Thursday 30 May 2024

Another guided walk led by historian Christophe Loir

Dr Christophe Loir of the ULB’s History, Arts and Archaeology faculty on Sunday 26 May 2024 led a second guided walk devised specially for the Brussels Brontë Group. Dr Loir, an expert on architecture and town planning, devoted his Sunday morning to plunging us into the Brussels of the early 1840s, the Brussels of the Brontës. 

Fourteen of us turned out and we gathered just after a torrential downpour; happily the rain held off almost completely during our two-hour walk. The theme of the walk was ‘Entre les deux gares bruxellois au temps des soeurs Brontë’ — ‘Between the North and South railway stations in the Brontës’ time’ — and Dr Loir highlighted, among other things, changes to the city brought by the arrival of the railway. 

We started in Place Rouppe, where the first Gare du Midi (called Gare des Bogards in the Brontës’ period) was located. Belgium was of course the first country in mainland Europe to build a railway, with the opening of the Brussels-Mechelen line 1835. By the Brontës’ time, a line was running between Ostend and Brussels, a journey that took six hours with the maximum speed only 30-40 kms per hour. We know that Charlotte Brontë made that journey in January 1843 when she returned to spend a second year in Brussels. ‘I took the train [from Ostend] at 12 and reached rue d’Isabelle at 7,’ she reported in a letter home announcing her safe arrival. 

From Place Rouppe, we made our way to the city centre along rue du Midi and hence past the Manneken-Pis to Grand’Place, in those days a market-place rather than the tourist attraction it is today. In the 1840s, before the central boulevards were built over the buried river Senne, the rue du Midi — or rue du Chemin de Fer as it was first known — was the main route to the city centre taken by those making their way from the South Station. It was created in 1841, just before the Brontës’ arrival. 

Dr Loir getting us to look at streets and pavements as never before

As on his guided walk last summer in the area round Bozar, Dr Loir used abundant handouts and visual aids to illustrate his commentary, showing us street plans set out in building permits and a giant map of the city indicating our walk route. At one point, he used two small models of gabled houses to illustrate the fire hazard posed by gables — fire spread easily in the gaps between the roofs of adjoining houses. In the Brontës’ time, gabled houses were being replaced by neoclassical ones with cornices.
Visual aids!

Dr Loir got us to look at details we had never noticed before. He had us look up as he explained gables, cornices, windows and façade decorations, and down at pavements, which are one of his passions! Pavements weren’t introduced until the late eighteenth century and in the Brontës’ time were still mostly lacking in the oldest part of town, i.e. the part formerly bounded by the thirteenth-century city walls. Dr Loir also pointed out features we might have seen but not fully understood before, such as corner houses with slanted — cut-off — corners to increase traffic visibility and road safety. 

One of Dr Loir’s areas of expertise is urban mobility in the 18th and 19th centuries, and one thing we learned from him is that official documents such as traffic regulations can give a vivid insight into city life in a particular period. Our walk ended at the Théâtre de la Monnaie and Dr Loir distributed an 1840 list of rules governing carriages depositing theatre-goers at the Théâtre de la Monnaie and picking them up after the show. 

At the Manneken-Pis

Detailed instructions covered which routes had to be taken going to and leaving the Place de la Monnaie, where vehicles could park and in which direction the horses had to face, which classes of vehicles were given priority and which had to patiently wait their turn, down to whether the city officials employed to open and close carriage doors were allowed to demand a tip for their services (they weren’t). 

Traffic was just one of many aspects of Brussels that were highly regulated in 1840s Brussels. Dr Loir distributed an extract from a Dictionnaire de police municipale published in 1842, a list of Brussels police regulations set out in alphabetical order by subject. A quick look online at no more than the entries under the letter ‘A’ gives many glimpses of life in the city in the 1840s.

Arriving at Grand'Place

The book tells you what you could and couldn’t do in the Allée Verte, a fashionable promenade which seems to have been subject to as many prohibitions as the Parc de Bruxelles, covered in Dr Loir’s walk last year. It details the procedures to be followed with regard to missing persons (absence ou disparition d’une personne), accidents, animals dead or alive, trees in the city, weapons, arrests, rights of assembly, and the duty of innkeepers (aubergistes) to keep a register of their guests, to name but a few. And so on through 600 pages to the last entries (vol and voyageurs). 

Having a historian as our guide meant that by the end of the walk we had not only learned a lot about the city’s streets and buildings and been taught to look at them more closely; we had also had a glimpse of the wealth of documents available for historical research. 

Learning about 1840s theatre-going at Théâtre de la Monnaie 

    Helen MacEwan

No comments: