The Firelands

Mark Hobbs charts the immense industrial legacy of August Borsig


August Borsig was one of six children born to a carpenter in Breslau, now Wrocław, in Poland. He arrived in Berlin in 1823, at the age of 19, with an aspiration to study engineering; after completing a two-year apprenticeship at Prussia’s Royal Institute of Industry, he spent the next ten years working at a foundry owned by the engineer Franz Anton Egells. During those years, Borsig saved what money he could with an ambition to one day open his own engineering works. 

That day came in 1837 when he purchased 19,000 square metres of Berlin’s barren, sandy soil, right outside the city’s Oranienburg Gate, on the corner of Chausseestraße and Torstraße. In the 1830s, this area lay beyond the city proper. It was a sparsely inhabited no-man’s-land of cemeteries, fields, allotments, cottages and fledgling industry. But as the site of Borsig’s first factory, this now-busy street intersection has known noise and dirt for nearly two centuries and has as good a claim as any other street corner in Germany to be the birthplace of the country’s industrial revolution. 

Fields and meadows beyond the Oranienburger Tor: extract of Neuester Grundriss von Berlin (Berlin: D G Reymann, 1810). Source: Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin.

In the modest foundry that he built on the site, Borsig employed fifty workers. The foundry’s first successful castings were made in July 1837 but it took another three years for Borsig’s—and Germany’s—first steam locomotive to be constructed there. While Borsig established his engineering works, just a bolt’s lob away outside the city’s Potsdamer Tor, the Berlin-Potsdam Railway Company built Berlin’s first railway station. 

On 22 September 1838, the Berlin-Potsdam railway line was opened. Further lines leading out of Berlin quickly followed, connecting Berlin to cities such as Anhalt (1838), Stettin (1840) and Frankfurt (1841). The growth of the railway network transformed Berlin from a provincial city tucked away amid the sparsely inhabited agricultural plains of Prussia, into one of the most important transport hubs in Central Europe. 

Borsigs Eisengießerei und Maschinenbau-Anstalt vor dem Oranienburger Tor, Lithographie, 1862

Up until Borsig built his first locomotive, Germany’s new railway companies purchased their locomotives from the undisputed leader of steam locomotive technology, Robert Stephenson, in England. The Berlin-Anhalt Railway Company was the first to put its faith in Borsig’s machines, running his first locomotive ‘Borsig 1’ from Berlin’s Anhalter Station to Jüterborg, fifty miles away.

Confident in the capabilities of his creation and no doubt keen for a bit of publicity, Borsig arranged for a race to be publicly staged along the Berlin to Jüterborg route, between the ‘Borsig 1’ and an engine built by Stephenson, already in use on the line. The inquisitive crowd that gathered around the Anhalter station on 21 July 1841 witnessed Borsig’s engine pull up at the station a full ten minutes ahead of its English counterpart, vindicating Borsig’s hard work and leading to new orders flowing in from Berlin’s other railway companies. The future of August Borsig’s locomotive empire was ensured.

Borsig’s iron foundry and locomotive factory at the Orangienburger Tor, Berlin. Via Wikisource: Die Gartenlaube (1867), p.780. 

Borsig’s factory expanded rapidly to the extent that, by 1847, the site accommodated 3,000 labourers. Other factories and foundries grow up in and around Chausseestraße and the Oranienburger Tor so that by the latter half of the nineteenth century it yielded a vision that William Blake would have recognised: factory upon factory crammed with thousands of toiling labourers tending burning furnaces, all crowded under the shadows of a forest of smokestacks. 

The landscape acquired the sobriquet ‘the firelands’ and became something of a feature in nineteenth-century guidebooks to the city. An excursion for those bolder visitors who dared venture beyond the Oranienburger Tor, it promised an unparalleled assault on the senses. The writer Robert Springer wrote in 1861 of the pharaohs of industry who, with their innumerable obelisks, impregnate the air with coal smoke. “Here one smells soot and iron everywhere,” reported Springer, “and hears the pounding of the machines and the crack of the blacksmith’s hammers.”

Henry Vizetelly reported in 1879 that: “The din of hammers and the thunder of machinery in motion is heard throughout the day, chimneys belch forth incessant clouds of black smoke and the fire of huge furnaces renders the temperature quite torrid. In one direction molten iron is being cast into a multitude of forms, in another copper and zinc are being mixed to make brass, whilst elsewhere planing, drilling, and slotting machines are cutting and slicing metal as if it were wood. Burly fellows with bare arms and beards recalling those of Barbarossa, many of them wearing on their heads Landwehr caps, abound on every side, there being, on an average, no less than two thousand hands employed.”

