ARSENALS IN WEST COAST PORT CITIES
The remnants of a “new town” and its historical significance:
Rochefort is a specially noteworthy example, underscoring by its very presence the need to produce workers’ accommodation when establishing major new works of modern, “industrial” dimensions. The town is in fact a “new town,” founded on royal orders, apparently in order to house the work force of the new “arsenal.”(3) Is it therefore a true “factory town” of the military-industrial complex? So to speak, a forerunner, comparable in this to Los Alamos NM or to ”secret” Siberian towns not even mapped on ordinary maps, in the 20th century?
According to one source, up to 5,000 workers toiled in
the shipyards and related ateliers of this royal navy arsenal during the
ancien régime. The need to provide accommodation for them must have
been overwhelming. (4)
The selection of the site:
Today, the town of Rochefort covers most of the terrains
bordered by the U-shaped course of the
The site of the future town, to be founded on the initiative
of Colbert as a an appendix of the newly envisaged navy yards and ateliers
(the 'arsenal'), was a place almost laid waste 40 years ago when the 'old
château' had been razed, very probably in the context of armed intervention
against the Fronde rebellion. Does this explain why expropriation
for the arsenal and the new town was so much easier than in bourgeois Le
area selected and its seigneuries in the 17th and 18thC
The beginnings of Rochefort date back to 1666.
The selection of the Rochefort site as a naval base was undoubtedly influenced by the relative protection against Atlantic storms offered by the Ile d’Oléron. In this regard, it was clearly more favorably situated then the already existing port city of La Rochelle, a little further North.(6) Another, perhaps even more important reason is that Rochefort was situated a little upstream, on the banks of the Charente river; attainable by the sea going vessels of the period but at the same time well protected, strategically, as the mouth of the river was “easily defendable thanks to the isles” which left only narrow and controllable shipping channels.(7)
What the planners or the new town of Rochefort find in
place at the time, is above all a château (razed already,
as we noted), a near-by 'quai' (probably no more than a suitable
place at the riverside, used to ship agricultural commodities from nearby
villages), and a few surrounding hamlets. A few tracks across the
field, lines of communication in bad condition, provided access to the
site. «Finally, towards the north [of the site of the
future town], there was a vast forest which extended up to the banks of
the [Charente] river. In short, a small seigneurie “which it would be easy
to expropriate in order to create the large arsenal desired by Louis XIV”[…].»(8)
The expropriated site
Site of the arsenal (plan of 1666),
The arsenal as an ensemble of production facilities:
When the construction of the naval base and its town was
begun in 1666, it was the Corderie royale the completion of which
was seen as the first and foremost task.
Site of the planned Corderie royale (begun in 1666), as
shown on the plan of 1666
The Corderie royale (the elongated building to the left)
on an undated plan (17th C)
View of the Corderie royale
The reconstructed Corderie royale (**)
Another view of the
Other arsenal buildings, making up the 'arsenal proper,' soon followed suit. Surrounded by a canal or ditch, they too were situated by the river, but quite a bit South of the Corderie.
In the period from 1666 to 1672 the main buildings of
the arsenal (lined up, as the were, along the banks of the Charente river)
The arsenal (indicated by the dotted line) as shown on the plan
of 1672; the blocks next to the
The arsenal in 1688 : entry from the town was possible via
the main street leading up to a bridge
The site of the arsenal (excerpt from a 17th C plan )
The ateliers of the arsenal
16 years later, the commander of the French Atlantic Fleet (called intendant of the Ponant, as against Levant fleet), described the Rochefort arsenal as
“the largest, the most complete and the most impressive in the Kingdom: it has the best shipbuilding yard in the world, three large docks for careening ships, all the general and special warehousing required, rope works, forges, and other workshops. It has one of the best armouries in the kingdom. […] There are three powder magazines for storing the gunpowder from the factory in Saint-Jean-d’Angély which makes gunpowder only for Rochefort.” (9)
We have already seen that the first and most impressive building (both in terms of beauty and size) of the arsenal was the royal roperie (Corderie royale). It was not only produced by an astonishing number of workers (3,000 workers, set to work simultaneously to erect the colossal building); upon completion, it must also have employed a considerable number of rope-makers, in all likelihood a majority of women and children. Perhaps these employees of the ropeworks were in part coming to work from nearby hamlets, and in part they may have been the wives and children of workers employed at the arsenal proper (further South).
