‘Bueries’ (Bleacheries) - the first ‘factories’ in St. Quentin

(Freely translated in English from a presentation held in May 2011 by Frederic Pillet, author of “Saint Quentin, Histoire et patrimoine industriels“)

‘Bueries’ were used in the bleaching of linen cloth produced in Saint-Quentin at the time of the ‘Ancient Regime’. As was common from the second half of the sixteenth century, these ateliers or workshops were logically located in the wetlands of the valley of the Somme. During the seventeenth century bleaching technologies were brought in from Holland, and specifically by Jean Crommelin in 1631. In those early years he met with fierce opposition resulting from general reluctance to have new processes compete with old-time practices. There was also opposition from the local religious authorities in the face of the arrival of the non-Catholic, Protestant faithful - those of the so-called ‘Reformed Religion’. And there was also the controversy concerning the “Inventio Site" of St. Quentin (the place where legend has it that the body of the martyr Saint Quentin was buried). This is where the ateliers were erected since 1631. However, the success of the new bleaching process soon silenced opposition and a century later bleaching merchants were being praised by municipal authorities for their technical perfection and the fame it brought to the region.

Bustling St. Quentin town square showing dry goods coming and going.

The first step of the operation, once the fabric was taken down from the Mulquinier weaving loom, was to remove the last impurities such as 'parou' (grease used in bleaching soaps) and other additives/finishes to facilitate weaving. Then, after yardage and marking in the Town Hall marking room, the fabrics were sent to these cleaning workshops. They were soaked, then repeatedly washed and spread out in meadows and watered from small canals that criss-crossed these meadows.

Acid whey and Prussian blue or Indigo dye were used to improve whiteness of the fabric before it was sent to the finishing workshops of the city. This activity was seasonal between March and October. The bleaching process was subject to strict control of royal and municipal authorities who were the guarantors of the quality and hence the reputation of the Saint Quentin fabric.

Two criteria determined the location of these workshops in Saint-Quentin. On the one hand, the importance of understanding the linen business; on the other hand, the "quality" of water suitable for this activity. Strengthening the fortifications of the city after the siege of 1557 gradually dissipated hydraulic kinetic energy. Surface runoff in this city of nearly 8,000 people at the time, brought the necessary acidity to water laundering. Contrary to popular belief, the impurity of water is essential to its bleaching properties!

Possible buerie belonging to Jean Crommelin/Rachel Tacquelet
in St. Quentin

In the eighteenth century, four manufacturing sites were actively bleaching linen cloth. There were the bueries of Isle (where the train station is currently located); at Ostend (currently the site of the Employment Centre); at Islots (currently the Old Port ); and Oestres (west of the city). Established in the seventeenth century, these bueries were the property of large business families in the city - Protestants from Holland or various French regions (Loudunais ...) Those who settled in this border town with its persecutions included Couillette, Hauterive, Rigault, Chatelain, Joly Bammeville, Crommelin, Fizeaux, Joncourt, Fromaget, Dumoustier de Vastre ...

These bueries are real factories in the sense that these plants concentrate, albeit on a seasonal basis, hundreds of men and women workers. The architecture was in the royal factories style that was in vogue at the time - an architecture reminiscent of nobility (castle-like), military (barracks), or religious (convent buildings). Thus they display a large-scale architectural style for an industry that did not yet have its own functional architecture in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century.

This buerie was likely owned by the Joly de Bammeville
family that was related to the Crommelins through marriage.

Two factors led to the disappearance of these institutions at the dawn of the nineteenth century: the collapse of the linen industry in favor of cotton developed since the French Revolution, and the introduction of new bleaching techniques using sulfuric acid and chlorine. Urban expansion and progressive land reclamation of the city also led to the disappearance of the bleaching meadows needed for the bueries. The last architectural vestiges of these small industrial ‘castles’ of the Ancient Regime disappeared during the first World War.