Borsig’s rise was relentless. He quickly established a reputation as Germany’s most successful engineer. In 1841, Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV commissioned Borsig to install a steam-powered pumping station at the Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, to power the fountains and water features in the palace’s ornamental grounds. The new pumping station enabled the main fountain to propel a plume of water thirty-eight metres into the air and made the engineer the talk of Berlin’s aristocratic society. 

And it was not just locomotives that Borsig was building. It was Berlin itself, with the company constructing the iron frames that held up many of Berlin’s newest and most impressive buildings and structures. These included the dome crowning the royal palace (1840), the dome of the Nikolaikirche in Potsdam (1843-1850), the needle-like tower of the neo-Gothic Petrikirche, which stood 111-metres high (1847), and the vaulted roofs of the Hamburg Station (1846-1847), Berliner Börse (1859-1863) and the Zeughaus (now the Deutsches Historisches Museum, 1875). To cope with the demand for iron required for these building projects, Borsig opened two further factories a short distance away from the Chausseestraße works, in Moabit on the banks of the Spree.

Waldemar Titzenthaler, Grünstraßenbrücke over the Spree canal, Grünstraße and the Petrikirche, 1903. Source: Wikipedia.

As the locomotive orders, construction plans and royal commissions rolled in, so did the money. With his newfound wealth, August Borsig built himself a new home which was, according to his contemporaries, one of the grandest in Berlin. So grand in fact, that it raised exclamations of envy from the aristocracy themselves. Borsig’s home was designed by the architect Heinrich Strack in the style of a palatial Renaissance villa and sat overlooking the Spree in Moabit, directly next door to his own factory workshop. Peter Joseph Lenné, director of the Royal Prussian Gardens, designed the villa’s gardens. These consisted of colonnades, terraces lined with potted trees, and ponds spouting water fountains, all of which led down to the banks of the river.

Friedrich Albert Schwartz, Borsig Villa Berlin, before 1867. Source: Wikipedia.

Borsig’s fellow nouveau riche probably wondered why the engineer chose to build such an ostentatious home in Moabit, alongside his factory, when he ought to have set himself up in Friedrichstadt amongst Berlin’s nobility. But Borsig was not of blue blood and had no distinguished military record. He was a parvenu—an upstart amongst an established aristocracy—and no matter how much money he had in the bank, no matter how impressive a house he could build himself, he remained an outsider.

But there were also distinctly practical reasons for Borsig locating his villa where he did. The engineer had an avid interest in horticulture and botan, and built himself a series of hothouses and a winter garden in grounds surrounding the villa, all of which were heated by steam piped in from the factory next door. Moreover, the two ornamental ponds in the gardens were fed by warm water from the factory, which allowed them to be planted with exotic tropical plants that could not otherwise have survived in such a cool Central European climate.

Borsig’s ironworks in Moabit, with the Villa Borsig in the foreground. Source: Die Gartenlaube. 1867, pp556-7.

In Borsig’s hothouses, one could find, amongst other specimens, rare Colombian tree ferns, brightly coloured carnivorous Nepenthes pitcher plants, and Encephalartos trees, with their phallus-like cones. The immense, saucer-like leaves of Victoria amazonica water lilies dominated the tropical pools in the winter garden, amongst which grew water-loving Nelumbo lutea and Limnocharis flava with their delicate leaves and pale yellow and white flowers.

At the pool’s edges sprouted Cyperus papyrus reeds, whose shock of bright green leaves, emanating from the top of thick straight stalks, were reminiscent of the fiery orange sparks created when molten metal is poured from the cup into the mould. Much more than the idle vanities of a wealthy man, Borsig’s botanical collections, and in particular his warm water pools, were famed across Europe and received frequent visits from preeminent naturalists from across the continent. The engineer also regularly opened his doors to the public, allowing ordinary Berliners to witness his collection of otherworldly plants.

If Borsig had the respect of Berlin’s middle classes through his business acumen and cultural interests, then he also appears to have had the respect of the labourers who worked for him. Determined to improve conditions for his workers, Borsig installed refectories and baths at his factory sites and provided his workers with sickness and funeral funds. On the evening before the inaugural run of the Borsig One locomotive on the Anhalter line, with his employees facing the prospect of having to work long into the early hours to ensure that things ran to plan the following morning, the engineer insisted on staying on the whole night through and took responsibility for making sure that the workers had enough food and drink to keep them going.