There, a host of naval yard workers (shipwrights or carpenters; Schiffszimmerleute), of blacksmiths and other iron workers, of coopers (tonneliers; Böttcher) etc. must be expected.
As long as they were not hailing from the hamlets nearby, all of these people, whether single or married, had to be housed. And at least in part of them, as we shall see – were initially living in huts and later on 'houses' ('maisons') that had sprung up next to the arsenal. Quite close to it, it seems. But exactly where?
We don’t see any separate and distinct workers' dwellings on plans showing the southern and western fringe of the arsenal. That might be explainable by the fact that mere huts, provisionally erected next to the construction site, would not figure on any 'respectable' plan. Nor do we notice any dwellings on the premises of the arsenal itself.
As for the suggested ties with the countryside, if they
encompassed at all a reliance on a rural work force on the part of
the Corderie, they certainly went farther than that:
But let's turn back to the arsenal proper and its functional
Strategically speaking, it was of course the wharfs with
the vessels under construction that constituted the most valuable center
piece of the arsenal.(14) The extended
forests near-by were of utmost importance for ship-building purposes. It
was only the hard core of trees that was used in ship building while the
soft outer parts were pealed and cut off.
As for social facilities, the arsenal at some time included
a [navy] hospital
The economic importance of the arsenal as a naval base serving purposes of construction, maintenance and provisioning made it (and the adjacent town) a commercial and productive center in many respects. Its importance for the regional economy cannot be underrated. “Constructing, arming and provisioning large fleets required an ever increasing amount of supplies. These supplies were sent to the new town of Rochefort from all over France and from abroad. To build just one 74 gun ship needed 4,000 oak trees, 11,124 aunes of canvas for the sales and 1,480 aunes of cloth for the flags, the bunting and the pennants.” (17)
It was the surrounding region that provided an abundance
of “wood needed for building the ships.”(18)
The ability of the Charente-Maritime to produce sufficient supplies of
“wheat, meat and wine” for the fleet, to be stocked in the arsenal warehouses,
had been another “important factor in the choice of the site for the Arsenal.”
(19) Wine merchants, livestock dealers, grain merchants and
other traders (most notably, arms traders supplying the musquets ('fusils')
obtainable from proto-industrial gun-makers) almost certainly had
settled down in Rochefort. They were important as middlemen. The
former were selling to the royal navy’s procurement officers the items
bought up in the countryside while the latter concluded contracts for arms
shipments with the intendant of the Navy.(20)
they waxed rich, the new town of Rochefort began to prosper.
The new town:
As we have seen, a precondition of the town had been an
It was the expropriation that provided the legal (property-related) basis for "comprehensive" town-planning. In other words, it made possible the assertion of a unique or unified planning authority, under the leadership of Colbert's cousin, Colbert du Terron.
Having 'inherited' (in social terms) a vision of what
was a royal city, this planning authority, thanks to the ownership
of the terrains acquired in this neglected area of forests and swamps (marais),
was able and in fact likely at the time, to push for a rational grid-pattern.
Thus, the new town envisaged was conceived from the very beginning as laid out in what can only be described as a classical (or rather classicist) manner, that is to say, in conformity with the fashion of the day, both in France and in countries influenced by French urbanism. (21)
layout, undated (17th C)
Rochefort: the grid
But perhaps this was not tantamount to an overall realization of splendor or at least decent classical architecture, as in the case of the representative royal ‘corderie.’ On the contrary, the beginnings of the new town of Rochefort may have been more than modest. In fact, we must assume a clear differentiation between royal building activity (the corderie, the arsenal generally) which tended to be costly and representative, and private building activity (no matter how much public, that is to say, ‘royal’ planning favored representative layouts of the sections of ‘royal towns’ to be inhabited by ‘commoners’).(22)
So, if the beginnings, in terms of the execution and outward appearance of new private buildings may have been rather humble, is it true that Rochefort was initially a town of workers, a ville ouvrière?
This is suggested by a small
article that claims:
In fact, the documents seem to give credit to this interpretation. And still it is a doubtful or at least, only a partial characterization.
