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Boulogne-sur-Mer (Municipality, Pas-de-Calais, France)

Last modified: 2018-01-21 by ivan sache
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Flag of Boulogne - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 15 November 2002


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Presentation of Boulogne-sur-Mer

The municipality of Boulogne-sur-Mer (43,070 inhabitants in 2010; 842 ha; municipal website) is located on the mouth of the river Liane on the Pas de Calais, the narrow bottleneck which separates the Channel from the North Sea and France from Britain.

When Julius Caesar attempted to invade Britain (55-54 BP), a port named Portus Iltius was built near the present town of Boulogne. In 63, Emperor Claudius conquered Britain and set up the Classis Brittanica (Britton Fleet), based in a port that was later protected by a castrum. In the 2nd century, the lower town built around the port was known as Gesoriacum, while the upper town built around the castrum was known as Bononia.
Boulogne became in the 9th century the seat of a powerful county. Count Eustace II supported William the Conqueror during the invasion of Britain. His wife founded in Boulogne the St. Wulmer abbey and the Notre-Dame church. One of their sons was Godefroid of Bouillon (1061-1100), Duke of Lower Lorraine and King of Jerusalem (1099). In the 12th century, the pilgrimage set up in the Notre-Dame church was so important that 14 kings of France and five kings of England accomplished it. Herring fishing was the main source of income of the town.

Count Renaud of Dammartin granted the citizens of Boulogne their first municipal charter in 1203. He was among the feudal lords defeated in 1214 in Bouvines by King of France Philip II Augustus. In 1223, the king gave the County of Boulogne to his illegitimate son, Philippe Hurepel (the Bristling). When King of France Louis VIII died in 1226, Hurepel revolted against the regent Blanche of Castile and reorganized the defence of Boulogne. Hurepel died in 1236 without male descent; the county was incorporated successively to Artois and Burgundy, until King Louis XI eventually incorporated the town to the Kingdom of France in 1478.
Louis XI claimed that Notre-Dame, venerated in the town, was the real "Lord" of Boulogne, and that he, as his vassal, should try to defend her interests by all means, including incorporation of the county to France. Due to its strategical location, Boulogne was called "the most bordering town of the kingdom". Lacking any defence, the lower town was seized several times by the English during the Hundred Years' War (1339, 1347, 1353, 1377) and completely looted by Henry VII in 1492. In 1510, Henry VIII seized the upper town, which was purchased back by Francis I in 1544.
Following the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659), the border moved northwards and Boulogne lost its strategical importance. Trade (and smuggling) with Britain developed.

Boulogne was proclaimed in 1803 an Imperial Town. To prepare the invasion of Britain, Napoléon I set up the Boulogne Camp. In August 1805, however, the Emperor sent the Coast and Ocean Armies to Austria and the project of invasion was abandoned. The Boulogne Camp is commemorated by the Grand Army Column. Of 53 m in height and 4 m in diameter, the column was designed by the architect Éloi Labarre (1764-1833). Two kilometers away, a monument commemorates the second distribution of the Légion d'Honneur by Napoléon I, which took place there on 16 August 1804.
In August 1840, Prince Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (later, Emperor Napoléon III) secretely landed from England near Boulogne. He failed to rouse Boulogne to revolt and was jailed into the fortress of Ham, from which he escaped six years later, using the clothes of a mason named Badinguet.
The Restauration and the Second Empire (1815 to 1870) was the Gilded Age of Boulogne. A posh bating resort was built, linked to Paris by railway in 1848; Boulogne was the first fishing port in France.
Hardly damaged during the First World War, Boulogne experienced more than 500 bombings during the Second World War. When liberated on 17 September 1944, 85% of the town was disastered (but not necessarily destroyed) and the port was completely ruined. The town was rebuilt by the architect and urbanist Pierre Vivier (1909-1999).

