Forges des Salles

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Forges des Salles is a small iron making hamlet near Lac de Guerlédan. It is a beautiful setting in a steep river valley surrounded by deciduous woodland.

We were the first to arrive after opening and had an individual guided tour with a young English lad who had moved to Brittany with his parents 5 years ago. He was informative and able to answer most of our increasingly detailed questions. It was a very worthwhile visit. For those who don’t want to have a guided tour there is an information leaflet numbering the different buildings around the site with information about them.

Mining was first established in the valley by the Rohan Family in 1623. The soil was rich in iron ore and there was plenty of wood for charcoal and an abundant supply of water. In 1802 the estate was bought by Compte de Janez who was very enlightened for the time and looked after his workers very well. His descendants still live in the Big House. In the 18thC this was one of the largest industrial sites in Brittany. Mining and processing of iron ore finished in 1880 and the buildings were gradually deserted. They have been restored as a museum.

The site is built round a courtyard dominated by the Big House with its outbuildings made up of stables, kennels, carriage sheds as well as joinery and carpenter’s shop. The carpenter was responsible for maintenance of all roofing on the estate.

The Estate Manager and the Master of the Ironworks lived in the Big House. Most of the building is 18thC but the right wing was added in 1920 when the family moved in. Beyond, the terraced garden rises up the side of the valley with a small orangery at the top, which now houses the water tower for the estate. The garden provided fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs for the Big House.

There is a terrace of single storey 18thC iron workers cottages and a row of two storey 19thC cottages for the foreman and office staff. These reflect their status and face south so catching all the sunlight.

The administration building is close to these and was also the pay office. The chief clerk was responsible for all the book keeping of the estate which included forestry workers, charcoal burners, carters and miners living off the site as well as villagers. About 400 people were employed by the estate. Wages were paid every eight days. Miners and charcoal workers lived in the woods to be near their work. They would bring in ore or charcoal in horse drawn wagons to be weighed and would be given a chit to collect their pay from the office.

Behind the administration building is Chapelle St-Eloi (St Eligius) who is the patron saint of metal workers. This has two entrances. The north entrance was used by the villagers. The main west entrance was reserved for the Master of the Ironworks, chief clerk and the family, if in residence. They sat in larger and more comfortable seats at the back. The chapel is plain and simple as it was built by the Rohen family who were protestants. Now it is a catholic chapel.

The blast furnaces, charcoal and iron store are in the centre of the village and supplies were brought by horse drawn wagons on tramways.

The site had a smithy with blacksmith’s cottage attached. Not only did the smith shoe horses he was also responsible for the repair of broken machinery. Nearby was a large canteen serving about 70 meals a day and where the men were given a free midday meal. Next to it was a small shop. The men were paid in cash and the shop used money rather than a barter or truck system. This provided the women with all the essentials they could not provide themselves. It was also a meeting place to exchange gossip, especially with the packmen who delivered goods. There was communal bakery and cider press. The French put a tax on grapes and cereals. There was no tax on apples or buckwheat which is one of the reasons Brittany produced cider rather than wine and used buckwheat (in crêpes) rather than wheat based products. The cider press could produce 800 litres of cider in a pressing. The men were given an allowance and would drink cider in the canteen.

The Compte de Janez family provided a small free school for the children. This was well away from the industrial site to ‘spare the children noise and fumes’. About 50 children attended the school. It was run by the Sisters of the Holy Spirit from St-Brieuc, who also acted as nurses to the community. French rather than Breton was used in the school. Very intelligent children were identified and the Compte would pay for their further education. At the end of primary school the boys became apprentices. The girls stayed with their mothers and learned housekeeping skills. The school stayed open until 1970. The Compte’s children attended the school before going to boarding school. As the school building no longer exists, a building in the village has been converted into a schoolroom to show what an 18thC school was like.

The visit begins in the long low row of 18thC iron workers cottages. One has been furnished as it would have been in the 18thC. Others contain exhibitions about the site.

Each family lived in a single room with a shale or beaten earth floor, fireplace and storage for hay above. At the back were two store rooms. Water came from a well but later water was provided to the cottages. Cooking was done over the fire but bread was baked in the communal bread oven. A 6kg loaf would be baked as it kept better. Each family was allocated a plot of land to grow vegetables and keep animals. They had shared use of a horse which was stabled in the middle of the row of cottages. Families lived rent free. Life expectancy of the men was low. Widows were allowed to continue to live in the cottage and were given a pension. The son would take over the father’s job and live in the family home.

Originally there were three furnaces in the valley, each with a lake to provide power for a waterwheel working the bellows. They ran for nine months each year as there was not enough water to run them during the summer. This time was used to repair/refurbish the furnaces. Gradually two fell out of use leaving the main furnace in the village. Originally all produce came in or out by horse and cart but once the Nantes Brest Canal was constructed output increased rapidly. There were large storage sheds for iron ore and charcoal which were large and airy to reduce the risk of explosion. There was a lime kiln to produce lime from locally mined limestone.

Iron ore, charcoal and lime were taken by horse drawn wagons from the stores along tramways and tipped into the top of the furnace. The waterwheel worked two huge bellows pumping hot air into the base of the furnace. They got more money for finished products although some wrought iron was sold to nail makers in Brittany. Artisans used the wrought iron to produce agricultural machinery. During the Napoleonic Wars they made link chained cannon balls. The slag was used for roads or building work.

Iron working closed down around 1880 as furnaces nearer the coast could produce more iron more economically. The furnace was demolished in 1887. A new furnace has been rebuilt on the site and contains some of the iron working tools. The pond was filled in as a health hazard.

This was a fascinating visit and we really enjoyed it.

The site does have quite restricted opening times. It is only open in the afternoon. It is open weekends only from Easter to end of September. It is open daily in July and August. There are no cafe on site. Most of the site is accessible to those of limited mobility.


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