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Who built Brussels? The profile of artisans and entrepreneurs in the Brussels construction sector around 1865

Qui a bâti Bruxelles ? Profil des artisans et entrepreneurs du secteur bruxellois de la construction vers 1865
Wie bouwde Brussel? Het profiel van vaklui en ondernemers in de Brusselse bouwsector rond 1865
Matthijs Degraeve
Traduction de Helen White
Cet article est une traduction de :
Wie bouwde Brussel? Het profiel van vaklui en ondernemers in de Brusselse bouwsector rond 1865 [nl]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Qui a bâti Bruxelles ? Profil des artisans et entrepreneurs du secteur bruxellois de la construction vers 1865 [fr]


Vers 1865, Bruxelles était une ville en pleine mutation. De récentes études nous éclairent sur le rôle qu’ont joué divers acteurs dans le développement de la ville, tels que les pouvoirs publics et les propriétaires fonciers. Toutefois, nous en savons encore peu sur les artisans et les entrepreneurs du bâtiment qui ont physiquement façonné la ville. À l’aide des almanachs, registres des patentables, registres des électeurs et matrices cadastrales, cet article met en lumière le profil professionnel, sociodémographique et spatial de 2 445 entrepreneurs du secteur bruxellois de la construction vers 1865. Il s’en détache un groupe très hétérogène, actif dans toute la palette des métiers du bâtiment. Si quelques entrepreneurs fortunés étaient à la tête de grandes entreprises, l’organisation à forte main-d’œuvre et à petite échelle de la plupart des entreprises du bâtiment ouvrit également les portes de l’entrepreneuriat à un groupe considérable d’artisans relativement démunis, y compris des femmes et des migrants. Il en découla aussi une forte dispersion spatiale, permettant à ces entrepreneurs d’opérer sur les chantiers de leur quartier. Ces résultats contribuent à la connaissance historique de la formation du tissu urbain et du patrimoine bruxellois, de même qu’ils situent dans une perspective à long terme le besoin contemporain d’un ancrage local pour le secteur urbain de la construction.

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Notes de la rédaction

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Notes de l’auteur

This contribution is based on the author’s doctoral thesis: Building Brussels. Construction entrepreneurs in a transforming urban space (1830-1970), defended at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in 2021 under the supervision of Heidi Deneweth, Stephanie Van de Voorde and Inge Bertels, as part of the VUB interdisciplinary project “Building Brussels. Brussels city builders and the production of urban space (1794-2016)”.

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1In the second half of the nineteenth century, urban development in Brussels gained considerable momentum. The changing face of the city was determined by complex, constantly evolving interactions between government bodies, urban planners, architects and landowners, as well as between construction entrepreneurs, artisans and workers in the construction sector. Whereas the architectural and urban developments themselves have been familiar for some time [Strauven, 1975; Leblicq, 1982; Demey, 1990; Heymans, 1998], it is only in recent years that we have gained new historical insights into the precise role of the various stakeholders involved. Many studies have focused on what went on at the drawing board, among property owners and governments [Zitouni, 2010; Debroux et al., 2015; Babar, 2016; De Beule, 2017; Sacré, 2019; Galavan, 2021], but a good understanding of the development of urban space also requires insight into operational workers on the ground: people who belonged to the construction sector and physically shaped the city with their labour, artisanship and entrepreneurship [Bertels, 2009; Bertels et al., 2016].

2In historical research into the world of construction in Brussels, there has generally been little focus on the 1860s and, by extension, the mid-nineteenth century until now. Nevertheless, this was a crucial period in which Brussels experienced its first major growth phase. The political and economic importance of the capital exercised a strong attraction, with the population of the conurbation tripling from about 100 000 in 1831 to around 300 000 in 1865 [Leblicq and De Metsenaere, 1979]. Belgium experienced a sustained phase of economic growth and urbanisation between 1858 and 1877 [Duchêne, 2000], not least in Brussels. According to the building censuses of 1856 and 1866, some 6 600 buildings were constructed throughout the conurbation during this decade. So in the period around 1865, Brussels was undergoing a profound transformation. The suburbs were growing steadily, while entire working-class districts in the inner city were demolished to make way for the construction of the Palace of Justice, and for the vaulting of the river Senne and the creation of the central boulevards.

