Down among the dusty archives

Laroque d'Olmes' town insignia
Laroque d’Olmes’ town insignia

Like every commune in France – apart from those who’ve lost everything in flood, fire or time of war – Laroque has shelves, yards and yards of them, of municipal archives.   In the main these are bound volumes of directives from central government relating to the Ariège.  There are also endless files of copies of forms relating to hatches, matches and despatches, licenses for liquor, permission to drive carriages, horseless or otherwise, toll roads, road improvements, land sales, local disasters such as landslip and flooding, records of meetings, residency requests, paperwork relating to shops, artisans, workmen an apprentices, immigrants….  all human life is here.  That’s before you realise there are bundles of engravings, daguerreotypes, photographs…..

They aren’t indexed.

Laroque’s Commission du Patrimoine, of which I am an enthusiastic but fairly useless member (I have no Tales of the Oldest Inhabitant, no competence to research French documents, no skills in artefact restoration or in industrial archaeology) has realised this situation must change.

An early job is to trawl through the central government volumes, which date from the early 18th century, and extract any information relating to Laroque.  I can help here.  It’s a question of skimming these volumes for relevant entries.

A bobbin worker immortalised in Laroque's Council Chamber
A bobbin worker immortalised in Laroque’s Council Chamber

Three of us sat down on Friday morning in the old Council Chamber of the Mairie, with its wall decorations showing noted politicians and industrialists, as well as allusions to the all-important textile industry.  We had dusty piles of leather-bound volumes on the table in front of us.  We turned to. It was fairly dry repetitive work, so we kept each other amused by reading out things that caught our eye.  There were tales of Mayors drummed out of office (not from Laroque, no of course not) for inappropriate drunkenness.  There were the lists of clothes to be supplied to those children raised in institutions, and the money made available for the care of each child.

An infant from 1 day to 9 months old needs:3 blouses, 2 vests, 6 (6 only?) nappies, 3 swaddling blankets, 2 baby's bonnets, a woollen dress and 2 bootees.
An infant from 1 day to 9 months old needs:3 blouses, 2 vests, 6 (6 only?) nappies, 3 swaddling blankets, 2 baby’s bonnets, a woollen dress and 2 bootees.
11-12 year old girl: 3 cloth blouses, woollen coat, cotton coat, cotton apron, cap, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 lined caps, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair shoes. 11-12 year old boy: 3 cloth shirts, 1 pair trousers, 1 vest, 1 waistcoat, 2 ties, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair lined shoes.  After 12, they made their own way in the world
11-12 year old girl: 3 cloth blouses, woollen coat, cotton coat, cotton apron, cap, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 lined caps, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair shoes. 11-12 year old boy: 3 cloth shirts, 1 pair trousers, 1 vest, 1 waistcoat, 2 ties, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair lined shoes. After 12, they made their own way in the world

I was intrigued to learn that there was in the 19th century, a single training school  in the Pas-de-Calais in the north of France for would-be shepherds.  Why would you spare your 16-year-old son to go to the other end of France, at some expense, to acquire his training (though there were no fees), when he could be back at home learning on the job?  There was a similar mining school in the east of France.

A demanding clothing list for the shepherds' school: 8 new shirts, 8 pairs of stockings or socks, 2 cravats, 8 handkerchiefs, 5 blouses, 2 pairs winter trousers, 3 pairs summer trousers, 2 waistcoats, 3 woollen jumpers, 2 new pairs shoes, 2 pairs clogs and liners.  The shcool did the laundry though.
A demanding clothing list for the shepherds’ school: 8 new shirts, 8 pairs of stockings or socks, 2 cravats, 8 handkerchiefs, 5 blouses, 2 pairs winter trousers, 3 pairs summer trousers, 2 waistcoats, 3 woollen jumpers, 2 new pairs shoes, 2 pairs clogs and liners. The school did the laundry though.

We were good though.  We completed our self-appointed tasks.  We found Laroque mentioned throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as all other communes, in connection with, for example:

  • understanding its precise obligations to maintain communal roads and paths.
  • submitting to standardised checks to ensure fair weights and measures were being applied locally.
  • submitting returns showing who had joined the army, and in what capacity.
  • We learned where the nearest doctors, midwives (‘sage-femmes‘) and pharmacists to Laroque were.

Despite moments of tedium, this was a fascinating morning.  I was privileged to inspect these old records, and to gain a little more understanding of life during this period, and an appreciation of just how far the long arm of the state, whether imperial or republican, extended.

