History of Espoo

Espoo has been a city since 1972. However, the region has been inhabited already for some 8000 years. Archaeologists have discovered plenty of evidence of Stone Age settlements in Espoo, for example in Nuuksio and Perinki.

Medieval Espoo consisted of numerous villages. The locals built a stone church in about 1490. Gustav Vasa, king Gustav I of Sweden, ordered a royal demesne (a king’s manor) to be founded in Espoo in 1556. The construction of the Suomenlinna fortress from the mid-1700s onwards also brought people and businesses to Espoo. Espoo also benefited when Helsinki became the capital city of what was then the Grand Duchy of Finland. Several public officials working in the new capital city purchased manors in Espoo. As the city grew, new opportunities emerged for people and companies.

When Finland gained its independence, Espoo was still a rural parish, but its population started to increase rapidly in the late 1940s, after the war, and this trend still continues. Today, Espoo is the second-largest city in Finland.

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Prehistoric times

Medieval Espoo, a scattering of villages

The birth of the Espoo parish and the royal demesne of Espoo

Espoo of large estates during the period of Swedish rule

Espoo in the Grand Duchy of Finland

Onset of industrialisation

Espoo grows into a city

Prehistoric times

First humans settled in the area of present-day Espoo in the Stone Age some 8000 years ago. They mostly lived in Nuuksio in Northern Espoo, around the lakes Pitkäjärvi, Bodomjärvi and Loojärvi. Southern Espoo was still mostly covered by sea.

Stone-age humans often chose to live on shores and slopes facing south, as in such places rocks sheltered them from cold winds. Closeness to water made living and hunting easier. People led a nomadic lifestyle that depended on the seasons, following game animals and never staying in one place throughout the year. Important game animals included seal, bear, elk and fowl. Fishing was also important.

Only few settlements dating back to the Bronze Age (1500–500 BCE) have been discovered in Espoo, but more than 70 burial cairns (mounds of stones) from the period have been discovered. These are mostly located in Southern Espoo which was an archipelago at that time.

Iron working was introduced to Finland around 500 BCE. This gave people access to a material that was stronger and more versatile than those used before. Iron working skills made it possible to make tools from ore found in domestic bogs and lakes. In the early Iron Age, iron items were still few and far between. Around the same time, the climate grew colder and broadleaved trees gave way to spruce forests.

Only two Iron Age discoveries have been made in Espoo: a pile of rocks in Taavinkylä that for example contained two bronze neck rings, and the Frideborg hoard in Mäkkylä. The latter dates back to the Pre-Roman Iron Age or possibly the older Roman Iron Age (500 BCE–200 CE).

Medieval Espoo, a scattering of villages

Swedish settlers had arrived on the shores of the Uusimaa region by the early 13th century at the latest. It is likely that some Finns were already living in Espoo before people migrated there from Sweden. Pollen analyses indicate that people were already practising agriculture in Espoo at the end of the Viking Age in the 11th century.

The village of Espaby or Espoby – which later became the seat of a royal demesne – is probably the oldest Swedish village in Espoo. It is possible that Espoo has inherited its name from this village. The name may refer to aspens that grew on the nearby riverbank (the Swedish word for the tree is ‘äspe’).

Some 70 village communities are known to have existed in medieval Espoo. The most famous is the village of Mankby by the Mankinjoki river. Archaeological studies have revealed it to be an exceptionally well-preserved village community. Its value is increased by the systematic, methodical archaeological research conducted on the site in 2007–2013. Some 25 medieval building foundations discernible above ground, several village roads and ancient fields have been documented there

Mankyn keskiaikainen kylä

Life in Mankby in the late medieval period. Miniature. Photo: Matti Huuhka. Espoo City Museum.

The birth of the Espoo parish and the royal demesne of Espoo

Originally a chapel parish of Kirkkonummi, Espoo became an independent parish already in the 15th century. The oldest written reference to Espoo dates back to 1431.

The medieval church in Espoo was built in the late 1480s upon the local peasants’ initiative. When the church was built, the villages in what is now eastern Espoo belonged to the Helsinki parish. These villages officially joined the Espoo parish and the castle province of Raseborg by the 1670s at the latest.

In the 1600s, another church was built nearby to serve the Finnish-speaking minority in the parish. Gustav Vasa, king Gustav I of Sweden, ordered the founding of a royal demesne or a king’s manor in 1556, in the areas of the Espaby and Mankby villages. Royal demesnes were founded across Finland, which was then part of the Kingdom of Sweden. They were large estates led by bailiffs, providing local peasants with an example of efficient agriculture and animal husbandry.

