christmas and Easter. They also received medical assistance, medicines and when they died, a funeral.

You can visit this hofje on weekdays and Saturdays from 10 am to 5 pm.

If you would like to find some of these hofjes, on your own walking tour, Holland.com has provided a route for you.

Here you can see a list of all the Hofje in Haarlem and more details about them.

Katie Joy
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