Whereas it is correct that workers came from near and far and that they were given a piece of land and the wood needed to built the small wooden houses typically inhabited by the subaltern classes (not only in the countryside) during the 17th century, apparently some if not a in fact large quantity of these parcels for their small ‘maisons’ or ‘cabanes’ were marginalized, either in or outside the new, geometrical lay-out of the walled new town.
In other words, they were - from the very beginning - not conceived as a stable and integral part of the ville nouvelle.
We must rather conclude that there existed some sort of continuity between the provisional camp or settlement providing accommodation for 3,000 construction workers employed at the Corderie and the arsenal for at least 7 years (and living, as is logical, next to the construction site), and a later settlement housing at least part of the work force of the arsenal once the arsenal itself was operational as a navy shipyard with related ateliers.(24)
This confirmed workers’ settlement, as far as we can see, has yet to be identified on the historical plans showing the arsenal and the new town.(25) It was, in all likelihood, modest, and too simple to be proud of. Whether it housed most or only a part of Rochefort's large work force, is also an open question.
But that it existed next to the arsenal is proved by the fact that the arsenal workers housed close to the arsenal later on sold their houses to royal officers, and moved on to the faubourg immediately West of Rochefort that was springing up alongside exit roads, that is to say, along overland routes and tracks across the field leading out of town.(26)
Apparently, we must assume a correlation between the speculative production of new parcels (Bauparzellen) on these roads to the West of the ramparts and the desire of workers originally settled in houses near the arsenal to switch from an impromptu workers’ settlement to the new faubourg.(27)
Whether they made a profit in selling
their old houses and building new ones on the lots acquired in the faubourg,
can only be guessed.
However, regardless of the profitability
of the deal, and regardless of the ease or difficulty of building new homes,
the question we must ask is, "why did these workers leave a location so
comfortably close to their place of work?"
As indicated already above, another
question to be answered is what share or percentage of the early
industrial work force both of the arsenal and the Corderie royale may have
been put up in the marginal settlement existing very early on quite close
to the arsenal?
The marginality of the site of the
workers' houses and the fact that later on, their inhabitants moved to
another 'marginal site' (the Western faubourg) prompts another question:
However this may be, we can say one thing for sure: if Rochefort itself (the well-protected, carefully laid out new town) in the beginning took up arsenal workers, it was perhaps only the cream of the crop, the more respected and well-paid ones. Quite a few workers seem to have settled at the fringe of the arsenal, in or near the town but seemingly outside the area of the town's carefully laid-out grid pattern.
Others may have found accommodation in nearby agricultural hamlets. Or they even hailed from there and returned to their inherited ‘cabanes’ after work.
As indicated above, the town must
have exerted from the very beginnings a pull-effect on tradesmen, merchants,
and specialized artisans with an urban vocation, that is to say, the typical
mélange of strata that inhabited small commercial towns, small port
(1) Cf. Ministère de Culture (Paris), Mérimée database, notice number PA00104861
(2) In the context of the construction of the naval base, « [l]a Coderie Royale [était] le premier bâtiment que l’on a construit à l’arsenal. » The representative aspect was as important as the functional one : « Comme le roi voulait un bel arsenal et qu’il y avait de l’argent, c’est le plus beau et les plus impressionnant. Elle mesure trois cents mètres de long. » The technical difficulties implies in building a heavy and voluminous building on unstable sands by the riverside demanded considerable constructive ingenuity. It also entailed the simultaneous employment of 3,000 workers in the course of its construction. (N.N., « La corderie royale », in : http://ecole.florian.chez.tiscali.fr/charente/corderie.htm) – Such large work forces were not infrequently employed in the course of ancien régime travaux publics (public works projects). Similar masses of workers characterized the creation of Versailles, of various canal projects, of the hydraulic works in Marly, etc. The workers were usually compelled to dwell in provisional “huts” (cabanes) or “barracks,” rather than solid houses. Their presence was a temporary one, and in the long run, the town of Rochefort built by them certainly was not for them.