The demesne in Espoo practiced farming and constructed boats. It also housed a royal horse stud-farm, a mill and a sawmill. The era of the royal demesne ended in the first half of the 1600s. Since then Espoonkartano has been in private ownership.

Espoonkartano

Espoonkartano, 1921. Photo: August Ramsay. Espoo City Museum.

Espoo of large estates during the period of Swedish rule

Starting from the 16th century, the Espoo parish slowly filled with large estates. In the late 1500s, Sweden was at war with Russia. The war and the resulting taxes and destruction impoverished farms and even caused some of them to be abandoned. Wealthy peasants merged small farms into cavalry estates to claim tax reliefs. The owner of a cavalry estate was under an obligation to equip cavalrymen to fight in the Crown’s wars.

In the first half of the1600s, the Crown gifted land to noblemen who had successfully fought in the wars that turned Sweden into an empire. In just few decades, the majority of estates in Espoo became the property of seven noble families.

The Great Northern War in the first two decades of the 1700s and the Russian occupation of Finland during the latter half of the war impoverished the people, and a share of Espoo’s gentry relocated to Sweden. A defeat in the 1740s Russo–Swedish War caused Sweden to build a sea fortress to protect the Finnish coast.

The construction of Sveaborg, or Suomenlinna in Finnish, began halfway through the 1700s. This marked the beginning of a new era in Espoo in more than one way. Officers purchased manors in Espoo, filled their summers there with celebrations and bathed in the healing springs of Muurala. The inhabitants of Muurala gained rental income from these health tourists – and also sold them homemade spirits.

The estates in Espoo employed locals in agriculture and small-scale industries. The Sveaborg construction site for example used bricks from Espoo-based brickyards. Agricultural novelties such as potato and fruits gradually spread from the estates to peasants.

The 18th century was characterised by a pursuit of profit. This was also evident in the Great Partition that was implemented in Espoo: The former open-field system where every peasant farmed narrow strips of land was abandoned in favour of every farm owning one, connected piece of land. This enabled them to try farming new kinds of crops. Close-knit village communities were replaced by farmhouses scattered around large areas.

Espoo in the Grand Duchy of Finland

In 1809, Finland became the Grand Duchy of Finland, an autonomous part of the Russian empire. In 1812, Helsinki became its capital city. Espoo’s location right next to the new capital enlivened it in many ways. Members of the Senate and the growing bourgeoisie bought manors in Espoo as summer residences.

Among the most famous new summer residents was Carl Johan Walleen, Procurator of the Senate, who acquired the Träskända manor in Espoo in 1820. In 1840, Walleen sold the manor to his step-daughter Aurora Karamzin who turned it into a glamorous summer residence that was very famous in its time.

Feodor Kiseleff, a Helsinki-based sugar manufacturer, purchased the Alberga manor for his family in the 1850s. The manor’s current main building was erected in the 1870s and still stands in Leppävaara, Espoo. The Hagalund manor was bought in 1856 by Paul Sinebrychoff, a businessman based in Helsinki. Some years later, he also bought the Otnäs manor. The current Tapiola and Otaniemi areas are located on the lands of these manors.

In the 1800s, the majority of Espoo residents made their living off agriculture. In the 19th century, the rural parish of Espoo had some 4000 inhabitants living in more than 60 small villages. The Karvasbacka village for example consisted of three independent farms. Among them, the Jorvi farm has since been replaced by the Jorvi Hospital, while the Glims farm is now the Glims Farmstead Museum.

The wealthy estates and the manors owned by the nobility and the bourgeoisie required a lot of workforce: maids, farmhands and tenant farmers who paid their rent by working for the landowner. Cattle were raised, the land was farmed, and kitchen gardens yielded vegetables. On the coast, fishing also put food on the table. Halfway through the 1800s, up to 90 per cent of Espoo residents spoke Swedish as their mother tongue. The first municipal primary school was founded in 1873, and it was a Swedish-speaking one.

Muuralan sairaala

Muurala Hospital, 1932. Espoo City Museum.

Onset of industrialisation

The agrarian community in Espoo slowly began to change as the industrial revolution gained momentum. Brickyards had been built already in the 18th century on the lands of the Espoonkartano manor. In the latter half of the 19th century, thanks to the Trade Act that guaranteed freedom of trade for everyone, factories were even easier to set up.

