Every month we bring you a different archive which has recently been useful to a French historian. This month, Will Clement, a doctoral student from St John’s College, Oxford, tells us about his latest research trip to the Archives Nationales du Monde Travail in Roubaix. Aside from being located in a beautiful cattle in Northern France, these archives are also extremely useful when examining ‘the world of work’ in French history. How to get there? How to prepare a visit? What might you find once you’re there? And where do you get your lunch? Will shares his experience at the ANMT (Roubaix).
After three undergraduate years of calling University College in Durham my home, castles hold a dear place in my heart. As a modern historian with an interest in architecture, however, it is rare that my explorations into the industrial world of nineteenth-century France lead me to encounter these impressive fortresses. Compared to medievalist colleagues, whose adventures behind crenellations, portcullises, and other such devices, my research on the houses of textile workers can often seem less swashbucklingly exciting. Fortunately, a visit to the Archives Nationales du Monde du Travail in Roubaix provided a serendipitous alignment of the industrial and the castellated.
The former seat of the Motte-Bossut firm, the current building owes as much to the French château tradition as it does to the factories of Manchester which inspired its creator. The ‘filature monstre’ was intended to cement the position of the Motte-Bossut family as one of the leaders of the industrial boomtown of Roubaix. It certainly did that, and it was only in 1981 that the factory closed its doors, as Roubaix suffered the effects of deindustrialisation. In 1993 however, as part of a wider scheme of reinvigorating old industrial buildings in Roubaix, this former factory opened its doors once more as the location for the Archives Nationales du Monde du Travail. Today, these archives contain a plethora of documents relating to the world of work in France, from records of certain companies and industries, through to private family papers.
Ahead of my visit over Easter, I was able to plan in some detail the documents that I wanted to access due to an incredibly detailed and easily accessible list of collections on the archive’s website. The liste des fonds is organised both alphabetically as well as thematically (including such diverse themes as Commerce, Genealogy, and Sport), and each entry has a pdf attached with a varying breakdown of the document details within the specific collection. While the list is fairly exhaustive, the website is begging for some sort of search functionality to bring it into the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, I was far more prepared heading into this trip than into some municipal archive visits where there is little to no online presence.
Getting to the archives is very straightforward. As Roubaix is one of my case studies, I was staying nearby for a month, though the connections are so easy that it wouldn’t be inconceivable that one could visit in a day trip from the UK. From London, you can get a Eurostar that takes you to Lille in around one and a half hours, then it is a thirty minute metro ride on Ligne 2 from Lille Europe to Eurotéléport in Roubaix, which brings you almost to the archives’ front door. A short walk past the entrance to the shopping arcade McArthurGlen Roubaix and you reach the industrial château that is the archives. With generous opening times by archives’ standards of 9-5 Tuesday-Friday, a determined traveller could definitely do the trip in a day; if not, there is an Ibis hotel across the road and a good selection of other budget hotels and Airbnb options in both Roubaix and Lille.
The entrance is not through the turret-flanked frontage that comes up when you Google search the archives, but rather through a no less impressive door on the Mail Jacques Prouvost (n.b. if, like me, you overshoot this entrance and end up at the turrets, there is plenty of signage to put you back on track). The foyer includes an impressive scale-model of the former factory, as well as an exhibition room. The salle de lecture is on the first floor, accessible by lift. The reading room is fairly large, bright, and airy, and each workspace has access to a power socket and an individual spot-light. While there is no Wi-Fi access, there are several computers that are used for accessing the electronic liste des fonds. After a short registration process (photo I.D. is required) with the extremely helpful archivists you are taken to the lockers where you can/must deposit all coats/bags/laptop cases etc. Cameras are allowed, without flash, and there is a device for taking fixed-camera photos for the shakier-handed amongst us.
Requesting documents is very straightforward – find the specific collection on the liste des fonds, fill in a paper form for each collection, and hand it to the archivist. Depending on the time of day and how busy the reading room is, boxes take between ten and thirty minutes to arrive, and your name is called out when the box arrives. During this waiting time, there is a wide range of reading material in the room, from the latest issues of periodicals, to archive-created histories that contain useful pointers to archival material. There is a cap on how many boxes you can request per day, though I believe that it is a generous twenty: if you manage to get through twenty boxes, then I think you deserve to call it a day then anyway.
There is a room down the corridor from the reading room that has a water cooler and a few seats if you need to take a break throughout the day, while there are plenty of cafés nearby to grab a coffee and a sandwich. My personal choice was the ‘Honey & Pie’ in the McArthurGlen shopping arcade: though it lacked any discernable French character, the sandwiches were good, meal deals were affordable and, most importantly, it had free Wi-Fi.
Travel Tip: Be sure to explore Roubaix if you have the time. Though the effects of deindustrialisation can still be seen throughout the town, there are marked attempts to move beyond this and to reinvigorate Roubaix’s industrial past for present and future visitors. Notable examples include La Piscine (a museum of art an industry housed in a converted Art Deco swimming pool) and La Manufacture (a converted weaving factory that now functions as part working museum, part art installation).
Special Thanks to Will for his great contribution and photograph!