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The short life of Levavasseur’s gothic folly; the mill at Fontaine-Guérard

Our match may not be the best, but it is the first view we ever had of the Filature Levavasseur as we zoomed along the Andelle valley one summer day.  What was an English cathedral doing in a Eure valley?  In a hurry we raced past, determined to return.

Mysterious English gothic turrets in a Normandy Valley. The view is a little more dramatic in the winter.
Mysterious English gothic turrets in a Normandy Valley. The view is a little more dramatic in the winter.

For centuries the beautiful Andelle river valley was the peaceful home to Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontaine-Guérard, until the French revolution took away all church land and it was sold to François Guéroult.

Mills bring noise, money and destruction to the Andelle valley

François, an architect from Rouen, had won the appreciation of his city by finding a solution to terrible river damage caused by great storms in 1787.  A large section of the Robec river banks were destroyed and forcing water away from city factories.  François designed a 108 ft wooden tunnel to temporarily direct a section of the river while the banks were strengthened.  It was a cheap solution built in three days that saved course of the Robec and many Rouen fortunes.

But when the Revolution of 1789 came to Rouen, François no longer felt safe and chose to leave.  A practical man, he saw the pretty Andelle valley with its ancient Abbaye as ideal for his future plans.  The Abbaye buildings would be a fine source of materials for his new cotton mill and the river a perfect source to power it.

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A fortune frittered

Building work commenced in 1792 and François expanded his estate to include the marshes surrounding the Abbaye. Trees were cut down and quickly the soil became less healthy.

François died a wealthy man age 59, in December 1804.  His family cheerfully took on their generous inheritance of cotton and wool mills, selling it all in 1822 when the factories no longer seemed to make them a profit. The estate was bought by a businessman who knew exactly how to change that.

The Levavasseur family

Baron Édouard Jacques Levavasseur was a former director of the Bank of France and a Havre manufacturer with his own fleet of ships.  He bought cotton from America to feed the mills at Fontaine-Guérard and modernised the site. When he died in 1842 his son Charles, who had been involved in the business for years, inherited everything.

Mills are dangerous places; particularly at a time when heating would be from coal fires and lighting from candles.  Any flames can catch wisps of cotton and so they did just a few months later. A woollen mill was destroyed.  Distracted briefly in the 1840’s by the purchase and rebuilding of Chateau Radepont (some of the more ornate Abbaye carvings were used in its design), the factories on the Andelle river were soon again in the forefront of Charles’ mind.

In 1851 two more fires destroy many factory buildings.  The fires may have been accidents but there could have been another reason. Mill working conditions were tough and labour known to protest, sometimes with a quiet deadly intent.

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‘The working day consists of thirteen hours’

Rules for workers at the l’Essonne mill in 1828 survive, they are not unusual for the times. Here are a few:

Art. 7. The working day consists of thirteen hours… workers cannot refuse overtime when circumstances require, under penalty of two francs fine.

Art. 8. Every worker in ten minutes late will be fined twenty-five cents; if they miss a day, they will pays a fine of the value of time of absence.

Art. 9. Once inside, a worker cannot leave early without written permission, under penalty of a fine.

Art. 11. The worker who would appear drunk in the workshops will be led out of the factory, and will pay three francs fine.

Art. 17. It is forbidden to play, swear, shout, sing, quarrel or fight in workshops, eat or sleep during working hours, to swim and run in the property under penalty of twenty-five cents to a fine franc, according to the gravity of the case.

Art. 24. Whoever stops work during the day unnecessarily… will pay a twenty-five cents fine.

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Good fortune from disaster

Charles Levavasseur decided the unfortunate fires were an opportunity to start again.  He had all of the old buildings razed to the ground and found a new site, further downstream out of sight of the chateau.  His new mill would be a modern marvel, the cutting edge of design and production. It  would be the largest and the grandest in the valley, perhaps in France.  A lover of English gothic, his mill would be built to look like a romantic foreign castle.

Planning began in 1855.  The mill would stand on a new island made by changing the course of the Andelle River and building a canal.  It would be big enough (96 m long, 20 m wide and 38 m high) for 300 workers on the machines night and day. Four turrets dominated the design, each containing fireplaces to heat the five floors. At each end a stained glass rose window would cast coloured light into the dusty rooms.  A second smaller mill would be built nearby in a similar style. Work began in 1857.

Rare postcard of the working, smaller, mill
Rare postcard of the working, smaller, mill. Ruins of the larger mill can be seen on the right, the semi circle marking the bottom of a stained glass rose window.

Three terrible, final, hours

In 1861, the mills begins production.  Lights gleam through gothic arched windows day and night, the shatter of machinery shouting across the valley. They were Charles Levavasseur’s pride and his joy for 13 years.

Three terrible hours was all it took on 23 April 1874 for a fire to destroy his great gothic dream.

The fire started on Sunday 26 April 1874 at 10:30am in the attic. When the first alarm signal was given, all workers were away from the building. The two main pumps were protected, but the flames quickly burned through the factory …. at about 11.30am, a terrible noise was heard. It was the five floors and all their machinery crashing down to the ground floor.  Burning objects exploded out of the mill and the second building was covered with hot coals. This event deprived 350 workers of their jobs.’ – translated form the Vexin Journal of 30 April 1874.

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Decline

Broken hearted and now an old man, Charles handed the business over to his son Arthur.  Insurance was claimed but came nowhere near to covering the cost of rebuilding. Only the small mill was restored.

Family fortunes fluctuated and over time the chateau at Radepont was sold and the Abbaye ruins donated to the Salvation Army. The remaining mills stayed in the Levavasseur family, surviving a few more fires, until 1946.  A fire on 16 December would be the last.  The mills were not rebuilt. Eventually a power turbine was installed and the energy sold to Électricité De France.

Folly for the future

The remains of Charles Levavasseurs’ gothic folly left private hands in 1960 when the department of the Eure took over responsibility for the remarkable ruins of the Filature Levavasseur.  They have ensured the ruins are secure.

The Filature cannot be visited, just viewed on its island between the canal and the river Andelle, a glorious remnant of a proud industrial past.

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Still a source of hydroelectric power.

 

This VideoBBP drone flight (from around 1 minute in) gives a very clear view of the ruin:

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