Colourful flags decorate the elegant Mairie in the centre of Villedieu-les-Poêles. Beautifully crafted brass pots, tools and sculptures gleam in shop windows. Quiet alleys between houses lead to a clear stream where ducks dip and dive between swaying reeds. The Didandier, coppersmiths of Villedieu‘s past would barely recognise their town.
At one time over 100 workshops filled the air here with fumes, poisoned the water and blighted the health of everyone in this infamous town. In the eighteen century, as science began to consider how chemicals may affect health, a study was made in Villedieu.
Green hair and a poor diet
Duhamel du Monceau reported to the French Academy of Sciences in 1761:
“It is said that the foundry workers are subject to frequent colic, and that in the end they fall into paralysis, so that usually they die young: nothing is more false although they tire a great deal.
“M. de Brinancville, an adviser to Parliament, has made very exact research on this subject. The Curé and the doctor deny any epidemic diseases; mortuary registers show that there are more old men here than in many other places similarly inhabited.
“It is true that the hair of those who are fair-haired takes on a greenish colour; but they suffer no inconvenience. The Workers who reach old age become deaf, because they are continually exposed to a very uncomfortable amount of noise. Many, when they reach the age of 70 to 80, are crippled by their arms, because they have made too much use of them; but no colic, no ulcers, no heart-ache; and they attribute the good health they enjoy to the fact that they live almost completely on buckwheat porridge.
“I do not know what has made us imagine that fish cannot live in the small river where the waters of the city are drained: M. de Binanville ate some fish which was excellent. Thus one can see all that has been said about the bad air that reigns in this city and its surroundings is purely imagination”
Duhamel du Monceau
Disease and death
Over the next 100 years life for the coppersmiths of Villedieu did not improve. When Thomas Adolphus Trollope published travel memoirs in 1840 his description of Villedieu-les-Poêles was vivid:
“Beyond Percy is a place of a very different celebrity — the little town of Villedieu-les-Poêles. It has been, from a very early period, the seat of an extensive manufacture of copper, which, has acquired for it the surname of “Les Poeles (the pans).” The traveller passing Villedieu-les-Poêles might deem it a plague-spot on the land, marked for their own by the withering touch of disease and death. The following striking and accurate description of the blasted spot is to be found in the French Encyclopaedia, under the head of “dangerous qualities of copper.”
“What happens in the town of Villedieu-les-Poêles proves that copper can be volatized by fire and suspended in the atmosphere. We see only hideous bodies suffering consumption. Their faces, their hair, seem to be those of brass statues. The deafness, blindness, dullness of the senses and trembling, attacks all ages. The principle of this disaster is in the air they breathe and food. The place is filled with a thousand boilermakers who constantly infect the air, the bread, and the drink with a venom they forge themselves. Burning furnaces continually vomit flames; brass streams from them. All around inflamed metal is plunged into water and a thick and intoxicating vapour rises, spreading evils and desolation far and wide.
“The blows of multiple hammers form a kind of gloomy groaning, the houses are shaken, the neighbouring valleys ring out and the earth shudders. You’d think you’re in Vulcan’s lair. Do not recklessly attempt stop these Norman Cyclopes by asking them the time, they would throw their hammers at the head.”
The last of the coppersmiths
It was mass production and competition from abroad that cleared the air of Villedieu and forced the copper workshops to close.
A visit to Villedieu-les-Poêles today is an altogether healthier experience. Now just l’Atelier de Cuivre, Mauviel and bell maker Cornille-Havard carry on the old traditions. While still astonishing quality, Mauviel is the most automated, pushing flat copper into pots with vast machines and hammering surfaces mechanically.
At l’Atelier de Cuivre as well as mass producing pans, traditional methods bought over with Knights of Malta in the 12th century allow them to make remarkable items to order. These range from a vast copper bath for the mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, to bespoke artwork and the huge frying pans used on Mont Saint-Michel to make La Mère Poulard’s omelettes.
