Musée de la Métallurgie Ardennaise

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History of the "Big Workshop"

The "Grosse Boutique"or "Big Workshop" is a particularity of the Meuse valley. It was an ensemble of "boutiques" – or workshops – with workers' accommodation nearby. The Grosse Boutique preceded the building of works and factories as we know them today.

The Grosse Boutique stood for a century and its history is inextricably linked to three generations of bosses whose portraits you can see here.

The Grosse Boutique, which occupied the small valley of Bogny, was photographed in full prosperity just before the First World War. It employed hundreds of workers, had a private railway line and even had a branch in St Petersburg. It was the biggest nut-and-bolt works in the Ardennes. You can see some of its products on the plates taken from the catalogue. The Grosse Boutique mainly produced nuts and bolts, door-fittings, sleeper-screws and rivets for the railways and the mechanical equipment industry. It employed local labour: sons and daughters came to work alongside their parents at the end of their compulsory schooling. So a large proportion of the village's population relied on the Grosse Boutique.

To keep their workers, especially those who came from beyond the village – and also to keep an eye on them – the bosses, Maré and Gérard, built a hundred or so worker's cottages between 1880 and 1910; like those on the steep Rue de l’Echelle – Ladder Street: identical houses facing each other across the street, climbing the hill in succession, forming what look like the rungs of a ladder.

This lively, working-class neighbourhood, echoed with the sounds of chattering washerwomen and playing children. People lives involved solidarity and conviviality, but were also governed by the works' siren. Women shopped at the Grosse Boutique's general store, partly funded by the bosses. They paid with tokens and the corresponding amount was automatically deducted from wages. Another invention of the Grosse Boutique was the crèche for the workers' babies and toddlers which opened in 1898. It was run by five nuns: supervision in the "sanctuary", needlework in the sewing-room... every newborn had the right to clothes, medical care and home-visits. All these buildings, the majority of which still exist, bear witness to the philanthropic paternalism of the bosses of the time.

entrance of the Big Wokshop workshop
General Stores Rue de l'Echelle
© 2022Musée de la Métallurgie Ardennaise - Tous droits réservés. Textes René COLINET