Social Welfare Managers

In Leeuwenhoek's time, as now, the Dutch provided a strong social safety net. They didn't eliminate poverty, a relative condition. They had control of their gates and walls, however. They knew who was in their city and they were ready to punish or banish, or both, anyone who deviated. With the same set of values, they made sure that no one was without a place to sleep and something to eat and preferably work to do. They cared for the sick, the aged, and the orphans in both body and spirit. The 1663 painting (right; click to enlarge) by Jan de Bray is titled Neigt Kinderen in het Weeshuis in Haarlem (Tending Children at the Orphanage in Haarlem).


Given the maternal mortality, the occasional plague, and the one-way voyages on ships to faraway lands, Delft was full of people who had lost one or both parents (halfwezen and volle wezen). If they were underage and had no one to care for them, they lived and learned a trade in one of Delft's orphanages (weeshuizen). Delft had several orphanages over the centuries, including what is now the Prinsenhof. The one in the image below right was originally built as a convent for Franciscan nuns, replacing the one that burned during the city-wide fire in 1536. After catholicism was banned in Holland, the nuns had vacated the building by 1579, after which it became an orphanage.

It is now the Sanctus Virgilius, student housing for Technische Universiteit Delft. The university has a VR video, Vermeer Naar Weeshuis, that begins with Vermeer's Zicht op Delft (View of Delft), goes through the Schiedamse Poort (Schiedam Gate), up the Oude Delft gracht, and ends inside the orphanage below, showing its floorplan.

These orphanages were managed by orphan masters (weesmeesteren), regents appointed by the Veertigraad (see below).

When someone died with children, even adult children, the estate had to be registered with the orphan masters' office (weeskamer). It was a large room in the Stadhuis devoted to the orphan masters' activities and records. These activities were regulated at the provincial level by the Reglement van de Staten van Holland voor de Weeskamer (Rules and Regulations of the State of Holland for the Orphans Office). The records of the orphan office were stored separately from the rest of the city's records. They are also inventoried separately.

The office had to account for the children, especially the underage children. It kept records (comparitieregisters) of all of the city's orphans and half-orphans, with the names of their parents and guardians (voogden) as well as people under supervision and any funds placed in trust for their care. These records were severely damaged during the 1618 fire, so they have gaps and fragments. The records after 1618 are mostly complete.

People at the time, even young children, made more than one will (testament) with a notary. The notary archives contain as many wills made during Leeuwenhoek's lifetime as the Weeskamer archives have estates (boedels).

In addition, prenuptial agreements (huwelijksvoorwaarden) were common. Among other things, they set out the parent's instructions for their children upon the death of either or both parents. Marriages could be registered (banns issued) at a church or with the city. Many people registered at both places. Many were second and third marriages due to death, not divorce. This process was organized by the commissaris van huwelikse zaken, the commissioner for marital affairs.

The final document often considered by the Weeskamer were the estate inventories. The inventory of the Weeskamer's archive lists 6,290 items during Leeuwenhoek's lifetime. Some complex estates had multiple items, but that's still an average of more than one per week.

Leeuwenhoek at the Orphan Office

Antony van Leeuwenhoek's name first appears in the Weeskamer archives in 1655 when he bought Het Gulden Hoofd on the Hippolytusbuurt from the widow of Frans van Helden. She had seven underage children, halfwezen, who had inherited the family property in their father's will and that the Weeskamer kept track of. The orphan masters were concerned that the children received what they were due, so Leeuwenhoek made his mortgage payments at the Weeskamer. The many pages of records notes how much was paid and which part would go to which children. These records are still available. See How did he pay off his mortgage? below under Learn more.

Who managed the orphanages?

The Veertigraad appointed the orphan masters, always three at a time. The secretary was chosen by the burgemeesters in consultation with the orphan masters.