Many brickyards were built in the areas of Espoonlahti and Kauklahti. Espoonlahti bay provided high-quality clay, and steamboats carried bricks to the growing capital city, Helsinki.

In addition to brickyards, the Staffan island in Espoonlahti bay became the home of a highly skilled community of joiners that joiners elsewhere in Finland dubbed it “the University of Espoo”. Meanwhile, a rather large steam-powered sawmill was founded in Bastvik at the bottom of Espoonlahti bay.

The boat connections from Helsinki attracted factory owners and city dwellers looking for a summer paradise to Espoo. At first, the townspeople rented the cabins of local people for the summer. Later, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, they started buying their own plots and building summer villas on the coast and in the archipelago.

Both coastal and inland villa plots sold well. Grankulla, or Kauniainen in Finnish, became a real heart of villa life, and the shores of Espoonlahti bay were famous for their villas. Many artists and their families built villas in Ruukinranta, including Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Ville Vallgren.

A railway from Helsinki to Turku was opened in 1903. People started to settle down and set up industrial plants along the railway, particularly in Kauklahti, Leppävaara, Kilo and Kauniainen.

World War I did not heavily affect the Grand Duchy of Finland, but Emperor Nicholas II of Russia feared that Germany would attack St. Petersburg through Finland. A massive construction project was begun to protect Helsinki with an unbroken line of land fortifications.

A chain of trenches ran from Westend in Espoo to Vartiokylä in Helsinki. As the immense project required a lot of workforce, a camp of thousands of Russian soldiers and prisoners of war emerged on the fields of Leppävaara. The 1917 Russian Revolution interrupted the construction and the fortifications were left unused.

Espoon asema

Espoo station in about 1907. Espoo City Museum.

Espoo grows into a city

When Finland became independent, Espoo was a rather small rural parish. Hardly anyone moved to Espoo in the 1920s. The densely populated Grankulla community in Espoo became an independent market town in 1920. When the economy started to pick up again after the Great Depression of the 1930s and the number of jobs increased in Helsinki, more people started to migrate to Espoo.

In the 1920s and 1930s, agriculture was still the most important livelihood, but Espoo also had some small-scale industry. In the 1920s, a glass factory was founded in Kauklahti. Its operations continued until 1952. Its main products were decorative, domestic and pharmaceutical glass.

The Lindholm sawmill was located on the plot of the current Espoontori shopping centre. Leppävaara had a flag factory and quarries. Many companies were located along the railway, as the Jorvaksentie road that precedes the current Länsiväylä motorway was only completed in 1937.

The population began to grow rapidly in the late 1940s after the war. Large numbers of people migrated to Espoo. Some of them were internally displaced persons from Karelia and Porkkala which Finland leased to the Soviet Union. Population growth changed the percentages of speakers of different languages. In 1950, Finnish became the majority language. Espoo had 25,000 inhabitants at that time.

Many people were moving to Espoo, and the construction of homes picked up speed. Inspired by international examples, the construction of the Tapiola garden city began in 1953, led by Heikki von Hertzen. Tapiola provided new solutions to the prevailing housing shortage: many dreamed of living in a garden city in close vicinity of services.

The Otaniemi campus emerged next to Tapiola. In 1963, Espoo had 65,000 inhabitants and became a market city. In 1972, Espoo became a city. The districts of Suvela, Olari, Matinkylä and Kivenlahti were built in the 1970s. The first office tower in Keilaniemi, the headquarters of Neste Oy, was completed in 1976.

Traffic routes have been an essential part of neighbourhood construction projects as Espoo has grown. Finland’s very first motorway called Tarvontie or Turunväylä through Espoo was completed in 1962. The Kehä I ring route was built in the 1960s, and traffic on Kehä II began in 2000. The construction of the West Metro from Helsinki to Southern Espoo began in 2010.

New buildings are still being actively built across Espoo, and many older ones have found a new purpose as cultural venues. A great example is the former Weilin&Göös printing house in Tapiola, built in the 1960s. It currently houses the Exhibition Centre WeeGee, a unique venue in Finland. Its numerous museums offer cultural experiences for Espoo residents and visitors alike.

Soukan ostoskeskus

Soukka shopping centre, 1972. Photo: Jussi Kautto. Espoo City Museum.