The sailors’ poor house – De Sjøfarendes fattighus – is one of several historical poor houses in Bergen. Traditionally convents ran these social institutions. After the Reformation the convents were no longer able to continue their charitable work, and caring for the old, sick and poor turned into a major challenge for society. The sailors’ poor house was initiated by the City Council in 1571.
In 1571 the sailors’ poor house was established next to Bergen Cathedral, after having been financed through a large fine paid by a Law Speaker. The Law Speaker had committed a murder, and the sizeable fine for his crime sufficed to finance the new poor house. The fine may even have been large enough to keep the poor house running for a few years until another source of income arrived in 1577. This was when a tithe from a countryside parish was transferred to the institution.
Under King Christian IV another source of income arose: Ring money. Ring money was a fee paid by ships that anchored by one of the large rings attached to the mountainside near frequently used harbours. In Bergen, part of the income from these fees was given to the poor house, which also received some income from offering boxes in the churches.
The poor house burnt in the city fire in 1623 and again in 1640. The house was rebuilt time and time again, which probably was made possible through a solid financial basis. The poor house had a very good economy and many inhabitants. Towards the end of the 17th century the institution cared for 60-70 paupers, and had a financial surplus.
In 1715 a new set of rules for the poor house accentuates an interesting development: at least one quarter of the inhabitants had to be men. The great number of women living there were hardly all old sailors, which had been the institution’s main target group. The women were the sailors’ widows. In 1801, 50 women and 19 men lived in Sjøfarendes fattighus.
After the big city fire in 1702, when very nearly the whole town was turned to cinders, the poor house was rebuilt to resemble St Jørgen’s Hospital; an elongated building with a common room in the middle and small rooms for the inhabitants along the sides. Still later in 1896 the poor house was moved to Nordnes, and the old buildings were torn down. Today the institution is referred to as the Sailors’ Home for the Old, where people live in fine standards in a beautiful house, with a rich history and with the most magnificent view.
In spite of its name, even young people live in the building today. Norwegian sailors have become few in numbers in recent years…