3Although we have ample insight into this period in terms of architecture and urban development [De Beule, 2017; Loir, 2018], we have scarcely any information about those who actually carried out the work. Nonetheless, there is considerable potential here. After all, this period of urban growth coincided with the turning point in the Second Industrial Revolution when the foundations were laid for the organisation of today’s construction sector. Thus a historical perspective on this period will aid our understanding of the needs that still characterise the sector, such as conveniently located workplaces in the city, the proximity of suppliers and the influx of workers with the right skills [De Boeck et al., 2020]. To approach these contemporary needs from a long-term perspective, it is worth finding out how stakeholders in the construction industry were able to carry out a previous phase of urban transformation.

4The emphasis here should be placed on the many artisans and entrepreneurs working on a small scale, forming the largest group in the urban construction sector both then and now [Martini, 2016; Buyst, 1992]. From the historical perspective, the focus to date has been on large-scale, innovative and famous artisans and construction companies [Jacqmin, 2001; Pesztat, 2018], which begs the question of how well they represent the sector as a whole. That is why there is a need for a quantitative framework for historical analysis of the urban construction sector. This article offers such a framework for Brussels in the mid-1860s. While direct sources on small businesses in the construction sector are scarce, the comparison of data from different indirect sources makes it possible to create a list of artisans and entrepreneurs in the Brussels construction sector that is as complete as possible, and to obtain an accurate understanding of their professional, socio-demographic and spatial profiles. Patent registers (1864), electoral rolls (1865), land registers (1865) and commercial almanacs (1866) were consulted, the exact characteristics of which are explained below.

5As such, the focus is on registered companies owned by self-employed entrepreneurs, down to the smallest scale of sole traders. Some of them were only self-employed as a secondary job, or in a precarious state of de facto self-employment, but due to the limitations of the sources, they were still registered as self-employed entrepreneurs. As such, there is scope for further research into waged labour and a significant proportion of the informal “underbelly” of entrepreneurship in the construction industry, as well as into the complex forms of interaction between the different stakeholders in the world of construction in Brussels.

6Below, we present a varied picture of the artisans and entrepreneurs active in the construction sector in Brussels around 1865. We begin by examining the structure of the sector and differences of scale between companies. Next, we consider the range of socio-demographic profiles among entrepreneurs, with attention to their wealth, origin and gender. Finally, a spatial analysis will investigate where these businesses had their headquarters in the city and the relationship between this location and their building sites.

1. Professions in the construction sector

  • 1 Almanacs, Brussels Archives [online], consulted on 25/01/2023,
  • 2 In 1866, they included the municipalities of Brussels, Ixelles, Saint-Gilles, Anderlecht, Molenbeek (...)

7The research is supported by a sample of 2 445 businesses active in the Brussels construction sector around 1865. The sample was created using the “Almanachs du commerce et de l’industrie” (almanacs) for 1866, available online from the Brussels city archives1. These almanacs were published annually for the entire Brussels conurbation2. One section is ordered by profession, stating the name and address of each entrepreneur. That made it possible to trace every entrepreneur listed under a building profession. Since the almanacs had not been compiled systematically for very long [Debroux, 2012: 105–107], this data was supplemented with entrepreneurs listed in the “registres des patentables” (patent registers) for 1864. Between 1795 and 1919, every entrepreneur had to request an annual patent to do their job. Depending on their sector and the size of their business, a certain tax rate was imposed. The patent registers list the entrepreneurs with their address, profession and number of employees [Kurgan-Van Hentenrijk, 1979]. However, this source does not provide a complete picture either: patent registers have only survived for the city of Brussels (where about 60 % of the construction companies were established at the time), and the smallest entrepreneurs are underrepresented, since artisans with no employees had been exempted from the patent tax since 1849 [Parisel, 1961: 97–99].

  • 3 The 1866 census lists 28,332 people who worked in the professions in table 1 in the province of Bra (...)
  • 4 Based on the industrial surveys of 1846 and 1896, total employment in industry in the Brussels conu (...)

