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The French Mr Selfridge

Beautiful le Nice Havrais, Sainte-Adresse match!
Beautiful le Nice Havrais, Sainte-Adresse match!

When Georges Dufayel decided to spend some of his vast wealth creating a holiday resort by the sea, he looked to the home of his parents, Normandy.

He knew of a bay, sheltered from the wind and overlooked by the craggy hillside ‘La Pointe de la Hève’, just north of bustling Le Havre and a direct train route to Paris.

The bay had been immortalised many times by Claude Monet so there was no need to preserve it further.  Here George planned to build a resort to challenge Trouville and Deauville.

Monet's painting of hillside ‘La Pointe de la Hève’
Monet’s painting of hillside ‘La Pointe de la Hève’

An appalling slight

His reasons were not entirely business.  This self-made man with a love of extravagance and the bank account to pay for it, had an accent that shouted his working class roots and a style unencumbered by ‘good‘ taste.  However much money he had, and he had a lot, Georges would never be accepted by the ‘respectable’ bourgeoisie and upper classes as ‘one of us‘. A fact that was rammed home by a terrible slight one day in the Trouville casino.

We have not been able to find out what that slight was, but do know Georges was deeply angered.  Seeking revenge he thought of restoring the casino in Deauville just across the Touques river, to drive Trouville out of business (Deauville had gone downhill a bit since it’s creator the Duke of Morny died).  Then he discovered Deauville was happy with their Trouville agreement – a cut of the casino profits if they didn’t rebuild the casino and stuck to horse racing.

So Georges Dufayel looked to Le Havre for his project.  He would do his damnedest to ruin them both.

Not a man to slight, M. Georges Dufayel
Not a man to slight, M. Georges Dufayel

Creating paradise-on-sea

An excellent marketer he gave his project a name to inspire dreams of stylish living and hot sunny days in the hearts of smog stained Parisians. The resort would be called ‘le Nice-Havrais’.

But who was Georges Dufayel and how could he afford this outlandish conceit – or sound business development depending on your view.

For the love of profit

Like Mr Selfridge, Georges was born into a family of modest means.  He was a New Year gift, born on 1 January 1855 to Marie Stéphanie Nicholas and Achille Armand Dufayel, a commercial clerk. Age 16 he was working alongside his father at the Paris soft furnishings and homeware store ‘Le Grand Magasin des Nouveautés’  for  M. François Crépin, in the working class 18th arrondissement.

Georges loved the store; the daily arrival of exciting innovative products, the neatness and originality of sales displays, the charm of the shop floor staff and most of all, the profit. Within this small but perfect world everything made sense to George and he felt quite at home.

One facet of M. Crépin sales techniques, used to encourage the purchase of large sets of portrait photographs, he found particularly inspirational.  Buy one photograph now, pay for the rest later.  A very early example of buying on credit.

Ambition by instalment

Impressed by the young man’s intelligence, ingenuity, hard work and imagination, M. Crépin put Georges to work in one department after another and was delighted to promote his protégé through the ranks until Georges became a director in 1880 and Partner in 1885, aged just 30.

Sadly sometime in 1887 M. Crépin became very unwell and under advisement from his doctors went for an unsuccessful rest cure in Algeria.  He died.  After a minor legal tussle with M. Crépin’s wife, Georges took control of the shop alongside M. Crépin’s married son Julies.

Georges expanded the credit sale business energetically.  When Jules died suddenly in 1895, the widows lost heart and sold the store.  Georges bought up the shares, by instalments.  From 1996 the store was renamed ‘Les Grands Magasins Dufayel’.

Although hugely successful he decided not to move the store to compete in the fancier Paris districts.  His understood the majority of his clientèle remained the ordinary Parisian worker, and was not going to desert them.  Instead he told the working class they were just as good as the bourgeoisie who employed them and deserved to have what their hearts desired.  On credit from Les Grands Magasins Dufayel.

