The Cailly Valley
History of the Valley
The history of the corderie (rope factory) is closely linked to the Cailly valley, which has shaped the region’s economic landscape.
The cotton industry was established there as early as the eighteenth century. It benefitted from the presence of numerous inland harbours and sea ports, including the one in Rouen, which acted as excellent commercial platforms for those working in the textile industry.
In the early eighteenth century, the valley was already receiving recognition for its activity. From 1701, demand for cotton fabrics became so high that Rouen merchants and manufacturers organised production in rural areas, with the help of the provincial work force. The number of rural workers making a living from spinning, warping and cotton weaving increased from 20,000 in 1730 to 100,000 by the end of the century.
The “Siamese of Pays de Caux” (woven cotton fabrics reinforced with linen or silk) then the “Indienneries” (manufacturers of printed Indian textiles, or “Indienne”) made the region’s production a success.
At the end of the eighteenth century, English machines (water-fuelled machinery) appeared. Labelled “Little Manchester”, the Cailly valley was a natural place for the development of hydraulic spinning mills, instead of the old mills used for paper or grains.
In the nineteenth century, the valley experienced a tremendous economic upturn with the expansion of the cotton industry. Between 1815 and 1820, fifteen new hydraulic spinning mills were built on the banks of the Cailly River. In 1850, 51 spinning mills, 4 weaving companies, 22 Indienne manufacturers and 17 dyers were interspersed along a 44km stretch.
The Seine-Inférieure department was then well positioned as a leader in the French cotton-producing departments for spinning and weaving.
However, during the second half of the nineteenth century problems relating to supplies of raw materials, combined with the expensive modernisation of mechanisation, brought about the closure of many spinning mills.
Finally, the loss of French colonies, particularly of Algeria, proved fatal for Haute-Normandie’s industry. It was no longer able to compete with the low-cost manufacturing of foreign countries and the cotton era definitively ended in the 1950s. The buildings that housed the spinning mills and textiles workshops were converted.
From the paper mill to the vallois rope factory
The history of the Musée Industriel de la Corderie Vallois (Vallois Rope Factory Industrial Museum) dates back to the eighteenth century. Originally, Jean Toussaint, a merchant from Darnétal, operated a sixteenth-century paper mill from 1759.
Purchased in 1819 by Bapeaume dyer and launderer Charles-Désiré Fouquet, the property was altered in 1821 by his widow, Marie-Rose Fouquet-Cuit, who completed extensive works. A four-story half-timbered building, 17.50 metres on each side, was therefore built along the river.
On 18 January 1825, by order of King Charles X, she received permission to convert the old paper mill into a “cotton mill”. The mill’s hydraulic structures were then modified as a giant wheel measuring 7.30 metres in diameter and 3.90 metres in width was installed.
On 9 August 1836, the factory was purchased by Edouard-Henri Rondeaux, an Indienne manufacturer based in Bolbec. Following a temporary conversion into a wool mill during the cotton crisis of the 1860s, the factory was then turned into a mechanical rope factory in 1880 by Jules Vallois, a rope maker in Saint Martin du Vivier.
It operated until 1978, when it closed down.
Jules Vallois was born on 6 August 1842 into a family of farmers in Le Neubourg.
On 16 January 1869 he married Augustine Féret. This marriage produced four children: Raoul, France, Gaston and Agnès. The family lived at 36 Rue du Contrat Social in Rouen.
During this period, Vallois was a commercial employee in a rouennerie (printed cotton goods shop) on Boulevard des Belges in Rouen. Once he had his rope making diploma, he departed for Saint-Martin-du-Vivier to work in the Jourdain factory, which manufactured braided rope.
The Robec valley, which had little in the way of industry, was then the subject of major development projects undertaken by the public authorities. Jules Vallois was therefore obliged to change mills, following the catchment of the river water to supply the town of Rouen.
Forced to find another building, he rented the facility of the Rondeaux family in Notre-Dame-de-Bondeville, before becoming its owner in 1897 thanks to damages paid by the town of Rouen.
Next, he transformed the spinning mill into a mechanical rope factory by installing large English machines on the ground floor and small French units on the first floor.