8Nevertheless, it was possible to create a database of 2 445 construction companies based on the two sources. Hence the construction sector was already very large in the 1860s. Given an average company size of 3,9 workers (including the entrepreneurs themselves) that we have derived from the patent registers, we can estimate a total employment figure of around 9 640 people. The 1866 census results in a similar estimate of approximately 10 100 people3, a number that may have increased in peak season to around 15 000 people working in the construction sector. This was approximately 15 to 23 % of the total industrial employment in Brussels4. In a rapidly growing city, it need not come as a surprise that the construction sector thus constituted one of the most significant pillars of the urban economy.

  • 5 Some companies could be listed in more than one category, the total number of companies in this tab (...)

9The construction sector was also highly diverse. The complex production process required many specialised skills, accommodated in various building professions. Depending on which professions are included in the calculations, different delineations of the sector as a whole are possible. Table 1 includes preparatory work in workshops and the supply of building materials5.

Table 1. Structure of professions in the construction sector in Brussels, based on almanacs (1866) and patent registers (1864)




Joiners and carpenters


26,7 %

Iron and steelworkers


16,4 %



12,4 %



8,0 %



7,2 %

Marble and stonemasons


5,5 %



4,6 %



3,4 %

Non-ferrous metal producers


3,4 %

Timber merchants and sawmills


3,3 %

Building material merchants


3,1 %



2,4 %



2,4 %

Decorative plasterers


0,7 %

Parquet floorers


0,2 %

Brussels Archives

10When we compare the different subsectors, it is striking how important artisans working with wood and iron still were around 1865. A good forty per cent of the construction sector was made up of joiners and carpenters, who made all kinds of wooden components for buildings [Houbrechts, 2015: 54–58], and by iron workers, most of whom were lock and stove smiths who produced all kinds of iron components for buildings [Marneffe, 2020: 92]. In this period, the mechanisation and scaling up of wood and iron production were starting to gain speed, but they had not yet resulted in the disappearance of the many small workshops in the city. Mechanisation in the construction industry was still very limited at that point [Degraeve, 2019]. Of the mere twelve steam engines listed in the almanacs and patent registers, six were held by joiners and sawmills and three by ironworkers. Two plumbers and one marble mason also were already using a steam engine.

11That most of the companies worked on a small scale is clear from table 2, which shows the average business size based on the 1864 patent registers. With 3,6 and 3 employees respectively per company (including the entrepreneur), both joinery and ironwork companies were still particularly small in scale.

Table 2. Average business size (number of workers and entrepreneurs) for each building profession in Brussels, based on patent registers (1864)


Employment (workers and management)


Average company size





Marble and stonemasons




















Iron and steelworkers








Non-ferrous metal producers








Brussels Archives

12The significance of a few other construction professions indicates the defining role of the architectural taste of the period. Houses were still often designed in a fairly uniform, neoclassical style with modest ornamentation. Construction professions that catered to these needs were painters, plasterers, marble and stonemasons and stucco plasterers. Collectively, they accounted for about a quarter of the entire construction sector. Painters in particular formed a large professional group. They also worked on a very small-scale basis, with an average of 3,3 people per company.

13Plasterers and marble and stonemasons were slightly larger, respectively employing 5 and 6,3 people. Like roofers and bricklayers, they followed a logic that applied more to building shell constructors such as contractors. There are no figures included in the patent registers for the size of contracting companies, but their businesses were doubtless larger on average. Driven by the increasing demand for construction, the growth of their business size was the result of necessity and the opportunity to employ more, mainly low-skilled workers on a permanent or semi-permanent basis [Clarke, 1992]. Ongoing urban growth offered some entrepreneurs, mainly bricklayers and joiners, the opportunity to grow their business into large-scale contracting companies. The importance of contractors therefore increased rapidly in this period. On the increasingly large and more complex building sites, they fulfilled a crucial, coordinating role. Around 1865, they still accounted for less than five per cent of the construction sector, but they would soon overtake and absorb the bricklayers. From the 1870s onwards, they established their increased importance in a new professional group, that of the “general contractors” [Bertels, 2011; Dobbels, 2021].

14Finally, we note that the importance of plumbers was still limited. There had been a modern water supply system operational in Brussels since 1856, but construction was still in progress. A new sewer system was only brought into use once the river Senne had been covered in 1867-71. Few modern techniques had been introduced to the home at that point. Utility-related workers such as plumbers would therefore only begin to develop into an important branch of the construction sector after 1865 [Degraeve, 2022].

