The Consul 

Ditlev Thomsen (1867-1935) was a third generation merchant and entrepreneur in Reykjavík, a prominent figure in Reykjavík’s society and a driving force in the young town’s transformation into a modern city. Ditlev served as the German consul in Reykjavík from 1896 to 1915.


Following the death of his father in 1899, Ditlev Thomsen took the reins of the family enterprise and so began the most flourishing chapter in the history of Thomsen’s Department Stores. The firm grew rapidly; several buildings on the downtown premises were added to its already impressive collection, accommodating the increasing number of specialized departments as well as factories and workshops producing consumer goods and supplies. Thomsen’s Magasin – so named after the grand store in Copenhagen – and its proprietor, held a pivotal position in the town’s trade and indeed various foreign relations at the turn of the century during a time of growth in Reykjavík.


The Cosmopolitan

A true and precocious cosmopolitan from a young age, Ditlev Thomsen was born in Reykjavík in 1867 but moved with his parents to Copenhagen at the age of four, where he grew up and attended school before returning to Iceland at the age of 18 to become store manager under his father. His inherent interest in both commerce and language studies drew him across the European continent, Great Britain, and Scandinavia where he traveled and studied the different cultures, customs, and market characteristics. Financed with a parliamentary grant, his trip to Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, and England in 1893 aimed to study markets for Icelandic products. His personal travel experiences may also have sparked his unfaltering enthusiasm for making Iceland an international travel destination.


Ditlev’s influence on Reykjavík’s social scene was substantial. He was known as a generous host of social events. He was active and in some instances a founding member of various societies, clubs and professional associations. He sat on the board of directors of a favored weekly magazine, collected art and sponsored artists, helped found the country’s first commercial college and imported a countless number of trees planted in the then nearly barren capital.

The Consul

On the 24th of July 1896, Ditlev Thomsen was appointed the German imperial consul in Reykjavík. On account of the annexation of Schleswig-Holstein in 1864, German authorities regarded his ancestry in Schleswig effectively German and although Danish was his first language, he spoke German fluently having lived and studied in Hamburg. Ditlev’s energetic and sociable disposition along with his local and international connections made him the perfect representative for Germany in Iceland.


The role of the consul was to watch over German interests and assist German citizens when in Iceland, as well as to strengthen commercial and cultural relations between the two nations. The numerous Prussian medals and decorations he was awarded bear witness to his devotion and success in his duties as consul. On the occasions of German battleships arriving in Reykjavík, Consul Thomsen donned a special consul’s uniform, and the German consulate flag was flown over his residence at Hafnarstræti 20.


In addition to entertaining royalty, assisting merchants and travelers and representing Germany at official events, Ditlev’s efforts in aiding foreign citizens of all nationalities went in many instances well beyond the call of duty. At the time, German fishing vessels – as well as the English, French, and Spanish – frequented the generous fishing grounds off Iceland. Inevitably, some of the vessels shipwrecked on the perilous South Coast, which is uninhabited for miles on end. The tragic incident in the winter of 1903 when the German trawler Friedrick Albert stranded had a lasting effect on Consul Thomsen. Although the crew made it ashore, half of them died, and others had to be amputated due to frostbite as it took 11 days for help to arrive. Thomsen reacted by having a shelter built on the vast sands and stocked with supplies, financing the whole project out of his pocket. The shelter proved a lifesaver for many castaways over the following years.

The Travel Industrialist

A part of Ditlev Thomsen’s ambitious plans revolved around introducing Iceland to the growing class of Europeans willing and financially able to travel the world for recreation. He was a founding member and chairman of „Ferðamannafélagið,” a society dedicated to encouraging and facilitating tourism in Iceland, and assisted in building a hotel at Thingvellir. The society was short-lived, and after its discontinuation, Ditlev Thomsen focused on his tourist bureau associated with the department store. There he managed day-tours and equipment for tourists such as motorboats, horse carriages and sleds, horse rental, tent and sailboats. In 1904, he imported and rented out the first automobile ever to be seen in Iceland.


Both as a consul and entrepreneur, Ditlev Thomsen helped organize arrivals of German cruise-liners to Reykjavík, and his tourist bureau arranged and offered entertainment, day-tours and more extended travels for the passengers. Most of them made do with short sightseeing around town, but the more adventurous went all the way to Thingvellir or Geysir on horseback, some staying there in a small hotel Thomsen had built. Cruise-liners docked in the harbor or anchored on the bay dramatically changed the atmosphere in this town of 10.000 inhabitants. As hundreds of curious travelers flooded the town center’s streets, equally curious locals flocked to observe them and marvel at the magnificent ships they arrived on, watching from the sidewalks along Thomsen Magasin as foreign guests embarked leisurely on their excursions amid a dizzying turmoil of horses, carriages, laughing tourists and shouting guides. 

Family, Women and the Workplace

In 1898, Ditlev Thomsen married Ágústa Hallgrímsdóttir. Ágústa was the daughter of Hallgrímur Sveinsson, the Bishop of Iceland, and so their marriage joined together two pillars of society in the capital. The turn of events during the First World War and an increasing Anglo-Saxon influence in Iceland forced them to move to Copenhagen where their two sons, Hallgrímur August and Knud Kjartan, grew up as Danes. Over the following decades, the family maintained a secure connection with their family in Iceland.


However, the final years of the Thomsen dynasty in Iceland coincided with a wave of change for women in Icelandic society. The right to vote and run for office, the introduction of laws guaranteeing women the right to acquire university degrees and financial independence through new job opportunities seemed to indicate permanent progress for women. And during that period the Thomsen enterprises played a significant role in offering a large number of women a wide variety of employment as workers, skilled professionals and department managers alike.

The Modern Day Thomsens

Having lived their whole life in Denmark, the grandchildren of Ditlev and Ágústa, siblings Steen, Björn and Ninna, have nonetheless proudly upheld their remarkable family history. Through dedicated research and preservation, they have reunited their Icelandic ties and the heritage that had such a profound influence on Icelandic society and the transformation of Reykjavík from an isolated village to a cosmopolitan town. Reykjavik Konsulat Hotel wishes to thank the Thomsen family for their invaluable contribution and collaboration in restoring the grand spirit of their ancestors’ enterprises at this very place in the heart of Reykjavík.