The company came to specialise in cabled rope and braided cord.
A family artisan business
Jules Vallois was a discreet man. His modest rural origins likely influenced his vision of work well done, as well as his desire to create a family atmosphere in his factory.
This paternalistic boss’s view of the world of work was inspired by theories of social Catholicism. Indeed, he hired most of his workers in the Cailly valley and made gardens and vegetable patches available to them.
The work in the rope factory required skill and was therefore entrusted primarily to women. Until 1948, the workers worked fifty hours per week. They received bi-weekly wages linked to performance, which required them to meet a certain work rate and a high number of orders.
The work was hard in view of the noise of the machines, the cotton dust, the cold temperatures of winter and the high heat of summer.
Nonetheless, despite these challenging working conditions demands were rare in his day, and workers appear to have gone to his first-floor office only to collect their wages.
The good working atmosphere in the rope factory was Jules Vallois’s legacy. Upon his death on 7 September 1918, Vallois left behind a prosperous and dynamic company.
...And the rope factory
Succession and closure
Following the death of his father at the age of 76 years old, Gaston Vallois became the owner of the institution on 2 November 1918.
Gaston had worked with his father, but had little sales experience. Following his mother’s advice, he transferred the business activities to a Vosges engineer by the name of Henri Bresch and remained in his manufacturing role.
This marks a prosperous period for the rope factory, which employed around forty people. Henri Bresch’s management facilitated the smooth transition between the legacy of Jules Vallois and the modern twentieth-century era.
Unfortunately for the rope factory, he was unable to overcome the repercussions of the crisis of 1929; upon his death in 1930, the financial situation became alarming. As banks were no longer willing to lend the money needed to run the business, Gaston Vallois had to guarantee loans against his personal fortune and create a limited liability company with Bresch’s heirs on 1 September 1930.
Suzanne Bresch, Henri Bresch’s daughter, then worked as an accountant and secretary for the company, which operated under the name “Etablissements Jules Vallois”.
As for Gaston, he started managing the factory and gradually managed to pay off the debts by reducing the number of machines and workers, dropping to a workforce of ten by 1936.
Loyal to his father’s policies, he still tried to avoid compulsory redundancies and helped workers to get back into employment.
On 1 January 1937, he handed over to Maurice Mallet, an engineer by training, who had married Suzanne Bresch. The factory’s finances had been improved and a reserve fund had been set up to deal with any potential financial worries.
Gaston Vallois died in 1952. During this period, the decline of the textile industry brought about many disruptions. For the factory to survive, production had to be diversified (trimmings, hosiery, fishing nets, lighter wicks) and new clients and opportunities had to be found.
Despite these efforts, the financial situation got gradually worse. Clients were scarce, and Maurice Mallet was forced to make the decision to file for bankruptcy in October 1978.
The intercommunal trade union of Notre-Dame-de-Bondeville and Houlme purchased the land from the Vallois family, which was still its owner.
Almost a century after its creation, the rope factory was then in a very poor condition…
From rope factory to Museum
Conservation of the site
Maurice Mallet had remained very attached to his factory despite its closure, and fought to prevent its destruction.
Under threat by a real estate project on an adjacent site, the building was saved and refurbished thanks to his fight, which was led with Jules Vallois’s grandson Pierre Vallois and supported by the Association of Industry and the Musée de l’Homme, public authorities (Historical Monuments and Museums of France) and local communities (regional and departmental).
On 15 January 1975, the building and the wheel were added to the French supplementary historic monument list and, on 27 February 1984, most of the machines were classified as movable objects of the monument.
In 1989, the Haute-Normandie region, which owned the building, decided to create an industrial archaeological museum to act as a place of memory. The museum project therefore had two objectives: to repair the site, restoring the atmosphere of the workshops of the past, and to adapt the building to its new role as a museum.
On 11 February 1994, the Musée Industriel de la Corderie Vallois (Vallois Rope Factory Industrial Museum) opened. France’s first industrial museum, it was then owned by the department of Seine-Maritime. On 1 January 2016, the institution was transferred to the Métropole Rouen Normandie.