Boulogne is the birth town of the egyptologist Auguste Mariette (1821-1881), who discovered several ancient Egyptian monuments and founded the Cairo museum; of the novelist and critic Charles-Augustin de Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869); of the theater actors Constant Coquelin, a.k.a. Coquelin l'Ainé (Sr.) (1804-1869) and Ernest Coquelin, a.k.a. Coquelin le Cadet (Jr.) (1846-1901); of the doctor Guillaume Duchenne (1806-1875), founder of electrotherapy; of the scientist Ernest Hamy (1842-1905), founder of the ethnography museum in Paris, now Musée de l'Homme; and of the painter Georges Mathieu (1921-2012), a member of the lyric abstractive school.
General José de San Martín, one of the liberators of Argentina (1816), Chile (1817), and Peru (1821), died in exile in Boulogne in 1850, in the Casa San Martin, today a museum.

Ivan Sache, 15 November 2002


Flag of Boulogne-sur-Mer

The flag of Boulogne is quartered blue-yellow by a white cross, with the municipal arms, "Or an escutcheon gules charged with a swan argent surrounded by three bezants gules", placed in the center of the cross.
The swan, symbolizing purity, was already featured on a municipal seal dated 1286. The roundels come from the arms of the Counts of Boulogne (13th century).

Ivan Sache, 15 November 2002


Yacht Club Boulonnais

Yacht Club Boulonnais (YCB, website), established in 1997, has a burgee made of two blue triangles along the hoist and a red lozenge in the rest of the flag. The lozenge is separated from the triangle by a white chevron. The white letters "Y", "C" and "B" are placed in the two triangles and in the lozenge, respectively.

Ivan Sache, 15 November 2017


Société Humaine et des Naufrages de Boulogne-sur-Mer

The Société Humaine et des Naufrages de Boulogne-sur-Mer (SNH), still active, was the first sea rescue society established in continental Europe. At the time, the port town of Boulogne was enjoyed by an affluent English community fond of sea bathing.

On 11 September 1825, Reverend Edge delivered in the Protestant chapel of Boulogne a sermon preaching for the establishment of a Humane Society, on the model of the Royal Human Society established in 1774 in London. The Reverend was, ironically, drowned a few months later whilst bathing.
On 27 October 1825, the newspaper L'Annotateur presented the report tabled by French and English medical doctors of the town, who proposed to equip the "guides-swimmers" with "floating jackets and rescuing ropes manufactured after Captain Manby's ingenious design; a flat-hulled, wide boat made like those of the Norwegians and transportable by a single man". Material required to equip a first-aid post was further listed. The same day, Captain Gaullier informed the Mayor of Boulogne that Reverend Symons, from the Protestant chapel, had tabled a petition asking permission to establish a first-aid post in the Machicoulis watch post. The permission granted on 30 November 1825 by the Ministry of War is considered as the founding event of the SNH, then simply called Société Humaine.
The first board of the society was composed of six English (John Larking, Esquire; Reverend Symons; Hartwell, Esquire; Powell, Esquire; Colonel Maclachlan, Colonel Peacocke) and six French (Alexandre Adam, banker; Baron Vattier, Rear Admiral; Baron Louis du Blaisel, Louis Fontaine, President of the Court of Commerce; Auguste Gros, lawyer) members. The binational board of the SNH has been maintained since then. The doctors of the town wrote, bilingual detailed instructions of first aid to people appeared to have drowned.

Rear Admiral Vattier supervised the building of a life boat, a ship quite unusual at the time. On 3 August 1826, Vattier sent a letter to the editor of L'Annotateur, thanking the French and foreign inhabitants of the town for their moral and financial support and recalling that four people had already been saved from drowning.
The board of the SNH required on 4 July 1826 official recognition by the Ministry of the Interior, which was not granted. The Ministry accepted to "tolerate" the society, provided it is placed under the authority of the municipal administration and presided by the Mayor. The municipality soon accepted to subsidize the society, the annuity increasing from 500 francs in 1828 to 3,500 francs in 1871.
In the next years (1832-1833), similar societies were founded in Dunkirk, Calais, Rouen and Bayonne.
In 1827, the society purchased another two boats, equipped with oars, grapnels and lifebelts, aimed at watching beaches in summer season, from dawn to sunset. On 22 October 1829, the society's boat completed its first operation, rescuing the crew of a fishing boat that had ran aground onto the coast during a storm.
On 19 December 1832, the Royal Humane Society of London officially congratulated the Société Humaine de Boulogne-sur-Mer for its "constant prosperity".

