Walking along the road from Berlin to Hobrechtsfelde, if you look to the left as you enter the village, you will see a stone set into the wall to commemorate one James Hobrecht, the father of German sewage treatment. Whereupon you may ask, as I did:

  1. Was the man named after the village, or the village after the man?
  2. What is an eminent dead German doing with my English first name?
  3. What was his exact rôle in the development of German sewage treatment systems?

Read on, and all your questions will be answered…

James Friedrich Ludolf Hobrecht was born on New Year's Eve of 1825 in the Prussian city of Memel, which due to the vagaries of history is now the city of Klaipėda in Lithuania. His father was a landowner and his mother's maiden name was Johnson. In 1834 the family moved to Königsberg, whose site is now occupied by the Russian city of Kaliningrad, due to the aforementioned vagaries.

Hobrecht's education was a long affair. He dropped out of school in 1841 and learned surveying, finishing his basic training in 1845. After working for the Coeln-Mindener Railway for a while he continued his education in Berlin, first in further training as a surveyor and then studying various subjects at the Berliner Bauakademie, a school of building and engineering. In 1848 he was actively involved in the March Revolution and in 1849 he graduated as a building supervisor. This graduation signalled a break in his education but was by no means its end. He joined the Berlin Architectural Association, presumably unaware that he would one day serve many years as its Chairman.

Military service in Hesse in 1850 was followed from 1851 by involvement in various building projects, and in 1852 he briefly managed a country estate. In 1853 he married Henriette Wolff, with whom he had three sons and four daughters, although not all at once.

Further study in agricultural and construction engineering led to his qualification in 1858 as a Master of Waterway, Roadway and Railway Engineering. He was more or less immediately hired by the Royal Building Police, and in 1859 was appointed head of a Commission to draw up a plan for the road network in and around Berlin, which had to be adapted to cope with the rapid growth of the city as a result of industrialisation. Although the Hobrecht Plan only directly addressed the road network, it set aside areas for industrial activity and railway stations and delineated the city blocks on which residential accomodation was later to be built. It thus performed many of the functions of a zoning or structure plan. It also had to allow for possible future improvements in drainage, so Hobrecht went on fact-finding trips to Hamburg, Paris, London and one or two other English cities to get to know the latest developments in drains and sewage.

The Commission's plan, usually known as the Hobrecht Plan, was implemented from 1862 onwards and had a lasting and generally positive effect on the development of Berlin. (Although it was sometimes blamed for the excessive density of later construction in some parts of the city, this was more due to real-estate speculation and overly tolerant building regulations.) In December 1861, in recognition of his services, Hobrecht was fired.

Hobrecht moved north-east to Stettin (now the city of Szczecin in Poland), where he kept himself busy with various projects, including installing mains drinking water supply and planning a sewage system, construction of which started in 1870. The success of his work in Stettin gained him a solid reputation in the sewage disposal community and in 1869 he was called back to Berlin, which was in urgent need of a sewage system. This career move was assisted not only by his reputation but also by his association with the eminent doctor and hygienist Rudolf Virchow, and by the support of his older brother, Arthur Johnson Hobrecht, who became Mayor of Berlin in 1872.

Construction of Hobrecht's system of sewers and sewage farms began in 1873 and continued until 1893. When it was complete Berlin had the most modern system of drainage and was the cleanest city in the world. The epidemics that had plagued the city became a thing of the past. Hobrecht's system divided the city radially into twelve independent drainage districts. Waste water was channelled through brickwork sewers to pump houses, from which it was sent through pressurised pipes to sewage farms outside the city. There it was fed into large fields surrounded by dykes and left to seep into the ground. In the process it was filtered by the sandy soil while sessile bacteria broke down the organic contaminants. The system was designed to cope with the expected growth of the city, as was impressively demonstrated after the city more than tripled its area by swallowing outlying towns and villages in 1920: the connection of the new districts to the system was completely unproblematic. The sewage farms continued to work until the 1980s, when increases in chemical and heavy-metal contamination in the waste water led to their replacement by modern processing plants.

One side-effect of the construction of the sewage system was that the city of Berlin became one of the biggest landowners in Brandenburg. In 1902 its holdings of farm land covered more than twice the area of the city itself. Among those holdings was an estate to the north of the village of Buch which in 1908 was renamed Hobrechtsfelde.

Hobrecht went on to assist Moscow, Tokyo, Cairo, Potsdam and some thirty other German towns with their sewage systems. But his life after 1872 did not revolve entirely around sewage. From 1872 to 1874 he was a lecturer at the Bauakademie. From 1885 until 1897 he was City Construction Councillor (Stadtbaurat) of the city of Berlin, with responsibility for road and bridge construction. In that function he had the banks of the river Spree reinforced to make it navigable through the centre of Berlin. Partly as a result of this it is now possible to take boat trips around the city, in the course of which you may well see one of the old sewage pump houses, on one of which (Pumpstation 3) there is a commemorative plaque dedicated to James Hobrecht. If your route takes you along the Landwehrkanal you may pass under the Hobrechtsbrücke, while if you get on the wrong bus after leaving the boat you may end up on Hobrechtstrasse.

In 1897 Hobrecht retired for health reasons. In the same year he was made honorary Elder of the City. His grave is in Berlin-Mitte, in the cemetery Sophien-Friedhof, Bergstrasse 29.

So that answers all of my questions, except for the one about what he was doing with my name. I have no proof, but I suspect his mother: 'Johnson' doesn't sound very German to me.

sources: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hobrecht; http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobrecht-Plan; http://www.diegeschichteberlins.de/geschichteberlins/persoenlichkeiten/persoenlichkeitenhn/hobrecht.html; Political Science Quarterly

Update late 2007: the memorial no longer refers to his sewage-treatment achievements. The colours of the world are fading around us…

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