By 1858, the company was celebrating the completion of their thousandth locomotive at the Chausseestraße works. A procession was organised along Chausseestraße on 21 August 1858. The German writer Max Ring witnessed the day-long celebrations firsthand. In Die Gartenlaube he wrote of the thousands of inhabitants of the industrial neighbourhood of Moabit (most of whom were dependent on Borsig for their livelihood) that attended the celebrations in a large hall, specially decorated for the occasion, and in which lowly workers rubbed shoulders with government ministers and invited dignitaries.

At the rear of the hall stood portraits of Borsig and the Prussian minister Christian Peter Wilhelm Beuth—an early supporter of Borsig’s career. Workers suspended colourful bunting and flags between the trees along Chausseestraße and as the sun began to set they lit paper lanterns and hung them from the branches. In the fading daylight, the dim incandescence of the street’s gaslights combined with the glow of the paper lanterns, illuminating the carnival procession that now proceeded down the street. At the head of the parade sat Neptune the water god, trident in his hand, closely followed by Vulcan, god of fire, sat on a rock and surrounded by workers mining ore from the earth.

The procession celebrating Borsig’s 1000th locomotive. Source: Via Wikisource: Die Gartenlaube (1858), p.541 

Sadly, August Borsig did not live to see his thousandth locomotive roll out of the factory at Chausseestraße, nor enjoy the grandeur of his villa and gardens for very long. Shortly after having completed his Moabit villa, the engineer died at fifty-years-old of a cerebral haemorrhage. He was buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery, a stone’s throw away from the site of his first factory. Borsig’s son, Albert, took charge of the Borsig empire, which continued to flourish and contribute significantly to Berlin’s infrastructure in the decades that followed.

The gardens of the Borsig villa remained open to the public until 1911. The area in Moabit where Borsig’s sprawling ironworks, villa and gardens once stood, is now filled with a neighbourhood of pre-war tenement blocks known as the Westphalian Quarter, its streets named after the region’s post-industrial towns and cities: Essen, Dortmund, Bochum, Krefeld, Eberfeld. 

Borsig’s factory in Chausseestraße closed down in the 1890s and relocated to Tegel, in the north of Berlin. The firm did retain a presence on Chausseestraße though, in the form of administrative offices housed behind a sandstone neo-Renaissance façade, at Chausseestraße 13. This building survives, directly opposite Borsig’s final resting place. At the time of writing it houses an upmarket office furniture store. Above the store’s main entrance stands a bronze figure of Borsig himself. Hammer in hand and with a heavy brow, he glares down upon the heads of passersby.

How many of them ever gaze up to meet the engineer’s glare? And how many of them know of this man’s profound contribution to Berlin?

Sculpture of August Borsig, Chausseestraße 13, Berlin. Photo by Angela Monika Arnold, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Borsig’s Berlin

  • Borsighaus, Chausseestraße 13 – former Borsig office building, built 1890s (U-Bahn: U6, Oranienburger Tor)
  • Dorotheenstadt cemetery – Borsig’s grave, designed by Heinrich Strack, with bust of the engineer by Christian Daniel Rauch (U-Bahn: U6, Oranienburger Tor)
  • Borsig Tor and Borsigturm – entrance gate and art deco tower in the former Borsig works in Tegel (U-Bahn: U6, Borsigwerke)

Sources & Further Reading

  • Georg Kohlmaier and Barna von Sartory, Das Glashaus : ein Bautypus des 19.Jahrhunderts (Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1981).
  • Borsig Lokomotiv-Werken GmbH (ed.) 100 Jahre Borsig Lokomotiven 1837–1937. (Berlin: VDI-Verlag, 1937)
  • Rheinmetall-Borsig AG (ed.) Deutscher Maschinenbau 1837—1937 : Im Spiegel des Werkes Borsig. (Berlin, 1937)
  • Max Ring. “Das Fest Der Tausendsten Lokomotiv.” Die Gartenlaube (1858): 541–43.
  • Robert Springer, Ein Führer durch die Stadt Berlin und ihre Umgebungen (Leipzig: J. J. Weber, 1861)
  • Henry Vizetelly, Berlin under the New Empire, Vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
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