2. Socio-demographic profiles

15The diversity in construction professions and the scale of business activities had significant consequences for the wide-ranging socio-demographic profiles of construction entrepreneurs. We offer a sketch of these profiles here, based on the entrepreneurs’ social and economic position, origin and gender.

16The construction sector consisted partly of a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs who headed large companies. The rest was made up of many entrepreneurs who ran small-scale businesses, with a social standing that was barely higher than that of their workers, and of sole traders who did not employ any waged labourers. In 1864, 41 % of Brussels construction entrepreneurs belonged to the latter group. 37 % employed 1 to 3 workers, 15 % had 4 to 10 workers, and a mere 7 % ran a business with more than ten workers.

17A crude social distinction can be made based on the right to vote. In the householder franchise electoral system that applied in Belgium from 1830 to 1893, a man needed to pay a total of at least 42,32 francs in income, patent and land taxes to be entitled to a vote. So we can assume that those entitled to vote enjoyed a certain degree of prosperity and social status. The Brussels electoral roll for 1865, preserved in the city archive, included 504 construction entrepreneurs, or 41 % of all the construction entrepreneurs established in the city of Brussels. In comparison, this figure is considerably lower than the 60 % of Brussels bakers entitled to vote in 1865, who were generally wealthier [Scholliers, 2021: 173]. The electoral roll also shows the taxes paid, which vary widely among construction entrepreneurs: from 13 to 559 fr in property tax, with a median of 78 fr; from 0,1 to 528 fr in land tax (med. 57 fr) and from 2 to 191 fr in patent tax (med. 28 fr).

  • 6 E. Vanhaute, S. Vrielinck and T. Wiedemann, POPPKAD historical database for land registry statistic (...)

18This already shows that social distinctions cannot simply be reduced to whether or not one was entitled to vote. A further distinction can be made based on land ownership. Property development was a highly valued income strategy in the lower middle class [Crossick, 1984], especially among construction entrepreneurs, who often developed their land speculatively themselves. The land registers, published for the city of Brussels by P.C. Popp in 1865 and digitised in the POPPKAD database6, supplemented with an analysis of the registers for the surrounding municipalities, can be used to provide information about property ownership among Brussels construction entrepreneurs. 30 % owned at least one plot of land in Brussels or the surrounding municipalities. The total surface area ranged from 24 m² to a good 4,4 ha (med. 244 m²). Their cadastral income varied from 33 to 10,962 fr in total (med. 429 fr). Ownership of their own home, usually including workshops and storage spaces, was even more limited at 23,5%. Again, surface areas varied widely, from as little as 9 to 1,093 m² (med. 60 m²). Cadastral incomes varied from 18 to 9,501 fr (med. 270 fr).

19Thus the great majority of Brussels construction entrepreneurs rented a modest home, did not own any land, did not have the right to vote and employed three workers at most. At the other end of the social spectrum was an upper layer of wealthy entrepreneurs who belonged to the Brussels bourgeois elite. According to the almanacs, a small group of nine entrepreneurs, including the joiner-contractors Pierre Pelseneer and Pierre-Joseph Godefroy, had the prestigious right to vote in the election of judges for the commercial court of Brussels.

20A second element in the socio-demographic profile of construction entrepreneurs is their origin. The construction sector is renowned for its high accessibility and attractiveness to migrant workers, due to its wide-ranging opportunities for low-skilled labour and relatively high wages [Scholliers, 1990]. Various historians have already confirmed a high level of mobility among builders moving towards growing cities [Barjot and Colin, 2006; Martini, 2016; Grossutti, 2021], some of whom ultimately set up their own business [Corbin, 1975]. A quantitative look at the origin of Brussels construction entrepreneurs around 1865 enables us to investigate the extent to which both labour and entrepreneurship were open to migrants. Because it was still extremely uncommon in the 1860s for construction entrepreneurs from outside Brussels to come and work in the capital or establish their existing business there, we assume that migrating workers initially found work as waged labourers in the Brussels construction sector, only starting a self-employed business later on.

  • 7 The random sample was conducted by searching for the construction entrepreneurs alphabetically by s (...)

