Hidden Belgium: The Brit who built Belgium

Hidden Belgium: The Brit who built Belgium

His statue stands in the middle of Place du Luxembourg in the heart of Brussels’ European Quarter. It shows the industrialist John Cockerill standing on a pedestal surrounded by four figures of working men.

The statue is carved with a message. Le Pere des ouvriers – ‘The father of the working man,’ it says on one side. ‘Industry,’ on another. But protestors who gather here have added their own messages. Intelligence has been crossed out. Replaced with Feminisme. Someone has added ‘Extinction Rebellion.’ Someone else has gone with, ‘Abracadabra. Witches are Back.’

Not many people know anything about the man on the pedestal, although he helped to make Belgium a 19th-century industrial giant. Born in Britain in 1790, John Cockerill moved with his family to Belgium at the age of seven. He went on to establish massive steelworks in the town of Seraing as well as a shipbuilding yard at Hoboken, near Antwerp.

The famous Lion of Waterloo was made in Cockerill’s steelworks, and the first locomotive to run in Continental Europe was manufactured in his engineering workshops. The rails on the Bridge over the River Kwai were also forged by one of Cockerill’s companies.

The Cockerill steel plants and shipbuilding yards almost all closed down in the 1980s and 1990s. Countries like China and South Korea now do most of the world’s heavy engineering. But the company John Cockerill founded is still based in Seraing.

Derek Blyth’s hidden secret of the day: Derek Blyth is the author of the bestselling “The 500 Hidden Secrets of Belgium”. He picks out one of his favourite hidden secrets for The Brussels Times every day.

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