Directives from the Empire in 1870 about fishing, recruitment to the national guard, ...er...mayflies, and billhooks
Directives from the Empire in 1870 about fishing, recruitment to the national guard, …er…mayflies, and billhooks
Imperial constitution and rights of succession
Imperial constitution and rights of succession

10 thoughts on “Down among the dusty archives”

  1. I love the thought of holding and turning the pages of these documents from days so very long ago. I’m sure it wasn’t all gripping reading, the idea of the experience appeals to me!

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    1. You’re right. I forgot to mention that I was the very first person to read some of those pages. I know that…because the pages weren’t cut. Perhaps I’ll be the last too. But it’s a great feeling. Those yellow, slightly spongy pages, that ancient deeply-impressed type. It’s quite special.

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  2. How fascinating! When reading the memoirs of a Welshman called Pennant who toured through France just before the Revolution, i was fascinated by his description of the Maisons des enfants trouvs, and as a result read up more about those. How interesting that certain areas designated themselves experts in tuition on certain subjects though I suppose the mining school would have to be in the Valenciennes region. The orphanages too specialised in particular training relevant to the area – lace for example.

    Did you know that Viollet le Duc (of Carcassonne and Notre Dame fame) was instrumental in saving the Paris archive, threatened during the Commune when the Hotel de Ville was burnt down? An elderly man by this time, and out of favour he rallied other luminaries to physically rescue what they could and get it to a place of safety. I wonder if there are similar treasures in town halls in the UK. Let’s face it though, the French are a more bureaucratic nation!. Think Domesday Book!

    What reaction have you had from your French friends to your decision to return to the UK? And when is your next actual visit to the UK? It would be lovely to spend more than the odd few minutes catching up. Is your house actually on the market yet? Richard and I feel we really should try to visit before you up sticks! Having seen the photos, it would be great to see the finished projects. Love to you both Jonet

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    1. Yes, the house is on the market. I’ll email you the link and you can be amused at the contrast between French and British sites. We shan’t be home until we’re home now – probably about next March. Our friends have reacted with flattering dismay. Though at the same time understanding our wish to be nearer family and English friends. One trip to see us is already at the planning stage. If you can find a flight… you know where we are! Thanks for all the fascinating detail that you’ve found out. Love to you as well.

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  3. ahhhhhhhpapier vieilli, transpirant l’odeur des siècles…..”travail” fascinant – sad knowing you “lost” to that area – nevertheless all the very best, AnnAxxx

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  4. That’s fascinating… I love the detail of the record keeping here in France. My mother in law, who worked in a small town city hall for many years, once showed me some of the books documenting births, marriages etc. and just seeing the handwriting from so long ago was impressive!

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  5. Hello, Margaret, and all Margaret’s friends !
    You write : “Like every commune in France – apart from those who’ve lost everything in flood, fire or time of war – Laroque has shelves, yards and yards of them, of municipal archives. ”
    Well, either there was another flood, a third one, or a fire (let’s not think about worse … ) in Mirepoix on July 4th, 2012, or a local will to get rid of the archives, with the official reason of sending them, of sweeping them off to Foix, for them to be added to the ” archives départementales ” . I was told there was no alternative, as ” c’est la loi “. Mirepoix is an exception, I bet …
    I and two friends of mine used to work three mornings a week, for several years, on the second floor of the town hall, in a tiny dusty room, crammed with masses of documents, files, registers, ever so precious for us, so rich with information on local history, absolutely vital for us to work and prepare lectures, articles, conferences, visits, etc … Of course, it was extremely easy and comfortable for us to go and work there, locally, I mean. Driving to Foix is different, we have to spend the day there otherwise it is just a waste of time, and the place closes down from twelve to two p.m. Brilliant ! Plus, one can only consult four documents in the morning, four in the afternoon. Which can be very annoying, depending on what one is looking for.
    I cannot tell you how many extraordinary finds we have made (and shared with everyone, either via Christine’s blog ” la dormeuse ” or my own guided visits and conferences. I cannot tell you how many people we have helped completing their genealogies. I cannot tell you how many wonderful events we have organized around our local history and historical figures, including Pierre Pol Riquet, Marie de Calages, Philippe de Lévis, Jacques Vidal, Melchior Frédéric Soulié, Antoine Benoit Vigarozy, Raymond Escholier , to mention just a few of them.
    We are so sad, not to have the opportunity of working as before …
    Few people, I think, understand how devastating an experience it was for us, to enter that empty room, the day after … I’m sure you will …

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    1. I had no idea that your second home was your municipal archives, though I shoud have guessed. All your knowledge had to come from somewhere. How devastating to have all those documents taken from their long-term home, where you could ‘follow your noses’. Because sometimes it can’t be easy to know exactly which documents might be most useful. Well, Laroque’s are still here if you want to change allegiance. Whatever you do, please continue your fascinating work. It’s wonderful when you share the results of your research. Thank you!

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