(3) It was not only in France that the State played
an important role in early industrialization. The same is true of much
of Central Europe,, though obviously to a lesser extent because of
the belated and less vigorous beginnings of industrialization. See,
with reference to neighboring Baden (which was especially exposed to French
influence): Wolfram FISCHER, "Ansätze zur Industrialisierung in Baden
1770-1870", in: Vierteljahrsschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte
[Wiesbaden], Vol. 47, 1960, pp.186-231; see also: Wolfram FISCHER, Der
Staat und die Anfänge der Industrialisierung in Baden, 1800-1850.
Berlin 1962. - During the 20th century, the economic success of Japan as
well as the so-called "tiger economies" (South Korea and Taiwan [so-called
Republic of China]) up to the late 1970s was not possible without a strong
role of the State pursuing a carefully 'planned' industrial policy while
relying - especially in the case of the two late-comers - on a strong
state-owned sector, on subsidies, 'cronyism', selective protectionism,
'arbitrarily' set, fixed exchange rates plus currency exchange controls,
and partly regulated markets. Of course all this was condoned
by U.S. hegemonism because a 'showcase' was needed vis à vis the
P.R. China.and N. Korea - two countries also set to industrialize quickly,
but without relying on a mix of private ownership and State ownership
(5) Florence DUBOIS / Gaëlle GRIS, « Rochefort »,
(6) If La Rochelle was not chosen as the site of the major West Coast naval base with its arsenal, its Protestant heritage may have weighed heavily against it, too. La Rochelle was subject to a siege by Mazarin at least twice, and the second time was betrayed by Britain's Catholic king while parliament had voted for funds to support it. It suffered terribly; many inhabitants died of starvation. As a commercial center and sea port it declined after the emigration of its Huguenots.
(7) “Cet endroit fut choisi du temps de Louis XIV pour installer un arsenal maritimer. Il se trouve sur le bord de la Charente qui est remontée par le marée, et l’embouchure du fleuve est facilement défendable grâce aux îles qui la protègent. » ( N.N., “L’arsenal de Rochefort”, in: http://ecole.florian.chez.tiscali.fr/charente/arsenal.htm) – A similar strategic location characterized the royal forges of Basse-Indre, on the Northern banks of the Loire (a little West of Nantes) in the 18th century.
(8) Maxime LONLAS, « L’évolution de la ville d’un point
de vue architectural”, in: http://rochefortsurmer.free.fr/hist_architecture.php
(9) Michel BÉGON, Intendant of the Ponant Fleet in Rochefort
(1688), quoted by:
(10) Émilie SÉCHAUD (sous la direction de Henri DE SCHEEMAEKER), Le chanvre: plante textile de la Corderie royale de Rochefort. [thèse, Université de Poitiers], n.p. 2004 (76 leaves)
(11) Julie-Kate [….?….] and Anthony [….?….], in: http://ecole.florian.chez.tiscali.fr/charente/roichelle/arsenal.htm
(12) N.N., “L’arsenal de Rochefort”, in : http://ecole.florian.chez ,tiscali.fr/charente/arsenal.htm
(13) Julie-Kate [….?….] and Anthony [….?….], in: http://ecole.florian.chez.tiscali.fr/charente/roichelle/arsenal.htm
(14) As was typically at the time, the vessels were not produced in
floodable drydocks but on makeshifts “docks” (chantiers) on the slanted
embankments of the Charente river. Once the hull had been completed, they
would slowly be made to glide into the waters of the river.
(15) Julie-Kate [….?….] and Anthony [….?….], in: http://ecole.florian.chez.tiscali.fr/charente/roichelle/arsenal.htm
(16) N.N., “L’arsenal de Rochefort”, in : http://ecole.florian.chez ,tiscali.fr/charente/arsenal.htm
(17) The examples of Versailles in the Ile-de-France (France) as well as Mannheim in Baden (Germany) bear out this hypothesis. Even if the absolutist king, count or duke favored house models that were stressing the representative character of a residence, a “ville royale” or a capital, compromise could be necessary: The government would not subsidize private buildings (or at least not substantially) and private builders might not be able to afford grand designs and the beautiful and expensive execution of buildings.
(18) N.N., “The maritime heritage of the Rochefort region: Shipbuilding in Charente-Maritime”, in: http://www.charente-maritime.org/Charente_UK/Pays_Rochefortai…
(20) The fortune of several of these gun-makers probably declined when the government decided to push for modern manufactories during the 18th century, notably in Tulle, Saint-Etienne, and Châtellerault. A few wealthy arms traders were awarded the privilege to run these new 'royal manufactories', royal because of the partial monopoly awarded them for a certain periods of time.
