Before capital markets were sufficiently developed to raise large amounts of money but after the point in which even the largest enterprises, governments included, could be funded by a single family, other institutions acted as financial intermediaries. Banks and insurance companies were such intermediaries but before they achieved large size there were institutions such as the orphan chambers, which existed all over Western Europe but became particularly important social and financial organizations in Holland. In addition to settling estates and appointing guardians for orphaned minors, the orphan chambers managed their inheritances, lending money for public and private purposes in the 17th century.
It is easy to pay no thought to the presence of orphans in history. Yet, lifespans were so much shorter that being orphaned in Europe was far likelier, ten times more likely to be more precise, in the 16th century than in the 20th century. This was especially a social problem in the cities where family ties were less strong and mortality was higher on account of periodic epidemics. Also increasing the number of minor orphans was the fact that, at least in certain parts of Europe, the age-of-majority was then quite a bit higher than it is today. It was twenty-five in 17th century Holland for example. This meant more orphaned minors and in fact, about a third of deaths in Holland then would have involved a minor by that definition.
Orphan chambers, or weeskamers in the Netherlands, were institutions charged with appointing guardians and managing the inheritances of the minor heirs of deceased citizens. The chambers provided greater assurances that inheritances would actually be received as intended even where wealth or social arrangements were volatile. This form of social care is an example of state-involvement in a time and place where one might not have expected to find it. Amsterdam established one such orphan chamber in the mid-15th century and in the country generally, these were most active in the 17th century.
The origin of orphan chambers in the Low Countries dated to the 13th century, when magistrates had supreme custody over under-age orphans. City officials would also keep the valuables of orphans in city chests for safekeeping. These arrangements were not unique to this part of Europe, even in the 13th century; Italy and England developed remarkably similar institutions. Orphan chambers were later established to handle this work on behalf of magistrates who had many other priorities.
Chambers were established all over the Low Countries and the concept proliferated all over Western Europe. In the Netherlands, even small towns had their own orphan chambers. From here, they were eventually exported to colonies abroad, such as those of the Dutch in the Americas and Asia.
Not all these institutions were the same. Orphan chambers in the Low Countries came to serve a broader segment of society, not just the wealthy as those elsewhere had. True, the poor had no assets to bequeath and the wealthy had other means of ensuring inheritances were received by their heirs, but for the middle classes the orphan chambers were widely used. The chamber of Rotterdam, a city home to just 45,000 residents in 1670, was processing the cases of 300 new orphans a year. Some of these estates handled by the orphan chambers would have been miniscule, perhaps even negative after discharging all debts.
Orphan chambers acted as independent trustees over inheritances. This made them particularly important in cities because the assets that comprised urban wealth, like securities and business inventories, were easier to mismanage or fritter away than those that comprised rural wealth, primarily land. In cities, the middle classes were larger and this also meant more inheritances to manage.
With the assistance of the surviving parent, orphan chambers took inventory of property. Assets from clothing to jewels would be sold at public auction. Chambers settled estates, paying off the debts of the deceased, and would keep physical possession of some valuables until the minor came of age. The chamber would also appoint a guardian. Depending on the arrangement with the chamber, guardians would have differing degrees of control over the orphan’s inheritance in the meantime. Still, in the case of guardians controlling the money, if they left the inheritance uninvested for more than a month, they could be fined. So, the orphan’s share of an estate would be invested, often in public debt issued by the city.
The task of the orphan chambers was not simple in early modern Europe. Especially in cities, migration meant that orphan chambers often had to deal with language barriers and valuing estates comprised of far-away assets. Chamber officials in Leiden complained in 1665 that “a fair number of guardians were incapable of speaking Dutch, or of counting in guilders”. The city’s orphan chamber officials also struggled through the valuation of estates not in Leiden but “in Flanders, Brabant or far away countries”.
Still, Bruges made it compulsory to deposit orphans’ inheritances with the city. In the southern Low Countries generally, using the orphan chambers became mandatory. So, at every death, proof had to be provided as to whether a minor was involved. While this was not mandatory in the cities of the northern Low Countries, use of the orphan chambers remained very common and was essentially the default treatment of an estate unless a will specified otherwise. That said, wealthier families often hired a notary to handle an inheritance rather than rely on the chambers.
Orphan chambers were most involved with middling-sized inheritances. For the smallest inheritances, the guardian would simply pledge that the inherited sum would be delivered to the child at legal age and would secure this obligation with property they owned. For smaller estates, this was a more easily managed approach than splitting the small estate between the surviving parent and the orphan with the chamber managing the latter for years or decades. Keeping a smaller estate intact could also allow a family business to continue. In the case of middle-sized estates, the orphan chambers played a more active role in managing the inheritance.