On 31 August 1833, the English vessel Amphytrite, transporting 106 women and 12 children sentenced to deportation to Australia, ran aground onto a sandbank close to the entrance of the port. The life saver Pierre Hénin and the pilots Huret and Testard heroically attempted to rescue the ship-wrecked people, to no avail, whilst the scene was spotted from the port by hundreds of inhabitants of the town. At high tide, the ship disappeared. Only three out of the 18 crew members survived, while all the passengers were drowned.
The disaster provided evidence that the SNH lacked adequate means of rescue. The society, supported by the Mayor, required from the Ministry of the Navy the building of a modern lifeboat; on 4 December 1833, the Minister answered that such a boat being not available in the French military ports, he would commission the Cherbourg arsenal to build such a boat, based on the English model designed by George Palmer in 1828. The Amiral de Rosamel, launched in 1834, was sunk on 19 October 1869 during the (successful) rescue of the Joséphina, after having saved more than 250 lives.
The Société Humaine et des Naufrages was eventually approved by the Ministry of the Interior on 26 November 1846, 21 years after its establishment.

On 28 February 1849, four seamen from the Liberté and three from the Henriette were drowned because the Amiral de Rosamel, still the only boat operated by the SNH, ran aground onto the wharf. The philanthropist Richard Wallace (1818-1890), who had been living in Boulogne for a few years, offered a boat to the society and funded the erection of a new building at the headquarters of the society. The municipality provided funds for the building of a second boat, the Georges Manby and the revamping of the Amiral Rosamel.
Emperor Napoléon III, whilst visiting Boulogne in 1854, accepted the title of patron of the SNH; in 1857, the Duke of Northumberland, President of the Royal National Life Boat Institution, accepted the title of vice-patron. A slipway was constructed in 1864.
[E. Deseille. Histoire de la Société Humaine de Boulogne-sur-Mer / Société Humaine et des Naufrages de Boulogne-sur-Mer. Son histoire et ses actes depuis sa fondation en 1825, 1867]

Two boats operated by the SNH are shown on postcards. The flag hoisted on the boats is white with a big saltire. On the best visible of the two flags, the saltire is surrounded by the writing "SOCIÉTÉ HUMAINE" (top) and "1825" (bottom).

Günter Mattern [mar87] shows the flag of the SHN as a white flag, dharged in the center with a blue give-pointed star, above in an arch "VIRTUS ET SPES" (Latin, Virtue and Hope).
The aforementioned detailed report of the early years of the SNH, written by the Secretary of the society, is full of first-hand details but does not include anything on a flag used by the life boats operated by the SNH. Nothing is said, either, on any motto inscribed on the flag. The identification of the flag by Günter Mattern is indeed erroneous. Album des pavillons nationaux et des marques distinctives des marines de guerre et de commerce (1889) shows the flag, with the motto "Spes et Virtus", as the (early) flag of the Société Centrale de Sauvetage des Naufragés. This rendition is probably erroneous, too, since the motto of the SCS, as inscribed on medals, is indeed "Virtus et Spes".
Another postcard (photo) shows the lifeboat of the Bréhat island (Brittany) with the flag as reported by Mattern (square). The modern label of the image (website), "flag of the Société humaine et des naufrages de Boulogne, adopted by the SCS", does not make sense, since the SNH was never merged into the SCS.

Ivan Sache & Željko Heimer, 14 December 2017