21The birthplaces listed in the electoral register of 1865 enable us to trace the origin of 521 Brussels construction entrepreneurs. Because these are relatively wealthy entrepreneurs with the right to vote, we supplemented them with a sample of 95 random entrepreneurs without the right to vote from the 1866 population register7. The final analysis was conducted for a sample of 609 whose birthplaces could be traced with certainty.

  • 8 With thanks to Sven Vrielinck (LOKSTAT, Ghent University) for the shape file and coordinates of the (...)
  • 9 Based on data from Paul Kevers ( and vector data of today’s railways from t (...)

22Figure 1 presents these birthplaces visually on a map of nineteenth-century Belgium, excluding those born in the city of Brussels or abroad8. The map also shows the railways that had been built by 1855 to clarify their influence on migration flows9. The birthplaces are divided into seven categories. Based on the relatively large numbers of entrepreneurs without a vote, percentages were estimated for each category.

Figure 1. Birthplace of Brussels construction entrepreneurs around 1865 (excl. Brussels and abroad)

Figure 1. Birthplace of Brussels construction entrepreneurs around 1865 (excl. Brussels and abroad)

23A small majority of 56 % of Brussels construction entrepreneurs moved to the city during their lifetime. Hence, although about half the inhabitants of Brussels in this period had also been born there [Leblicq and De Metsenaere, 1979; Eggerickx, 2013], they only ran 44 % of the local construction companies.

24As was the case in earlier periods, 16 % came from the immediate vicinity within 20 km of the city: for example, there were 14 entrepreneurs from Uccle and eight from Watermael-Boitsfort. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, it was also possible to travel longer distances thanks to the growing railways. Since daily commuting only emerged in the 1870s [Vanhaute, 2003; Schepers et al., 2020], we assume that in the 1860s, these journeys still represent genuine migrations. In 1866, 14 % of Brussels construction entrepreneurs had been born in another Belgian city with more than 10 000 inhabitants, the most important of which were Ghent (13 entrepreneurs), Antwerp (12) and Bruges (8).

25By the 1860s, the railways had also opened up the countryside. Surplus rural labourers from all over the country found their way to Brussels. That happened most during the crisis years of 1845-1847 and 1853-1856 [Ronsijn and Vanhaute, 2018]. In 1865, 6 % of Brussels construction entrepreneurs came from the northern provinces. Another 6 % came from the provinces of Hainaut, Namur and Liège. Particularly significant was the opening of three railway lines in 1855 that connected several villages in the south of the province of Brabant (Nivelles arrondissement). Yet another 6 % originated from this area, which continued to act as a reservoir of labour for the Brussels construction sector during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [Scholliers, 1990; Van Den Eeckhout, 1980].

26Finally, some construction entrepreneurs were born abroad, mainly in large cities with good rail connections: in the Netherlands (Rotterdam, ’s-Hertogenbosch, Maastricht, Breda, etc.), France (Paris, Valenciennes, Dunkirk, etc.), the German cities (Aachen and Cologne) and one Swiss entrepreneur (Ticino). At 8 %, they represented a somewhat larger proportion than the 5 % of the total population of Brussels in 1866 who had been born abroad [Greefs and Winter, 2020].

27This shows that the relationship between migration and construction did not only apply to waged labour, but also to entrepreneurship. Thanks to the low obstacles in terms of capital for setting up one’s own company [Wellings, 2008], construction entrepreneurs formed an open group that was also easily accessible to migrant workers.

28A third aspect is the gender of Brussels construction entrepreneurs. The construction sector is a famously male-dominated industry, but this perception should be seen in historical perspective. The involvement of women, particularly in entrepreneurship, was greater in the nineteenth century than it is today. To support this, all the entrepreneurs were selected from the almanacs (1866) and patent registers (1864) who were identified as women, based on a female title (such as “widow”), a female forename or a feminised job title.

