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Orbec; diary of a small Normandy town

Orbec postcard

Or – Fires, trains and scandal in the Pays d’Auge

The old manor house in Orbec, now the town museum – and heavily renovated.

In the far south of Normandy’s Calvados region is the small town of Orbec.  It has all the usual essentials; church, mairie, schools, shops, and some fine old Pay’s d’Auge timber buildings.  But for some reason Orbec, unlike most Normandy towns, has never been at the centre of its own great historical story.

There are no medieval illuminations of Orbec sieges and battles, saints have not discovered health giving springs here and its fine timber buildings have failed to inspire the more famous artists.

When Orbec appears in the history books it is not for itself, but as a small part of huge estates owned by Lords whose stories are so grand they barely mention this little town.  For a while Orbec was a portion of Gilbert of Brionne’s lands.  The same Gilbert charged with protecting young Duke William of Normandy and murdered for his trouble. His son Richard eventually inherited Orbec but after sailing with the Conqueror he concentrated on his vast new English estates.

Mills along the Orbiquet river did help the town thrive for a while and paid for many of the beautiful timber buildings that line it’s grand Rue.  And we know Debussy stayed in the Hotel de Croisy and wrote the ‘le Jardin suis la pluie’, but that’s probably because there were few distractions.

For all its diffidence and lack of show, Orbec’s history is there. It’s just a little quieter than most and that is not altogether a bad thing.

Here are some of those smaller moments, taken from 19th century local newspapers…

October 1867 – A fire.  An accidental fire broke out last Sunday at about seven o’clock in the morning, and consumed; a building used for drying belonging to M. Auguste Duclos owner at Orbec-en-Auge, 200 kilos of wool belonging to M. Hurel, dyer, and 300 bunches of hay belonging to M. Lefevre a farmer at Friardel.

May 1868 – The apple trees.   In the valley of Orbec apple trees are white like lilacs in bloom. They had not been so successful for seventeen years.

August 1868 – Railways.  Among the decisions taken by the General Council we owe a special mention to the approval it gave to the construction of the departmental railways: 1st Railway from Caen to Courseulles, passing through Cambes, Mathieu, Douvres, Luc, Langrune, Saint-Aubin, Bernieres.  2nd Railway Orbec to Lisieux, over a length of 16 kilometers. 3rd Railway from Falaise to Pont-d’Ouilly, at a connection point on the line from Caen to Flers.

March 1869 – Intelligent zeal. The commission, chaired by M. Méry-Samson, heard a report from M. Conard, a member of the Borough Council, and it can be concluded from the information provided that the obstacles, serious as they are on the execution of this project, can be overcome, thanks to the intelligent zeal which animates the members of this commission.

February 1870 – Fire.  Monday around 6pm a violent fire destroyed part of the paper mill of M. Dubos and M.Guilbert, located in Orbec behind the town hall.   The fire broke out under the so-called cutting machine, while the work was in full activity. Its progress was so rapid that during the few moments when the workers began to leave their positions and to call for help, the flames were visible through all the exits of the buildings.  At the first call, the firefighters of Orbec under the direction of Mr. Raymond Picard, commander of the company, came running with their equipment. The pump of M. Dutheil’s establishment was obligingly attached to the equipment of the firefighters.

The fire found food in the very nature of the goods in which it had declared itself: old rags, old papers, ropes, etc., contained in buildings in wood.  The loss reached, it is said, forty thousand francs.  The materials were insured.

The cause of the incident is still unknown, some ascribing it to the friction of the cutter’s wheels, others to some spark escaping from the heater of one of the workers, but, in reality, the cause cannot be determined.

April 1870 – Fire. Sunday, an accidental fire broke out in the wood of the Countess of Osery, located in the hamlet of Varembert, near Orbec. The loss is 800 francs. This wood was not insured.

Looking onto Rue Grande from rue des Osiers, Orbec

Violent fire

June 1870 – Violent Fire. A violent fire broke out Friday at half-past eleven in Orbec. The fire broke out at M. Bigot, a grocer, whose shops are located at the corner of the Rue de Geole and the Grand’rue, and quickly spread to neighbouring houses, seven of which were soon prey to flames, notwithstanding the courageous efforts of the Orbec fire-fighters, who ceaselessly struggled against the formidable scourge, with the most eager assistance of the inhabitants of Orbec, among whom were the parish priest, the curates and the young students of the institution Thieulin. The total loss is estimated at about two hundred thousand francs.  M. Bigot was insured, as was M. Servain, a basket merchant.  We do not know if the owners or tenants of the other houses had taken this wise measure of foresight.