Managing an inheritance meant investing money. Orphan chambers would make loans to city inhabitants with the inheritances they managed. These loans were called weesrenten. In addition, orphan chambers could invest in assets approved by the Estates of Holland, the national parliament for the country. In addition to weesrenten, this would at various times include city debt, the debt of other cities, life annuities, and treasury bills. Smaller inheritances could also be pooled into investment funds for this purpose.
In Amsterdam in 1603, the orphan chamber was lending money to the city at 6.25% interest. The chamber was also lending to the city’s industries and colonial projects abroad. It did so at interest rates that generally fell as the 17th century went on. The interest income could be used by guardians to care for the child but the principal was protected for the latter.
There were several threats that developed which could have proved fatal to the system of orphan chambers. First was the threat of city bankruptcy and Flemish cities did default on their debts for much of the 16th century. There was also the risk that inheritances were lost in such disasters as a fire in Amsterdam’s city hall which resulted in records being lost. There was the problem of illiquid assets. In Leiden, the city got into the habit of paying out the inheritances of those reaching the age of majority with new inheritances rather than redeeming investments, causing liquidity troubles when the pace of new inheritances placed with the city declined in the early 18th century.
The orphan chambers’ ultimate demise may have been caused by any of a myriad of factors, including the above. Declining birth rates from 1650 may have meant fewer orphans. Reduced migration in the 18th century as compared to the 17th century could have strengthened family units, making the orphan chambers less necessary. There was also a changing preference in favor of simply leaving estates in the hands of a surviving spouse. The logic behind of the orphan chamber system rested to some extent on the basis of a suspicion of the surviving parent, or at least a preference for the child’s interests over those of the widow or widower. Cities’ financial woes and better returning investment options elsewhere were likely major factors as well. In any case, Dutch orphan chambers declined in importance in the late 18th century.
Before that decline took place, the Dutch legal system and customs for inheritances were exported abroad. As a result, Dutch colonies in Asia, like at Batavia or present-day Jakarta, developed their own orphan chambers. Another was developed in New Amsterdam or modern-day New York, in 1656. This chamber conducted similar work to those in the Netherlands. It appraised estates, sold assets, and kept some for safekeeping. In New Amsterdam, public auctions were conducted on the stoop before the city hall and the proceeds and any future bequests and gifts from other relatives to the orphan were received by the chamber.
However, the orphan chamber in colonial America took on greater importance to the society there than most. Wars with Native Americans created more orphans and the colony had no banks, so the chamber was an important source of capital. Orphans’ inheritances funded the business of tradesmen, the city government, and the Reformed Church in New Amsterdam. Still, so similar was the chamber in New Amsterdam to those in Holland that inhabitants of one could easily work with a chamber across the ocean to secure their inheritances. However, this institution did not survive long as it disappeared soon after the English capture of New Amsterdam in 1664.
By allowing investment or transactions to be made that otherwise would not, the financing provided by orphans’ inheritances allowed commercial activity to grow more quickly. If this is true, then orphans had some role in creating the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century. However, the investment of inheritances, especially smaller or middling-sized inheritances, for the benefit of tradesmen and other users of borrowed money, required an intermediary like the orphan chambers. Without them, these inheritances might be put to less satisfactory use or misuse and the contribution of your average Dutch burgher to his country’s financial development would have been some bit less.
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Read about London’s Court of Orphans and Dutch financial institutions like the Bank of Amsterdam and mutual marine insurance clubs established in several Dutch cities. Consider subscribing to this blog’s newsletter or checking out book recommendations, which include many of the sources often referenced in my posts.
1. Deneweth, Heidi. “A Fine Balance. Household Finance and Financial Strategies of Antwerps Households, 17th-18th Century.” Tijdschrift Voor Sociale En Economische Geschiedenis/ The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, vol. 8, no. 4, 2011, pp. 15–43.
2. MacCants, Anne E.C. Civic Charity in a Golden Age: Orphan Care in Early Modern Amsterdam. University of Illinois Press, 1997.
3. Schnitzeler, J.W. “In Loco Parentis: Holland’s Orphan Chambers in a European Context.” The History of the Family, vol. 27, no. 2, Sept. 2021, pp. 243–267.
4. Van Zwieten, Adriana E. “The Orphan Chamber of New Amsterdam.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 2, Apr. 1996, pp. 319–340.