DUFAYEL Barbes PARIS affiche

A cathedral to consumerism

To keep up with his ambitions and those of his clients, the store was expanded to cover 380,000 sq.ft.  This vast consumer playground tempted with every conceivable item, as well as a 3,000 seat theatre, a cinematograph hall in the basement, stabling for horses, a bicycle garage, palm court, winter garden, banking facilities and an interior design studios that claimed to specialise in fitting out hotels, châteaux and private houses.  All in a setting embellished with chandeliers, the latest decorative styles reflected in colossal mirrors.  From the roof a revolving searchlight with 10 million candlepower never let Parisian’s forget Les Grand Magasins Dufayel.  By 1904 the store was serving over three million customers a year and employed around 1000 people.

Les Grands Magazins Dufayel in Paris
Les Grands Magazins Dufayel in Paris

Money cannot buy class?

Georges advertised on every inch of Paris space available, explaining his wonderful credit service alongside attractive images that showed clearly how much better life could be for just a small weekly payment.  He was always very upfront about charges, there were never any hidden costs.  Dufayel was a name to trust.

Dufayel shops began to appear across France.  From each one Georges Dufayel received 18% of every single sale.

Unlike Mr Selfridge he avoided scandal and knowing the beau monde viewed him as a vulgar upstart adopted the motto: ‘Bien faire et laisser dire’ – ‘do well and let them talk’. He was soon a very very rich man indeed.

Interior of Les Grand Magasin Dufayel in Paris
Interior of Les Grand Magasin Dufayel in Paris

Return to Normandy

Keen to display his success, Georges bought Villa Maritime on Maritime Boulevard on the edge of Le Havre in 1895.  It was the largest and most beautiful villa in town and looked delightful from his new, luxurious yacht. He had not thought of investing further in the area until that terrible Trouville slight.

It is not entirely clear when the Trouville slight happened but we do know Georges was still seething in 1905.

Then, as he observed from the elegant symmetrical windows of Villa Maritime the growing fashion for sea bathing, and how the gentle slope of the beach lent itself to bathing huts and leisurely stroll, Georges had an idea that went beyond merely owning a casino.

Villa Maritime, home of Georges Dufayel in Le Havre, Normandy
Villa Maritime, home of Georges Dufayel in Le Havre, Normandy

Creating a dream

He bought (probably after extensive negotiation and benefit to himself) 15 hectares of land next to Le Havre around the bay ‘Saint Denis Chef de Caux’ for 55,000 francs.  There were further purchases in 1906, by then he was already commissioning grand plans.

Architect Ernest Daniel was commissioned to create le Nice-Havrais, with engineer Mr A Deschaux in charge of construction. Gustave Rives, who designed the new store in Paris would be responsible for creating hotels fit for kings and queens.

The road from Le Havre along the coast was widened, eight km of new lanes created, long staircases cut into the hill down to the beach and all modern amenities; gas, water, electricity, mains drainage and public lighting, installed.  Using concrete to restructure and secure the hillside, and many many workers, the resort quickly took shape. A new tram line is built from Le Havre.

Building the tramline from Le Havre to le Nice-Havrais
Building the tramline from Le Havre to le Nice-Havrais

The first stone of a palace

Ever one for publicity, local dignitaries and the Paris press were invited to watch him lay the foundation stone for his Palais des Régates in July 1906. This voluptuous building will combine viewing platforms, restaurants and ultimately a casino. Many speeches are made, the most effusive by the president of the Regatta society. The mayor of Le Havre, magnanimously admires Georges plans for the resort saying “Small towns that surround Le Havre are somehow his children…” pleased however that the Palais is just inside his district…

Georges even made a rare charitable gift: “I appreciate, Mayors, feelings of high courtesy that you kindly show me… and I want to give you now a pledge, by delivering to you Mr. Mayor Sainte-Adresse, a sum of 500 francs for the Asylum of old sailors, in Brevillier; 500 francs for the charity office. To you, Mr. Mayor of Le Havre, a sum of 1,000 francs for the poor.  And now, ladies and gentlemen, accept, please, today, the invitation I make to you to attend next year at the festival opening flag Regatta.” He lay the first stone to rapturous applause.

New villas at le Nice-Havrais
New villas at le Nice-Havrais

Rustics replaced

By January 1907, not two years after purchasing the land, Goerges has spent two million francs. Many plots are sold and expensive villas, each one unique, are beginning to populate the seafront.  Local fishing huts, described by a Le Havre journalist reviewing plans for le Nice-Havrais plans as occupied by ‘Hottentot rustics’, have been quietly removed.