Informed by a policeman, the firemen of Broglie rushed to the scene of the fire. M. Dutheil from Orbec and M. Dutheil from Bienfaite also sent firefighters from their establishments.

The Mayor of Orbec telegraphed to Lisieux to demand the fire-fighters of that city give aid which certainly would not have been refused. However the absence of a night telegraph service prevented the local authorities from being notified. It is regrettable that the Mayor of Orbec did not think of having the city of Lisieux notified by the telegraphic route of Saint-Mard-Orbec at Lisieux. The telegraphic line is especially reserved for the service of the company.

At six o’clock on Saturday morning the fire reached the hospital and its outbuildings.  Where a few hours before there were vast stores filled with various goods, there remains nothing but an immense fire.

The fire started, as we said, at Mr. Bigot’s a grocer, in a laundry room. In the afternoon the heat of the furnace had sent the fire to a post adjoining the laundry room and supporting a shed, which contained a barrel of oil, a box of soap and various other easily flammable goods.

On Saturday the nearly extinguished fire came back around noon. The firefighters of Lisieux were called again and left for Orbec. It was only in the evening that we managed to master the terrible scourge.

Rue Grande, Orbec in Calvados Normandy

War, frost and deception

August 1870 – Mobilization [The year of the Franco Prussian war].    The mobile guard of Calvados with a manpower of more than 6,000 men, has been formed.  It comprises four battalions, divided into eight companies each.

The first battalion consists of the townships of Balleroy, Bayeux, Isigny, Ryes, Trévières, Creully, Douvres and Tilly-sur-Seulles garrisoned at Caen.  The second battalion is made up of the Cantons of Bourguébus, Caen (East and West), Évrecy, Troarn, Bretteville-sur-Laize, Falaise, Coulibœuf and Thury-Harcourt, garrisoned at Lisieux.  The third battalion is composed of the cantons of Lisieux, Livarot, Orbec , Mezidon, St-Pierre-sur-Dives, Blangy, Cambremer, Dozulé v  Honfleur and Pont-l’Eveque, garrisoned at Bayeux.  The fourth battalion is comprised of the cantons Caumont , Villers-Bocage, Aunay, Bény-bocage, Condé-sur-Noireau, St-Sever, Vassy and Vire and is temporarily garrisoned in Caen.

March 1872 – The frost.  The disasters occasioned by the frosts of the last nights are more serious than generally supposed. The letters we receive from various points in Normandy are unanimous in recognizing it.

April 1872 – Deception.   Eugène-Lazare Fromage aged thirty-six, baker, born in Ste-Margnerite-de-Viette and residing in Orbec, was convicted for deception on the weight of the bread put for sale, with a penalty of 50 francs fine, six weeks’ imprisonment.


Military lottery

March 1873 – Military draft, a lottery.  The draw is currently taking place. Despite the establishment of compulsory military service this draw has been maintained. The young people who will draw the highest numbers will do only one year of service, or six months if they have successfully passed their exams. The young people who draw the lowest numbers, 1, 2, 3, etc., up to a figure that the Minister at War will fix according to the number of soldiers he will need each year, will do five years of service.

May 1873 – The railway and a feast.  Magnificent festivities are organized in Orbec for the inauguration of the railway, which will take place in this city on June 2nd.

February 1874 – Thefts of chicken.  Thefts of chickens and rabbits are multiplying in a worrying way. Local authorities must watch more than ever the foreigners who cross their communes. We are informed that the day before the robberies committed at Bénouville an individual, small in size and quite properly dressed, had been seen asking alms to heal himself of a saint’s evil. It’s up to the rangers to watch out for those who are certainly the scouts of the band of thieves who devastate our henhouses. As will be seen from the following list, all parts of the department are explored:

At Beaumont-en-Auge seven chickens were stolen from Le Hague, a cafe. At Argences a chicken was stolen from M. Morel. In Blainville twenty-two chickens, two turkeys and a duck were stolen from M. Brée.  At Airan, under similar circumstances, eight chickens and a rabbit have been removed from M. Giot. The same night, in the same town, four birds were stolen from M. Boulin. In Orbec six hens and a cock were stolen from from M. Aube. At Bonneville-la-Louvet, four hens belonging to the lady Deprez. A theft of eleven chickens was committed from lady Hamon, owner in Hamars. On the night of the 20th, nine chickens were stolen from the barn of M. Beuron, a farmer at Bénouville. On the 21st, a theft of nine chickens was also committed to the detriment of the widowed lady Olivier.