Boitet's list begins in 1581 and has 53 names up to 1723 of men who served in this office. It is unclear how many there were at a time. They appear to be lifetime appointments because Boitet lists almost everyone's year of death.

secretaris weeskamer - 10 men from 1544 - 1715

regent weeshuis - 119 from 1536 - 1724

rentmeester weeshuis - 11 from 1534 to 1722


moeder van het nieuwe weeshuis 60 from 1575 - 1717
vader van het meisjeshuis 49 from 1537 - 1724
moeder van het meisjeshuis 31 from 1580 - 1718
rentmeester meisjeshuis 2 in 1687, 1691

The Poor

Kamer van Charitate (Chamber of Charity), founded in 1567, took care of the poor as government itself. In 1614 the Kamer was merged with the religious social welfare efforts. Then the Chamber settled in a part of the St. Agatha Convent, located in the Schoolstraat. You can still see the old entrance gate surmounted by the image of Charitas.

The Kamer provided the poor with bread, soup, and peat tokens in winter. In order to be eligible, they first had to register as 'poor'. Delft was divided into six districts, each with its own regent and deacon. When resident were in financial distress, they first turned to their district's regent or diacoon. If he was convinced, it was discussed in the Kamer and that person had to again register with the the regents. The regents and deacon then sat behind the 'complaints table', a table higher than normal, where the level of support was determined. If a request was granted, the person got a poor stamp and could then periodically contact the Chamber for money (special coins printed by the Chamber). The bread which he purchased was baked by its own bakery on the Schoolstraat in a square shape with a stamp of the Chamber, so that it could not be resold. In winter the poor were given peat tokens three times a month.

The same year Leeuwenhoek bought the house on the Hippolutusbuurt, 1655, Jan Steen painted one of his neighbors, Adolf Croeser, with his daughter and a woman who was not from a regent family (right; click to enlarge).

The revenues of the Chamber came from donations, rents, and additional tax on, among other things, trade, marriage, or burial. There was also a tradition called "the supreme garment". Deceased people had to pass on their best clothing to the Kamen, and it was then sold at the flea market on the Vrouwjuttenland.

meester of regent charitaten - 139 from 1597 to 1723 for life?
moeder van de charitaten - 37 from 1597 - 1723

regent oude mannen- en vrouwenhuis 58 from 1536 - 1723
moeder oude mannen- en vrouwenhuis 46 from 1580 - 1723
rentmeester oude mannen- en vrouwenhuis 6 from 1538 to 1690

The Sick

regent Oude Gasthuis 1510 - 1624
moeder Oude Gasthuis 54 from 1537 - 1623

regent Nieuwe Gasthuis 24 from 1557 - 1613
moeder Nieuwe Gasthuis 25 from 1557 - 1623

regent Oude en Nieuwe Gasthuis 55 from 1630 - 1724
moeder Oude en Nieuwe Gasthuis 30 from 1625 - 1716
rentmeester Oude en Nieuwe Gasthuis 6 from 1677 - 1724

The Churches

kerkmeester Oude Kerk - 36 from 1445 - 1565
kerkmeester Nieuwe Kerk - 53 from 1458 - 1572
kerkmeester Oude en Nieuwe Kerk - 80 from 1573 - 1724
rentmeester Oude en Nieuwe Kerk - 2 in 1681, 1718
begijnenpater - 3 in 1530, 1535, 1559

predikant (also in het Gasthuis) 74 (incl 14 in Gasthuis) from 1558 - 1724


bewaarder fraterhuis - 40 from 1536 - 1629
meester van de fraters - 25 from 1639 - 1720
moeder van de fraters - 25 from 1578 - 1708
rentmeester fraters - 1 in 1719

House of corrections

A house of discipline , a workhouse, or a house of correction that was originally for the poor, petty criminals, and problem youth. The theory was that steady work would improve them and make possible their return to society.

regent tuchthuis 31 from 1667 - 1717
rentmeester tuchthuis 4 from 1687 - 1711


toeziender (supervisor) grote school 32 from 1542 - 1629