Old skills, new ideas
Larger containers of all shapes are hammered by hand over tall stakes, partly to create a pleasing patterned surface, but more importantly to compress the surface molecules of the copper and add strength and durability to the piece.
A recent commission came from the hospital at Rambouillet. Copper is a sterile metal and like silver is effectively toxic to bacteria. Research has shown copper helpful in the fight against MRSA with studies suggesting the use of copper surfaces can reduce the rate of infections in hospitals by 40%. Rambouillet hospital commissioned l’Atelier to create copper door handles, bed rails, work surfaces faucets and toilet seats for their resuscitation and pediatric services building.
A visit to l’Atelier includes access to a small museum, a short film (French or English) and most excitingly access to the workshop. Here you will see experts such as Jean-Pierre Couget at work. Born in Villedieu, Jean-Pierre started at l’Atelier as a teenager and is now ‘meilleur ouvrier de France’ an honour given only to those at the very pinnacle of their professions. Of the piece that earned his this honour he said “I created [as requested] a trophy with a margin of error limited to 1/10e mm. It took me 250 hours of work.”
A very shiny shop on the way out is hard to resist, particularly after a chat with charming workshop manager Jean-Louis Gosset, who explains in better English than our French exactly why their copper is prized so highly by chefs around the world.
The bells the bells…!
Just back from the main street is the Cornille-Havard bell foundry built in 1865. Their bell making process ‘lost wax casting’ is nearly as old as time; very simply a wax form is made, intricate wax decorations added. Then clay mixed with sand, horse manure and goat hair (the hair helps let out gasses) is used to make a mould around it. The wax is melted out and a bronze alloy of 78% copper and 22% tin is poured in.
For centuries bell makers travelled the country making their bells next to the churches, cathedrals and abbeys where they would hang.
With the arrival of railways, transport was less of an issue and the opening of the Paris/Granville line made a workshop in Villedieu seem ideal to founder Adolphe Havard.
The workshop with its huge ‘pits’ to hold giant bell moulds has changed little since that time although now computers help create the bell forms. After casting, an expert will still listen to each new bell, removing precise amounts from the interior until it is pitch perfect.
The foundry is famous across the world. Nine Cornille-Havard bells were commissioned for Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris to celebrate its 850 year anniversary in 2013. Bells have been sent across Europe, Asia and even to Beirut. Each bell has a name and since WW2 those names are mostly associated with peace, and freedom.
The foundry often works with artists to create unique pieces. The iconic sculpture of a soldier dragging his injured buddy on DDay that stands at Villerville, Omaha beach, was made here.
The foundry worked with artist Yannec Tomada to recreate a statue by American sculptor Jim Brothers, for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The original statue is in Bedford in the US and depicts two soldiers from the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division of Bedford Virginia. It was in Villerville on D-Day that the division suffered its greatest losses.
Future in the balance
While the techniques perfected at l’Atelier and Cornille-Havard are historic, and their rare skills admired globally, both are real businesses in a difficult world.
Jean-Pierre Couget at l’Atelier fears for the future of his profession: “It’s a physical job, noisy, dirty, but very rewarding. You still need to hammer 3,600 to 3,800 times to make a pan for jam making. My fear is that fewer and fewer young people will continue this tradition. Especially since it takes a lot of time to train them.”
Real expertise is always valued. We hope another generation of coppersmiths willing to learn and bring their own creativity will carry on these great traditions, in Villedieu-les-Poêles.
See the masters at work at l’Atelier du Cuivre, 54 rue du Général Huard, Villedieu-les-Poêles.
Enjoy a tour (English available) of the Cornille-Havard bell foundry, discover techniques used for hundreds of years and learn some fascinating history.
Visit the Musée de la Poeslerie/Maison de la Dentellière (House of Copper Pans and Lace) for an interesting insight into to the area, and learn French words for coppersmithing tools and techniques.
Note: Good copperwork is not cheap, there are lower cost bits and bobs available but you may want to take a bit of cash and buy a heritage item.
Report by Duhamel du Monceau to the French Academy of Sciences in 1761
A summer in Brittany by Thomas Adolphus Trollope 1840