Le Havre, World Heritage Site

Le Havre in 1657.

Finding traces of the pre-war city

To understand the how and why of the reconstructed city, it is necessary to return to the beginnings of the norman city situated on the estuary of the river Seine. A crossroads for men and goods, a strategic site too, it was shaped by the power and money which concentrated there as time went by.

Founding the town

At the beginning of the XVIth century, Northern European towns benefit from the shift of trade from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The French King wants in, as this movement heralds the arrival of great wealth from the new world. Young King Francis the First (François 1er), same as his forbears, wishes to compensate for the silting up of the ports of Harfleur and Honfleur, situated on the estuary of the Seine in Normandy. He wants a well-protected port on the coast of Normandy, safe from the English fleet, that will defend the realm. On 7th February 1517, he gives Admiral Bonnivet commission to have “the said Havre” built in the Pays de Caux (meaning: chalk). The Admiral gives over the mission to the Seigneur du Chillou (Lord of Chillou), then Captain of Honfleur, who choses creeks called “Lieu de Grâce” (place of Grace). Digging starts on 16th April 1517, among the piles of stone on the Perrey and construction of a channel leading to the future Bassin du Roi (King’s Dock) is started. On 8th October 1517, Francis the First signs the document deciding the creation of the town. He will visit Le Havre de Grâce for the first time on 6th August 1520, when only a few houses are built, to the west of the Bassin du Roy (the core of Notre-Dame district). In 1523, the construction of the port is finished and trade with Morocco and Brazil has already been set up. There are only 600 inhabitants inside the fortified enclosure. During the following decades population will increase in unpredictable spurts and will reach about 5 000 inhabitants in 1540.

The 1541 expansion: creating Saint-François’ district

Le Havre holds a strategic position on the estuary of the Seine, whether for trade or military reasons, but the land, which is very marshy, does not allow easy development of the town. François 1er uses this difficulty as an opportunity to put into practice the urban planning as contemplated by the Italian Renaissance Movement. In January 1541, he entrusts Siennese architect Jérôme Bellarmato with restructuring Notre-Dame district and creating an extension to it, to the east of the Bassin du Roy. “It is a question of creating land like in Venice, but with less canals”. Bellarmato designs, for the new Saint-François’ district, an orthogonal grid of streets (doubled with tracks to carry waste water away). The new fortification wall is finished in 1551. The town is open to all influences and shows interest in the Reformation movement. Under the supervision of Coligny, Great Admiral of France, many groups of Protestants leave from Le Havre to establish settlements in America (Florida and creation of Rio in 1555). Le Havre becomes a pawn in the French religious wars. On 20th November 1562, the Treaty of Hampton court, signed between Elizabeth the First, queen of England, and some French Protestants, leads to the housing in Le Havre of an English garrison of 3 000 men, under the orders of Warwick. After a dreadful siege, the town is recaptured, in July 1563, by the armies of French King Charles IX. A pest epidemic is raging at the time. The port has fallen to ruin. During his September 1603 visit, King Henri IV takes measures to restore the port and impulse new maritime trade.

1626-1852: divided by trade and military activities

In 1626, Cardinal Richelieu, minister of Louis XIII, becomes Governor of Le Havre. He orders the fortifications reinforced, the building of a monumental gate and of a citadel, deciding then and for the two following centuries of the military character of the town and the port. At the same time, the government encourages traders to become ship owners and engage in colonial enterprises. The port deals with exotic products (coffee, sugar, spices, cotton), which pile up in the warehouses and get sent to the rest of Europe. The Compagnie du Sénégal and the Compagnie des Indes have counters in Le Havre. Trade with the Americas (Brazil, Peru) and the West Indies gives work to a large part of the population. Prosperity encourages new constructions: Law Courts (now the Natural History Museum) and a Stock Exchange. A lot of private mansions are built. But the town is overcrowded, houses are raised, some are built in courtyards. Shut away within the fortifications, the town becomes unhealthy and exposed to epidemics. Just before the French Revolution, the population reaches 20 000 inhabitants. The poorest live in huts outside the city walls, on the Perrey or the plain of Graville. Rich traders have villas built on the Côte (the heights lining the city to the North).

Le Havre next becomes a distant warehouse for Rouen and Paris, then one of the four foremost colonial French ports, it grows larger in response to the increase in both maritime traffic and population. The Plan of engineer François-Laurent Lamandé puts the fortifications back 500 metres to the North. This project includes the creation of the Commerce and Barre Docks. It doubles the surface of the port and quadruples the surface of the town. On the orthogonal grid, blocks are placed on streets parallel to Commerce Dock. Work will be delayed by the French Revolution and the Continental blockade, and the Lamandé Plan will only be completed in 1830. Cotton trade, emigrant transport and whale fishing are the port’s main activities. Le Havre officially loses its capacity as a military port in 1829 (transferred to Cherbourg). The Paris-Rouen-Le Havre railway line is inaugurated in 1847. A great increase in population is the result of economic prosperity and raises, once more, the question of expanding the city.

1852: Industrial Expansion

In 1852, Le Havre is authorized, by Imperial Decree, to bring down its fortifications. The surface of the city multiplies by nine, the population doubles (60 000 inhabitants). The town extends all the way North to the cliff. Taking the walls down makes room for thoroughfares which still structure present-time Le Havre. When Napoleon III visits, on 5th August 1857, the Boulevard de Strasbourg, built over the Northern ditch, is going towards completion. All major equipment, whether public or private get set up there: the Town Hall (1855), Law Courts (1876), the Sous-Préfecture (Local Government, 1878), the Stock Exchange (1878), the Caisse d’Epargne (Savings Society, 1883), maritime companies, trading counters…..The Boulevard François 1er, laid out in 1868, is lined with private mansions belonging to traders, and hotels for travelers. It joins the Boulevard Maritime (Sea Front boulevard), where the Casino Marie-Christine (1882) and rich villas overlooking the sea are situated. The port, undergoing major extpansion, moves away from the city. Steam navigation takes over, ships, sporting metallic hulls, grow larger and their cargos expand accordingly, creating the need for new docks (the Vauban, l’Eure and Bellot Docks are dug). From 100 000 inhabitants in 1880, the population reaches 170 000 in 1914.


Le Havre in 1657.