A summary by John Peter Collett


The founder of the Collett dynasty in Christiania, James Collett (1655-1727), treated by Ola Teige in the present volume, came to Norway in the 1670s to act as a local factor or agent for English merchants importing lumber to Britain.  This was a function which in those years was on its way out as Norwegian exporters gradually gained control of the trade.  James Collett himself followed this pattern.  He became one of the major Norwegian exporters, settling in Christiania and marrying Karen Leuch (1666-1745), the daughter of the wealthy Christiania merchant Peder Pedersen Leuch.


James Collett died a very rich man in 1727.  During the following years both the timber trade and the town of Christiania faced a long recession.  The years after 1740, however, saw a renewed upswing in the timber trade that provided an opportunity for passing from the rich to the super-rich.  Peter Collett, James Collett’s son and successor, died in 1740 and his widow in 1748, leaving the most important estate ever recorded in Christiania’s probate court.  The Colletts were solidly established as members of the exclusive patriciate of which they would remain a leading family for the next eighty years.


Ståle Dyrvik demonstrates how a careful family planning policy was instrumental in the maintenance of wealth and status.  The timber trade was in itself highly capital intensive.  Timber had to be bought and floated downriver to sawmills where it was cut and then transported to Christiania and other ports for storage until it could be shipped overseas.  This process could take up to two years.  Even more important was the possession of privileged sawmills as a key factor in the control of the trade.  Once acquired, capital accumulation was threatened by dispersion through the division among heirs.  How was capital to be kept in the family in order to allow business to be maintained not only on a given level, but also to increase the scale of the trade?


The second Collett generation presented an innovation: the partnership.  Together with his cousin Peder Leuch (1692-1746), Peter Collett (1694-1740) formed the merchant house Collett & Leuch which was to continue for one hundred years.  The partnership aimed at overcoming the problem of passing on to the next generation.  The death of one of the partners would not necessarily lead to the breaking up of his trade activities and the dispersion of his fortune among numerous heirs.  The partnership would serve as a mechanism for transferring key assets from one generation to the next, leaving the family firm intact.


The second line of defence against the dispersion of capital was that of carefully planned marriages. Peter Collett, James Collett’s son, married his first-cousin.  His son, James Collett the younger (1728-1794), also married his first-cousin.  Both sons of this marriage, Peter Collett (1757-1792) and John Collett (1758-1810), married their first cousins, thus becoming brothers-in-law as well as brothers.  Finally, Otto Collett (1784-1833), the last head of the Collett merchant house, married the daughter of his first-cousin.  Being appointed the successor to his father’s trade meant that a young man’s choice of wife was indeed limited.  Family business was more important than the inclinations of the heart.


Christiania gossip told the story of how James Collett the younger, having remained for many years a widower, fell in love with Mette Dampe, a woman 22 years his junior, and wanted to marry her.  His sons protested vehemently, and their father gave way.  The prospect of additional children as prospective co-heirs, or that of a young widowed stepmother eventually taking her portion of the family fortune with her into a new marriage, was a threat to the family business that the sons did their best to prevent.  Gossip further told of how the brothers allowed their father to present his lady friend with a town-house – suitably neighbouring the Collett house – and generous economic support.  This is undoubtedly an exaggeration.  Miss Dampe lived in a house across the street from the Colletts that she had inherited from her father.  However, it does seem as if the lady accepted the rules of the game and returned the generosity.  On her death, and still unmarried in 1810, she left her fortune to James Collett’s son, John Collett.


Daughters who were not married off to their cousins in order to keep the family fortune intact, could be assigned other roles, such as those of gaining and maintaining social status through alliances with other elite groups.


How far did the family fortune take the Colletts in the social hierarchy of Denmark and Norway in the eighteenth century?  Collett money did not assure their entrance into the nobility.  Those sons-in-law who were not themselves engaged in trade were mostly Danish-born officials on an intermediate level – dignitaries either in Christiania or in the government departments in Copenhagen.  The lure of the Danish capital was particularly felt by the third generation.  Two of Peter Collett’s four sons, Johan and Peder, used their portions of the family fortune to acquire large estates in Denmark, thus aspiring to the rank of landed gentlemen in the home country of the Oldenburg monarchy.  Their cousins, the grandsons of James Collett by his daughters, at this same time aspired to high, though still non-noble, ranks as state officials.  The Danish branch of the Colletts appeared to be part of the ascending elite of wealthy merchant families, state officials and nobles (many of whom were of German descent) that came to power in Copenhagen during the three last decades of the century.  The tides of fortune changed, however.  Johan Collett (1734-1806) lost his fortune and his estate, and his sons went into the civil service.  His eldest son, Peter Collett (1767-1823), became a radical critic of the Danish absolute monarchy and was removed from his post, while his brothers returned to their father’s native country of Norway.  One of them, Jonas Collett (1772-1851), became a member of the first government formed in Norway after the break-up of the union with Denmark in 1814, and remained in cabinet for 22 years under the kings of Sweden and Norway.  In this way he succeeded in forging a career at the top level, something that would probably have been denied him under the Danish monarchy.


Conradine Dunker: Gamle Dage, Kristiania 1909, p, 378;

Alf Collett: Familien Collett og Christianialiv i gamle dage, Kristiania 1915, p. 111.


The book was published in May 2008 with the first 200 pages in Norwegian and the last 40 pages in English.