(21)The model was borrowed from antiquity. It resurfaced in colonial towns planned by Western powers, in "military" and "residential" towns and also in this supposed "ville ouvrière" which was in fact a "royal town", the commercial and administrative support of a naval base with large and important supply and production facilities. Workers' housing, we suspect, was marginalized, despite the large numbers of workers that had to be housed.
(23) ibidem, p. 1 of 2. – We know that the (much smaller) Colbert-inspired ‘new town’ of Villeneuvette in Southern France (Lodève?/ Gard?) was more or less built “in one piece.” Stone-buildings rising to the height of more than one storey and showing a certain architectural unity were constructed, in this case. – As far as the initial Rochefort strategy of handing wood and a piece of land to newcomers is concerned, this proved to be rather cheap indeed. With the forest extending practically up the river bank, wood was plentiful. The lands parcelled were not valuable agriculturally and their expropriation had not been much of a problem. Many blocks of the grid pattern remained empty in the ealy years. Representive buildings carried out in stone apparently were few; the most important being the Corderie. Workers houses, to the extent that they were produce, remained makeshift at first. It is likely that many of these wooden structures disappeared later on (especially when placed in an unplanned manner next to the grid-patterned terrains). Or they were simply replaced by stone buildings (in the context of the grid pattern).– It must be mentioned that the initial strategy of housing "working class" newcomers pursued in Rochefort could also be observed in Eupen (a small textile town situated by the banks of the Vesdre [Weser] river, in the Western foothills of the Hohe Venn mountains) during the 17th and/or early 18th century. Skilled workers wooed to this proto-industrial small town were given a piece of land and wood (bois; Holz). Apparently, this was a widespread procedure in these days when absolutist princes or kings, sometimes also individual entrepreneurs, recruited skilled workers from far away and somehow their housing needs had to be met (if possible at little cost to the government or private employer).
(24) It thus seems to be a mistaken notion that all or most of the arsenal workers were truly integrated into the new town.
(25) We have access to a number of plans
and will try to determine the likely location of the early workers' house
"next to the arsenal" (à proximité de l'arsenal) in
a more detailed discussion of plans in a separate chapter.
(26) If we know for certain that a certain number arsenal workers lived
in a settlement just outside the arsenal, this is so because quite a few
of them later sold their maisons to officers of the navy, officiers
(27) As far as the lay-out of the roads in the faubourg is concerned,
their direction – not parallel to the ramparts – was dictated by military
considerations but even more so by the fact that no new roads were constructed;
rather the old tracks across the field and overland routes leading out
of town were utilized.
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UNIVERSITÉ FRANCOPHONE D'ÉTÉ SAINTONGE-QUÉBEC (ed.), Rochefort et la mer: 1: Technique et politique maritimes aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles: conférences à l'Université francophone d'été Saintonge-Québec. Jonzac (Univ. francophone d'été S.-Q.) 1985 (94pp.)
UNIVERSITÉ FRANCOPHONE D'ÉTÉ SAINTONGE-QUÉBEC
(ed.), Rochefort et la mer: 11: Napoléon et la Mer.
UNIVERSITÉ FRANCOPHONE D'ÉTÉ SAINTONGE-QUÉBEC
(ed.), Rochefort et la mer: 14: Marine et protestantisme au XVIIè
Fr. de VAUX DE FOLETIER, "La création de Rochefort", in: Bulletin de la Société géographique de Rochefort, 1926-28, pp.22-51
Jean-Théodore VIAUD / Elie Jérôme FLEURY, Histoire
de la ville et du port de Rochefort.
Jean-Théodore VIAUD / Elie Jérôme FLEURY, Histoire
de la ville et du port de Rochefort.
VILLE DE ROCHEFORT (ed.), Rochefort et Architecture,
[X.], "Cahier des plaintes, doléances et pétitions du
Tiers-Etat de la ville de Rochefort-sur-Mer", in: Bulletin de la Société
géographique de Rochefort, 1909, pp.197-209
(**) The two photos showing the reconstructed Corderie
royale are from the following internet site: