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Portbail (Municipality, Manche, France)

Last modified: 2017-08-12 by ivan sache
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Flag of Portbail - Image by Olivier Touzeau, 18 July 2017


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Presentation of Portbail

he municipality of Portbail (1,621 inhabitants in 2014; 1,956 ha) !s located 70 km north of Granville, on the western coast of the Cotentin peninsula.
The municipality is made of the villages of Portbail and Gouey, merged into a single municipality in 1818. The parish churches of the two villages are located only 200 m apart from each other, as highlighted by the local dictum:
Entre Portbail et Gouey,
Il ne croît ni herbe ni bled

(Between Portbail and Gouey,
Neither grass nor wheat grows).
Portbail was probably named for the Latin words portus, "a harbor", and ballium / balliolum, "an enclosure". Gouey (Goie, 12th century; Goe, 1175, 1280) might have been derived from Gaudiacum, Gaudius' estate.

Portbail belonged in the Gallo-Roman times to the Unelli civitas, named for an Armoric tribe submitted in 56 BC. Charles Duhérissier de Gerville identified in 1830-1840 two main archeological sites, identified as an upper town and a port town, respectively. Identification with Granona / Grannono / Granonnum, a town mentioned on the Notitia Dignitatum (a Roman administrative book dated 390/425, known by medieval copies) remains conjectural.
In 1950, the foundations of a Paleochristian baptistery were found near the harbor. Used until the soppression of baptism by immersion in the 7th-8th century, the baptistery is the only one found in France north of river Loire.

Portbail was mentioned, as Port Ballii in the chronicle of the Fontenelle abbey (825-860), which reports the landing, in 747/753, of relics (St. George's jaw included) near the emporium (port of commerce). There is, however, no firm evidence of a religious foundation of the settlement. Probably ruined by Northmen raids, the village was soon reestablished: remains of a big wooden fishery have been dated back to 978. In a document dated 1026, Portbail is listed as the site of an abbatia (abbey, or, rather, a building depending on a remote abbey) and of a ducal portus (port), offerred by Richard III, Duke of Normandy (1026-1027) to Adàle of France (c. 1000-1079, the daughter of King of France Robert the Pious) as part of her dowry (Port Bahil, 1026-1027). The Church of Our Lady was transferred before the end of the 11th century by Roger d'Aubigny to the Benedictine abbey of Lessay, and reestablished as a priory.

In 1393, the lord of Barneville claimed rights on wines shipped from Gascony to the harbor of Portbail. The local seamen were probably involved in deep-ocean fishing in the middle of the 16th century, as revealed by indirect evidence. King Henry II (1547-1559) established in April 1554 the Admiralty of Portbail and Carteret, headquartered at Portbail. J√©rome Phélipeaux reported in 1694 that the "bad" harbor of Portbail was used to export local products (cloth, pottery, woodenware, clogs, buckwheat), to Saint-Malo (in war time) and to Jersey and Guernesey (in peace time), and to import English wool, leather and coal. Louis XIV's wars eventually ruined the port; the survey of the ports located between Le Havre and Saint-Malo, established in 1756, mentioned salt exploitation in Portbail, but no maritime activity, which would not resume before the end of the First Empire.

The discovery, in 1850, of wild oyster banks off Carteret and Portbail fostered a short-lived oyster rush. The shipowner Romain Roze launched seven ships between 1853 and 1863; in 1853, he was granted a 25,000 m2 concession in the harbor of Portbail. The banks attracted several fishers from the neighboring ports, but also illegal fishers from the Channel Islands, resulting in the watch of the bank by a vessel of the French Navy (Myrmidon, 1853-1858; Alcyone, 1859-1875). The lack of management of this non-renewable resource and the failure to breed oysters to restore the banks caused the decline of the production, from 4.5 million oysters in 1859 to 800,000 in 1862 and 11,534 in 1888. Oyster fishing lost any significance in the first decade of the 20th century.
[Portbail patrimoine]

Two local farmers, the brothers Eugène (1842-1933) et Adolphe Bretel (1840-1913) (biography), exported eggs and salted butter to the Channel Islands and England. They moved their business in 1871 to the bigger town of Valognes, connected by railways to the ports of Cherbourg and Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue. Within ten years, sales of butter increased from 95 to 1,840. The Bretel butter was awarded prizes in the International Exhibitions of Dublin (1884), Paris (1889), Moscow (1891) and Chicago (1893). Canned in iron boxes, the salted butter was mostly exported to the French colonies, Brazil, Japan and England. The Bretel brothers operated two ships, Bretel-Frères (B.F.) and Deux-Frères, to transport butter to Le Havre and London.
In 1953, the company, managed by Eugène's nephew, Raoul Le Doux (1875-1970), owned 14 factories. Bretel merged in 1960 with Union Laitière, from Bricquebec, to be taken over in 1972 by Gloria.

Ivan Sache, 22 July 2017


Flag of Portbail

The flag of Portbail (photo, twin-city of Grouville, Jersey), is white with the municipal coat of arms.
The arms of Portbail are "Azure a chevron or in chief three stars of the same in fess in base a spearhead argent in pale". These arms belonged to the Hellouin de Ménibus family. Historically speaking, the arms of the local lords, the Poërier de Portbail, "Azure a chevron or in chief two stars argent in base a crescent of the same", would have been more appropriate. The confusion between the similar arms might be related to the marriage in 1690 of Nicolas du Poërier with Françoise Hellouin de Ménibus.
[GASO]

Olivier Touzeau & Ivan Sache, 22 July 2017