It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that large and fast sailing ships made their mark on world history by forging lasting and stable links within Europe and with other continents as well. The sailing-ship traffic led to a blossoming of trade and to the growth of harbours and of seafaring communities; a maritime culture came into existence. Dragør is a unique instance of a well-preserved built environment owing its origins to a maritime community of this period, when Denmark was among the leading seafaring nations in Europe.
Dragør Old Town and harbour represent an element of world cultural heritage that reflects the way ordinary people lived during the heyday of the tall ships in the 18th and 19th centuries. The town and harbour together still make up an exceptionally well-preserved physical cultural environment today which clearly displays evidence of the living conditions and cultural organisation of an earlier maritime community that had been built up and flourished around sea transport. Dragør can thus be described as a ‘skipper town’, meaning a historical settlement with a maritime culture that specialised in an early form of entrepreneurial tramp shipping.
Dragør is strategically located on the coast of Øresund, one of the straits linking the Baltic with the North Sea and the oceans beyond. From the Middle Ages and up to the present days it has been one of the world’s busiest sea passages; Copenhagen was founded on its shore at an early date, and a number of small coastal towns emerged on either side of the sound. Those on the east coast now belong to Sweden, but until 1660 both shores belonged to the Danish kingdom.
Dragør Old Town and harbour are located, with clear boundaries, in a particularly flat and open landscape of salt marshes forming the south-eastern corner of the island of Amager, 12 km south of Copenhagen. The Old Town is densely built and consists of low houses, yellow-washed and mostly adjoining in rows, while the old harbour has an open character with a few buildings that have purely maritime working functions and context.
Dragør’s earliest settlement was erected in the Middle Ages, from 1342 onwards, when the Danish king, known as Valdemar Atterdag (Valdemar IV) awarded privileges to the Hanseatic towns around the Baltic and in the Netherlands, allowing them to trade in Dragør at a large-scale market where a wide range of goods were exchanged and from which salted herring could be exported to the rest of Europe. The background was that Scania, with the major market locations of Skanör and Falsterbo, had been sold by German mortgage-holders and had come into the possession of the Swedish king. The Danish king saw the opportunity to raise income from establishing a new market in Dragør. The market took on dimensions corresponding to the Champagne markets in France. It is estimated that up to 20,000 people attended the market each year during the autumn period when the herring catch from Oresund was at its height. Dragør was owned by the king and retained the status of ‘King’s Harbour’ and trading place after the first permanent buildings were constructed, forming a centre from which fishing and shipping activities were conducted. Archaeological investigations have shown that the medieval settlement encompassed a larger area than that of the present Old Town of Dragør, which now in some places covers a medieval culture layer that has a depth of approximately 2 metres.
Later there was a phase of immigration of Dutch farmers to the neighbouring village of Store Magleby, brought there in 1521 on the initiative of King Christian II of Denmark. The Dutch immigrants were skilled farmers and market gardeners, but they also had experience of sea transport and trade from their home country. Growth of the population that had settled in the village of Store Magleby led to several from the later generations of the Dutch families there moving to Dragør and starting to make a living from sea trade. The farmers and market gardeners in Store Magleby made a prosperous living from their produce, and they were able to invest in sailing ships based in Dragør. The Dutch families thus came to own a large part of Dragør’s fleet of sailing ships and were able to make their mark on local culture in terms of religion and administrative and judicial matters, as well as with regard to everyday living customs and forms of clothing.
The 18th and 19th centuries were the heyday of sailing ships in Denmark, as in Europe as a whole. In the 18th century Dragør was reckoned to be the Danish harbour with the 2nd largest ship-tonnage, after the capital, Copenhagen, and in the 19th century it was the 3rd largest. The buildings in Dragør Old Town and harbour, as they can be seen today, stem from this period and the town is unique in the authentic pattern of its layout and its homogeneous architecture.
The era of the town’s prosperity ended abruptly, however, when sailing ships were overtaken by steam ships. The foundations of the local economy crumbled, but the houses and other buildings in the town and harbour were preserved, precisely because there was no longer an economic basis for major renewal or change. At the beginning of the 20th century an awareness grew up around the value of preserving the authentic town environment, and that has been carried forward up to the present day. Today the historic houses represent an attractive housing context in which modern people can live modern lives within the framework of the old houses. So the historic settlement now survives as an intact old town and also as a living modern habitat.