A place unlike any other in or around Stockholm. A place that has turned its tough, even horrifying history of poverty and terrible living conditions into a romantic, desirable present. Some say the White Mountains (Vita Bergen) have got a patina that gets poets’ and artists’ hearts to clap while it gets the inhabitants to worry when the roof leaks and the wind blows through their wooden walls.
This area at the southern part of Stockholm was born as a slum during a period when only less than a quarter of the people working in the Sweden’s capital were inborn. It is said that the mountains received their name because cloth used to be bleached there on slopes and as it is the highest hill around it was shining on all sides and visible from the whole city.
Skånegatan, Stora Mejtens Gränd, Mäster Pers Gränd, Bergsprängargränd, Lilla Mejtens Gränd, Malmgårdsvägen… These are the streets, below what today is the majestic Sofia Church, where you can find a plenty of historical heritage until these days. This is in part thanks to the unsuccessful execution of the city plans from 1866 presented by Albert Lindhagen. These plans described the reconstruction of infrastructure in Södermalm.
Among other big changes, Lindhagen presented the idea to create Ringvägen, a street in a circular shape that would pass through all of Södermalm including the White Mountains. That would mean that entire streets below the Sofia Church would be torn down. Eventually, the responsible decided that the challenges presented by the mountains were too big to overcome and, as you can see in the picture below, Ringvägen ends just under the White Mountains. Thanks to this change in plans, relatively large parts of Lilla Mejtens Gränd and Stora Mejtens Gränd are still standing almost untouched.
The historic importance of the textile industry for Southern Stockholm is hopefully obvious enough from the origins of the name of the area. There were other important fields in which the locals have made their living, though. For example, many men residents of the White Mountains, perhaps even the majority, were workers in the nearby docks at the shore of the Hammarby Lake. People’s professions can give us some idea about what it was like to live in the borough in the 19th century but we know much more than what they did for living.
Who were the people of the White Mountains?
Fortunately, we have fairly accurate information about people who lived in the area, their families, professions and living conditions. And what could possibly be a better way to get to understand their lives than knowing their true stories?
Johan Andersson, a sailor, husband and father of three lived on Stora Mejtens Gränd 18. One of his three children was a foster child. It is unknown if this was a boy or a girl as the official documents do not even contain the name of the child and simply denote him or her as “foster child 4339.” This was, apparently, not an uncommon practice as around 40% of children at those times were extramarital and the number of orphans was unsurprisingly also high.
Another labourer with his seven children were living at the same address together with a working wife and a laundress. That makes it 15 people living in the same house which was considered normal in the area. Moreover, the houses usually consisted of a single room with a kitchen so the idea of privacy essentially did not exist.
According to history books, the yearly rent for an unemployed person in 1896 was 108kr. Remember that this was in the late 19th century. I was unable to find a reliable data based on which I could calculate the modern equivalent of this amount and therefore we can only guess if this was a fair price to pay for living in a single room with a dozen other people.
However, there were also places where “truly difficult subjects” could live free of charge. The house on Stora Mejtens Gränd 17 was one of these. This house was called home by three adults with a total of 10 children and a laundress who was suspected to be a prostitute.
To help themselves in their tough situations many men living in the White Mountains used to steal wood at night together with their children. At the time, wood was essential for everything from heating to fixing their poor houses. On the other hand, many women resorted to begging for money and food to support themselves and their families. To cheer themselves up and to somewhat forget about their miserable situations people used to take advantage of cheap alcohol which has eventually become just another of the problems in the area.
As always, not everyone was equally poor and desperate. Carl Hejseman lived in the house on Lilla Mejtens Gränd 7. He was a milk producer who lived with his wife and a maid. He also leased a farm and owned a horse which was an indication of his higher social status. The house on Lilla Mejtens Gränd cost him 275kr. As a merchant, he used to drive milk every morning to Blekingegatan 5 in the centre of Södermalm where other farmers and dealers would buy the milk from him which they would then often sell further.
The slow rise of the White Moutains
Things were to start changing in 1875 when Elsa Borg, a teacher and daughter of a priest from Västmanland, arrived in Stockholm. Only a year later she moved into a house from the 1600s on Skånegatan 104 (formerly Nya gatan). After her arrival, she described the place as “empty purse, empty pantry, empty woodshed and a lot of moisture.” Already in 1876, Elsa Borg founded Bibelkvinnor (‘Bible women’), an organisation focused on educating female social workers. A year later the organisation expanded to include the shelter for “Fallen sisters” which aimed to help formerly prostituting women.
The institutions run by Borg educated around 20 women per year in bible knowledge, nursing, anatomy, sewing, languages and a few other subjects. Service to the community was an integral idea behind all the activities including the weekly prayer which attracted people from the community that used to take place every Wednesday at Bibelkvinnor’s house. Apart from Bibelkvinnor, she has established multiple orphanages and nursing homes in the area during the 1880s.
Elsa Borg was arguably among the most important individuals responsible for the spiritual transformation of the White Mountains. Thanks to that she also became known as the Queen of White Mountains and deserved a bronze statue proudly standing under a magnolia tree in Vitabergsparken below the Sofia Church.
Things were changing rapidly in the 20th century for the residents of White Mountains. After the completion of the Sofia Church on the top of the mountains in 1906, the living conditions started improving. By the middle of the century, the area has essentially turned into the nostalgic place with a modernised church, plenty of green areas and charming little houses that we know today. Because of these rapid changes during the country’s prosperous times, the authorities decided to preserve the heritage of the White Mountains by establishing the White Mountains’ Cultural Reservation in 1956 which protects the historical value of this borough.
Perhaps, you have known the White Mountains as the green recreational area in Södermalm. Perhaps, you wondered why it looked so much different than anything else in Stockholm and perhaps you have never seen it before. In either case, I believe, knowing its whole story will help you discover and appreciate this unique blend of tough past times, its people’s powerful stories and contemporary care thanks to which it is being preserved.
In the next post, we are going to look at a very different part of the city. Already on Wednesday, I am going to present you the story of one of the most iconic buildings on Blasieholmen in the heart of Stockholm.
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Tjernels, Staffan, 1951. Stockholmsliv hur vi bott, arbetat och roat oss under 100 år.
Rydberg, Olle, 1984. Se på Söder.
Holmberg, Gunnar, 1981. Södermalm en vägvisare.