Cabins at Sainte Adresse 1868 by Claude Monet

More roads are needed from Sainte-Address, the town just behind le Nice-Havrais. Knowing how his resort will benefit the small and financially poor town, Georges suggests a loan of 60,000 repayable over five years without interest.  The Mayor of Sainte Address agrees with alacrity. By April Georges has his new roads and in early June 1907 the Palais des Régates is opened with a grand ceremony.

Palais des Régates
Palais des Régates

New law threatens plans

Then on 15 June the municipal council of Le Havre passes a new law. Clearly concerned about losing profits from their two casinos if Georges opened one in his new Palais, the law states that permission for new casinos must be granted by the local authority and details restrictions for building near the beach and the more popular areas of the town.  It is clear to Georges that permission is unlikely to be given for a casino in the Palais.

He looks to a small, rather shabby existing Le Havre casino along Maritime Boulevard and approaches the council with plans to develop it.  Mentioning to them that Sainte-Adresse does not have any restrictions on building new casinos…

After much expensive legal wrangling with the council over future profits, Georges gained permission to develop Le Casino Marie-Christine, named for the exiled queen of Spain who lived in Le Havre until her death in 1878.


Elegant living in le Nice Havrais
Elegant living in le Nice Havrais

A casino to rival Trouville

It is now 1909 and the exhausted Ernest Daniel, le Nice-Havrais’ architect, died.  Georges called in old friend and architect of Les Grand Magasine Dufayel in Paris, Gustave Rives, to rebuild the casino.  Inaugurated on 13 July 1912, the new building is a triumph. Bigger and considerably more beautiful than its competitor in Trouville the casino is instantly popular with rich gambling holidaymakers.

For the next two years le Nice-Havrais reigns as the queen of the Normandy resorts. Life for the rich during this ‘belle-époque’ was excessive and indulgent and le Nice-Havrais provided the perfect stage for their extravagant games.  Few foresaw what was about to happen.

Casino Marie-Christine; elegant living in le Nice-Havrais
Casino Marie-Christine; elegant living in le Nice-Havrais

War and a Government in exile

In July 1914 as Georges made plans for a hippodrome and aerodrome at le Nice-Havrais, Germany invaded France. A terrible war was about to begin on French soil that would not end for four years.

The flippant, foolish crowds departed le Nice-Havrais.

In their place quickly came the Belgian government in exile. They arrived by ship in October and set up home in one of the beautiful new hotels designed by Gustave Rives and took over many of the villas in the town.

Home to Belgian government in WW1
Hotel by Gustave Rives, home to Belgian government in WW1

In god’s image

Sadly Georges did not live to see the end of the war and le Nice-Havrais returned to the French.  In 1916 he contracted pneumonia.  This was one battle he would not win and he died aged 61 on 28 December.

Childless, Georges left 500 million gold francs to family; both relations and the family of Les Grand Magasins Dufayel.  Every member of his staff received a financial token of his appreciation.

He once said “I am a man in God’s image … I love to create, create worlds, vast worlds … What a fun challenge!”

Georges Dufayel died a member of the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur.

ste adresse dufayel poster

le Nice-Havrais today

Many villas and the hotel designed by Gustave Rives have survived two world wars (with some patching up).  Unfortunately the beautiful Casino Marie-Christine that served as a hospital in both wars was badly damaged in WW2 and the decision made to rebuild rather than renovate.

Over the years Sainte-Adresse absorbed le Nice-Havrais and Georges Dufayel is still remembered fondly.  Not as you would think as the millionaire store owner and creator of beautiful le Nice-Havrais.  To the locals he is remembered for one particular shiny extravagance.

Forever in Sainte-Adresse Georges Dufayel is known as ‘the man with the silver bath’!

saint adresse plage 3
Beach at le Nice-Havrais, the lost casino is on the right.

One thought on “The French Mr Selfridge

  1. Interesting story. Could it be that Mr. Dufayel was inspired by what happened a little bit earlier, and only 200km more North, in Le Touquet, that changed from a cheap plot of dunes into “Paris-Plage” where French and British millionaires enjoyed the life of the upper-class, with golf, horse racing, casino and even ( later on) an airfield.

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