29In total, 83 women were active as construction entrepreneurs in Brussels around 1865. They represent 3,2 % of all construction entrepreneurs, which is in line with earlier findings [Lemmens, 1986]. As such, entrepreneurship in construction was already decidedly male, but this percentage was still far higher than the proportions recorded in the twentieth-century construction sector [Heyrman, 2001], such as barely 0,4 % in Brussels in 1965 [Degraeve, 2021]. Socio-cultural factors stimulated the withdrawal of women from active participation in business life [Honeyman and Goodman, 1991; Vickery, 1993], especially in labour-intensive sectors such as construction [Crossick and Haupt, 1995; Heyrman, 2001]. The rising standard of living among the growing middle class also led to widows being less compelled to continue their deceased husband’s business as a survival strategy.

30Around 1865, however, that development had not yet really occurred. A precarious standard of living meant that, in many cases, women were still obliged to take over the running of a construction company and able to do so. 81 % of cases involved widows who had taken over their dead husband’s company. A few of them ran the company with their son until he was old enough to take it over on his own. As such, they seemed only to fulfil a transitional role between men as business owners [Crossick and Haupt, 1995; Nenadic, 1993], but case studies have shown that some widows also assumed a direct role in leadership [Kay, 2009].

31In Brussels, for example, Marie Pierret was a successful female construction entrepreneur. Her husband, Henri Leemans, had founded a bricklaying and contracting company in 1831 with eight workers. By the time of his death in 1853, the number of employees had increased to 70 manual workers. His widow, Marie Pierret, took the business over and had 72 manual workers in her employment in 1864, more than any other construction entrepreneur in Brussels at the time. Including her own home, she owned no fewer than 26 plots of land: 13 in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, 3 in Schaerbeek and 10 in Brussels, which indicates that Pierret was also highly involved in speculative development projects. Nevertheless, she also effectively fulfilled a transitional role: her son, Henri-Guillaume Leemans, took over leadership of the business in 1865.

3. Construction entrepreneurs in the urban space

32Marie Pierret ran her business from a premises in Lakensestraat/Rue de Laeken in Brussels, near the central boulevards that were being built and the many building material traders at the port. From there, she could also take on construction projects in Schaerbeek and Saint-Josse-ten-Noode. The place where construction entrepreneurs were based was often an essential element of their business operations. This is clear from the spatial distribution of the construction businesses, revealed with the Brussels Historical GIS software developed by IGEAT (ULB). It recognises historical addresses and allocates coordinates based on the 1865 Popp map of Brussels city and the 1893 topographical map produced by the Military Cartographic Institute for the surrounding municipalities. This made it possible to locate 2 507 addresses (92 %). The resulting business premises are shown in figure 2 on a map from the War Depot dating from 1869.

Figure 2. Locations of construction companies in Brussels around 1865, based on almanacs (1866) and patent registers (1864)

Figure 2. Locations of construction companies in Brussels around 1865, based on almanacs (1866) and patent registers (1864)

Brussels Archives. Geolocation through Brussels Historical GIS (IGEAT, ULB) on a map from the War Depot (1869)

33Firstly, the map shows that construction entrepreneurs were well distributed throughout the city. Given their limited need for space – a small workshop or warehouse was often enough – the businesses could often be established in or near the entrepreneurs’ homes, enabling them to serve construction and renovation needs in their own neighbourhood.

34In terms of business activities, however, certain patterns can be discerned. Suppliers of wood and other building materials were clustered at the port in the centre, close to railway stations and the canal to Charleroi that had opened in 1832. Because they were dependent on supplies of heavy materials, that location enabled them to cut their transportation costs considerably. Furthermore, the large plots of land in these districts, intended for urban industries, met their significant needs for storage space [Vandyck, 2020]. Whereas 20 to 25 % of companies in other subsectors were established in the wider canal zone, this figure was 57 % for timber merchants and sawmills, and 60 % for building material traders.

Figure 3. Locations of building material traders in Brussels around 1865, based on almanacs (1866) and patent registers (1864)

Figure 3. Locations of building material traders in Brussels around 1865, based on almanacs (1866) and patent registers (1864)

Brussels Archives. Geolocation through Brussels Historical GIS (IGEAT, ULB)

35Many building material traders also set their sights on the rapidly developing suburbs. There were striking patterns there as well. Around 1865, an average of 58 % of construction companies were still established in the old city centre (the “Pentagon”), but the differences between subsectors were great. Producers of non-ferrous metal building components (82 %), glaziers (75 %) and plumbers (68 %) were well represented in the city centre. They needed their own production workshops. Investing in suitable business infrastructure immediately resulted in a degree of inertia or embeddedness in that location, where the company would often remain active for decades.