February 1876 – Storms and floods.  For the last few days all the elements are unleashed on our poor country.  It rains constantly, storm winds do not stop blowing, all the rivers are overflowed, most factories have had to stop, many workers are without work. On the sea no ship dares to venture, all the fishing boats have been anchored for long days. Along our shores, huge blocks of rocks have broken off the cliffs.  In the countryside the damage is very serious; the apple trees are, for the most part, overturned on the hillsides exposed to the southwest and in the wetlands. On the roads and railway lines, hundreds of telegraph poles are broken. The quantity of roofs and chimneys removed is innumerable.

Hôtel de Croisy in Orbec, where Debussy composed ‘Jardin suis la pluie’

Misery and murder

March 1876 – Attempted suicide.  On Tuesday morning 25-year-old Aimable Cœurdoux, a rural postman in Orbec, attempted to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the stomach and then by trying to cut his throat.  This last attempt was prevented by the lack of strength caused by the severe injury to the stomach. The doctor thinks the injury is deadly. This suicide attempt is attributed to a disturbance of Cœurdoux’s mental faculties. Married with two young children, he had only been in Orbec for two days.

April 1877 – Attempted assassination.  An attempted murder was committed on Sunday at 9 pm, on the person of 75 year old Mr. Jean-Baptiste Belière, in his home. This infirm old man received to the head a pistol shot. Fortunately the injury has not put his life in danger and does not cause him much pain. The perpetrator of this criminal act was a man named Louis-Ambroise Caume, a carpenter living at la Cressonnière. He owes a sum of 330 francs to M. Belière and probably fired on him when he was asked for it. The culprit, who was arrested, was heated by drink at the time of the crime.

November 1877 – A child burned alive. On Monday around eleven o’clock in the morning a great misfortune arrived at Orbec. A day labourer from this town, the Esbroc woman, had gone out to collect wood leaving her two children, one of whom was eight years old and the other of four. The eldest, Joseph Esbroc, set fire to his clothes by getting too close to the chimney.  Hearing his cries a neighbour came running, but already the fire had made deep ravages and the body of the poor child was no more than burns and sores. He was transported to the hospital and died while arriving.

January 1879 – Appropriations and repairs.  85 locals belonging to 73 Calvados communes have been appropriated to work on essential repairs to Lisieux schools.

January 1881 – Act of courage. On Tuesday evening about four o’clock at Orbec, a poor insane man named Lieuvin undressed almost completely and started walking, armed with a leaden cane, to Montreuil. Since this unfortunate man is of Herculean strength and sometimes has fits of furious madness, no one dared to approach him to try to bring him home.  However! M. Marie, a cantonal officer and second lieutenant of the Orbec fire brigade went after Lieuvin and managed to reach him about 500 meters from the town. He approached him, conversed with him, managed to win his confidence and obtained from him the leaden cane. Then, continuing to speak to M. Lieuvin gently, he managed to returned with him to Orbec, where he put him in the hands of the commissary of police. One cannot congratulate M. Marie enough for this act of courage and skill.

In Orbec

Kind hearts and cunning

February 1881 – Respect for the dead. – On Wednesday Jacques-Justin Feret aged 44 was found hanged in Orbec his home. This individual gave himself to death in a fit of madness caused by the abuse of alcoholic beverages. Feret was buried Thursday. The priest refused to give the funeral rights [as suicide is a sin] as is right, but a right that many more tolerant priests no longer exercise. To carry the body to the cemetery, a canvas that had been used to carry the dead of the hospital had been sent. The police commissioner refused to allow burial in such scandalous conditions and had the body carried by six men.

May 1881 – The gypsies. On Saturday people practicing, supposedly, the profession of manufacturers of baskets, stopped near the city of Orbec. Two women went to M. Vesque, a jeweller, asked to see rings, and after a long time they went away without making any purchase. Shortly afterwards, M. Vesque noticed that five of his rings had disappeared. He hastened to inform the police commissioner of Orbec, who immediately began an investigation. He learned that these women were part of a band of bohemians who had just left for Lisieux. The commissioner telegraphed, and the band was arrested. Following an interrogation that lasted until 11 pm, the women Marie Weis aged 16 ½ and her sister Victoire Weis so-called wife of M. Sauzer, were alone kept under arrest.  The others were released immediately.

June 1881 – The victims of work. In Orbec on Monday afternoon, Portier, age 27 and a railwayman was going on the work of the line under construction at Mesnil Mauger.  He fell from a carriage where he had climbed, one of the wheels of the vehicle crushed his shoulder and left arm, pulling his ear from the same side and making a large wound from the base of the neck to the skull. This unfortunate man was transported in a pitiful state to the hospice at Orbec. The carriage under which he fell had a load of 10,000 pounds.

March 1882 – Winter in the spring. We are in the spring since last Monday, although we can hardly believe it. Tuesday night and Wednesday morning snow fell in abundance. This sudden change in temperature can cause a lot of damage in the gardens and compromise the fruit harvest.

March 1882 – Accidental death.  M. Luc-Aimable Goupil age 56 was found dead in General Wood, near Orbec.  He had been dead for several days and the death is attributed to starvation. This poor man had long been showing signs of insanity.

Orbec has many fine old wood framed houses

Bravery, fraud and asphyxiation

February 1883 – Moving Rescue. Last week in Orbec, four-year old Vital Lair fell into a well. M. Nail descended with the aid of the winch and succeeded in seizing the child and keeping him above the water, but exhausted with fatigue, he called for help himself. A carpenter, M. Charriol, went down on a ladder and was happily able to remove the child and his saviour.

September 1884 – Grisly discovery.  At 6 o’clock in the morning on Friday a child fetus was found in the ditch alongside rue des Augustines near the Alley Jouan, in Orbec. An investigation is open.

September 1886 – Death by lightning.  The storms of recent days have caused several losses. At Saint-Mards-du-Fresne lightning hit three workers who worked in the fields, two were killed, the third was seriously injured, the crops they collected were burned. Two fires caused by lighting destroyed in Angerville and Orbec two farms and all that they contained.

November 1888 – Asphyxiated by cider.   On Wednesday, Edouard Cornu age 35 a day labourer from Bernay was working in Orbec, cleaning a cider vat 3 meters deep and with a capacity of 100 hectoliters. Stunned by the alcoholic vapours emerging from the vast container, Edouard Cornu fell to the bottom, and, in spite of the promptness of the aid which was brought to him, he was not long in being completely asphyxiated. The body of the worker could only be removed after a certain time and with the help of ropes. Cornu was married with five children.

December 1888 – Farmer fraud.  A proverb says “always have paper in your pockets”. The Avisse woman, a farmer at St-Germain-la-Campagne, has gone beyond the proverb, but she will pay it. She brought to the Orbec market geese that were heavier than they appeared.  Investigators were astonished to find that inside these geese the merchant had introduced small rolls of wet paper.

March 1892 – Cattle thief captured.   On Wednesday an individual came to the Orbec market early in the morning with two cows. One was sold for 250 francs and the other 105. The suspicious appearance of the salesman and the excessive cheapness of the animals aroused the attention of the buyers, who warned the gendarmerie of their suspicions. After questioning the salesman admitted he had committed a robbery.  The criminal is Aldonce Boucher, 30, a farmer in Bois-Normand (Eure). On Tuesday evening he entered the stable of his aunt Eugénie Bourgeois, at Vaux-sur-Risle, and took two cows which he brought to Orbec.

March 1892 – Dirty affair.   A disgusting sex scandal has taken place in Orbec. Two little girls aged 4 and 6 have been tainted with a shameful illness. The two small victims belong to an unattractive family. Besides the father and the mother, there is in the house a daughter, aunt of children, whose reputation is deplorable. It may be that several people of the country by enjoying some ‘consideration’, find themselves involved in this dirty affair.

Detail from the Orbec museum

The disappearing dispatcher

January 1893 – Disappearance.  For fifteen days Charles Daniel, age 55, dispatcher of dispatches in Orbec, has disappeared.  On January 8 after having taken a person to Montreuil, he went to see his son-in-law at La Goulafrière then left at about 4pm. Since that moment there has been no news of him. Last week, Daniel’s mother-in-law, a widow Mary, died suddenly.

January 1893 – Found.  The 55-year-old Charles Daniel, a dispatcher in Orbec who disappeared after taking a client to Montreuil, whom he had abandoned without ceremony, as well as a horse and a carriage, returned home very surprised by the emotion caused by his capricious fugue.

May 1893 – The drought.  On Sunday, in all the churches of the diocese, a letter was read out from the bishop of Bayeux prescribing prayers for the cessation of the drought.

May 1893 – Cow thief arrested. At the Orbec market an ox dealer received from a friend of his, who lives in the Orne, a despatch informing him that his cow had been stolen and begging him to take a good look at the market. At the same time he gave the description of the animal. The beef merchant informed a fellow merchant of this, and the latter was struck by the coincidence which presented itself: indeed, that very morning he had acquired a beast exactly corresponding to the description of the cow. The seller was questioned and, given his uncomfortable answers, he was arrested. He said his name was Louis Bunel, age 42, living Meulles and originally from L’Aigle.

And that is the diary of a small Normandy town.

On Rue Grande in Orbec

Read the original Orbec diary (Fr)

If you enjoyed this post, have a look at Tourgeville, diary of a small normandy Village

I see you!

Jardin sous la Pluie, written by Debussy while staying in Orbec


Ripe for conversion, in Orbec


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