36In other branches of the industry, entrepreneurs could be more flexible about their location. Along with building material traders (36 % in the city centre), marble and stonemasons (41 %), contractors (45 %) and bricklayers (46 %) were also rapidly leaving the inner city. Building material traders and marble and stonemasons established their businesses in the suburbs to limit the costs of transporting their heavy goods to the many building sites nearby. Contractors and bricklayers did not need much space for their own businesses, so they could easily relocate to where demand for their work was greatest.

Figure 4. Locations of non-ferrous metal producers (82 % in the city centre) and marble and stonemasons (41 %) in Brussels around 1865, based on almanacs (1866) and patent registers (1864)

Figure 4. Locations of non-ferrous metal producers (82 % in the city centre) and marble and stonemasons (41 %) in Brussels around 1865, based on almanacs (1866) and patent registers (1864)

Brussels Archives. Geolocation through Brussels Historical GIS (IGEAT, ULB)

  • 10 Since new buildings were exempted for eight years from land tax between 1828 and 1871 (Pasinomie, 1 (...)

37Finally, how did these business locations relate to the building sites where construction entrepreneurs worked? There are generally few sources to be found on the link between ordinary building sites and entrepreneurs, and a large amount of further research is still required. A rare opportunity presented itself by focusing on speculative property development by construction entrepreneurs in the POPPKAD database10. Two concentrations of construction activity with different social profiles were studied in more detail: around the Rue Marie-Thérèse/Maria Theresiastraat in the Quartier Léopold, where houses were being built for the bourgeoisie, and to the south-west of the city centre, where houses were being built for the working class and lower middle class. The working radius of 19 construction entrepreneurs active here varied from less than 100 metres to a good 3,5 kilometres. On average, they travelled 1,1 kilometres. 54 % worked from premises less than one kilometre from the building site, 41 % between one and three kilometres, and only 5 % travelled more than three kilometres [Degraeve, 2021: 403–409]. This confirms the hypothesis of a construction sector that mainly worked at local, intracity level until far into the twentieth century [Whitehand, 1992]. Whereas workers around 1865 were already highly geographically mobile, the entrepreneurs themselves remained very locally embedded to be able to meet the needs of the local urban population.


38By offering a broad, quantitative overview of the composition and organisation of the Brussels construction sector around 1865, this article meets a twofold need. Firstly, it provides insight into the profile of construction entrepreneurs and artisans as crucial players in the growth and development of the urban space, offering a long-term perspective on the needs and challenges that still characterise the construction sector today. Secondly, it also ensures a better historical understanding of the rarely studied period of urban development around 1865, which was nonetheless crucial for Brussels. With almost 2 500 companies and 10 to 15 000 employees (around 15 to 23 % of industrial employment in Brussels), the already very large construction sector in this period met the construction needs of a rapidly growing and industrialising capital city.

39A database of 2 445 construction entrepreneurs, compiled from trade almanacs, patent registers, electoral rolls and land registers has made it possible to gain a varied impression of their professional, socio-demographic and spatial profiles. The professional activities reveal both the emerging modern organisation of a construction sector undergoing transformation – with an increasingly important role for contractors – and the labour-intensive, barely mechanised and small-scale organisations in which many ordinary artisans worked. These differences led to great diversity in their socio-demographic profiles. While a small group of rich entrepreneurs were able to accumulate considerable capital thanks to intense urbanisation, entrepreneurship was also open to a large group of entrepreneurs of modest means, including migrants, due to the low requirements for capital. For them, the construction sector in Brussels around 1865 offered significant opportunities for local employment and social mobility, as it does now. More than it was later on, entrepreneurship at the time was still open to women, who also had opportunities to become very successful, such as Marie Pierret.

40The size of the sector and small-scale nature of the companies also led to a high spatial distribution. Depending on the needs specific to their profession, entrepreneurs might seek out transport routes, remain in the city centre or relocate easily to the developing suburbs. This high spatial distribution allowed construction entrepreneurs to work on building sites in their own neighbourhood. To meet growing and varied demand for construction and renovation work, the presence and proximity of locally embedded construction companies and their suppliers was crucial in the city. This long-term insight confirms the importance of today’s need to continue safeguarding the necessary space in the city for these players, who still guarantee the maintenance and renovation of the built-up urban fabric in the present day [De Boeck et al., 2020].

With thanks to Sven Vrielinck (LOKSTAT Quetelet Centre for Quantitative Historical Research, Ghent University) for access to the POPPKAD database, and to Tatiana Debroux and Didier Peeters (ULB IGEAT) for the use of the Brussels Historical GIS tool. This article was produced with the support of the Research Foundation – Flanders (postdoctoral fellowship FWOTM1101).

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1 Almanacs, Brussels Archives [online], consulted on 25/01/2023,

2 In 1866, they included the municipalities of Brussels, Ixelles, Saint-Gilles, Anderlecht, Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, Schaerbeek and Saint-Josse-ten-Noode.

3 The 1866 census lists 28,332 people who worked in the professions in table 1 in the province of Brabant. In 1866, about 36% of employment in Brabant was situated in the Brussels conurbation, which results in an estimate of 10,102 people working in the Brussels construction sector. However, the relative concentration of building activity in Brussels and the fact that the census reflects the situation on 31 December (during low season) give cause to suspect that the actual figure was even higher.

4 Based on the industrial surveys of 1846 and 1896, total employment in industry in the Brussels conurbation in 1865 can be estimated at 64,800 people.

5 Some companies could be listed in more than one category, the total number of companies in this table (2580) is higher than the real number of 2445 unique companies.

6 E. Vanhaute, S. Vrielinck and T. Wiedemann, POPPKAD historical database for land registry statistics, Quetelet Centre for Quantitative Historical Research, Ghent University.

7 The random sample was conducted by searching for the construction entrepreneurs alphabetically by street name.

8 With thanks to Sven Vrielinck (LOKSTAT, Ghent University) for the shape file and coordinates of the Belgian towns and cities.

9 Based on data from Paul Kevers ( and vector data of today’s railways from the Unité de Géomatique de l’Université de Liège (Atlas of Belgium,

10 Since new buildings were exempted for eight years from land tax between 1828 and 1871 (Pasinomie, 1827-1830: 148-150), recently built houses appear here with a cadastral income of 0 fr. Where construction entrepreneurs were the owners of these newbuild houses, it can be assumed that they had been involved in building them shortly beforehand.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Birthplace of Brussels construction entrepreneurs around 1865 (excl. Brussels and abroad)
Fichier image/jpeg, 179k
Titre Figure 2. Locations of construction companies in Brussels around 1865, based on almanacs (1866) and patent registers (1864)
Crédits Brussels Archives. Geolocation through Brussels Historical GIS (IGEAT, ULB) on a map from the War Depot (1869)
Fichier image/jpeg, 900k
Titre Figure 3. Locations of building material traders in Brussels around 1865, based on almanacs (1866) and patent registers (1864)
Crédits Brussels Archives. Geolocation through Brussels Historical GIS (IGEAT, ULB)
Fichier image/jpeg, 842k
Titre Figure 4. Locations of non-ferrous metal producers (82 % in the city centre) and marble and stonemasons (41 %) in Brussels around 1865, based on almanacs (1866) and patent registers (1864)
Crédits Brussels Archives. Geolocation through Brussels Historical GIS (IGEAT, ULB)
Fichier image/jpeg, 872k
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Matthijs Degraeve, « Who built Brussels? The profile of artisans and entrepreneurs in the Brussels construction sector around 1865 »Brussels Studies [En ligne], Collection générale, n° 190, mis en ligne le 17 mars 2024, consulté le 13 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Matthijs Degraeve

Matthijs Degraeve holds a PhD in history and a master’s degree in monument and landscape conservation. He obtained his doctorate from the VUB in 2021 with research into companies in the Brussels construction sector (1830-1970). In 2023, he published research on the spatial patterns of Brussels construction companies in Urban History. Since 2022, he has worked as a FWO (Research Foundation – Flanders) postdoctoral researcher at the VUB. In the project “Plumbing the City”, he is studying the impact of government sanitary regulations on the use of water and the plumbing profession in Brussels, London and Paris (1850-1940).


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