The History of Forge Basse
“Elle existe de temps immémorial. On ne scay à quel titre…”
“(It has existed from time immemorial – no one knows when it came to be…)”
This is how Forge Basse is referred to in the Departmental Inspector’s survey of all the forges in the Dordogne in 1776. It is hard to believe that this tranquil riverside location was once a hive of activity.
At the time, it was managed by Monsieur Mazière, nicknamed ‘Laforest’ although it belonged, with several other forges, to the Countess d’Aydie, who was the ‘Seigneur’ of Savignac de Nontron through her marriage to the Count d’Aydie in about 1750.
The forge at Forge Basse clearly has origins dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. It grew under the reign of Louis XIV, with the dramatic expansion of the French Navy, and the establishment of the dockyard at Rochfort near La Rochelle.
Forge Basse, unlike many of the other forges nearby, did not manufacture cannon and cannon shot. It was known as an ‘affinerie’, or re-processing plant, re-smelting billets and re-cycled iron from other forges. Its principal production was large cooking pots, one of which is still visible outside the Cottage. Originally, some of these pots were sold locally, and some to the Navy dockyard at Rochfort. After the establishment of the French colonies in the West Indies, the pots (also called cauldrons), were taken by ox-cart to Angoulême where they were shipped to the Caribbean and used for reducing sugar cane.
There were two large chimneys at Forge Basse, where two bellows driven by two mill wheels in the river, superheated the iron ore, castine (chalk) and charcoal to produce the cast iron. A third wheel drove a hammer, mounted on a camshaft, similar to a modern pile-driver. This was used to beat the molten iron into shape, and to iron out impurities (hence ‘affinerie’).
The forge employed, officially, 50 men in 1811, against 40 in 1780. This figure included 8 ironsmiths, 6 general labourers, and 36 ox-cart drivers. However, these figures may be suspect, because at the time of the later survey the owners had a number of forges and were keen to exaggerate their overheads so as to ward off the taxman! It seems unlikely that the 40 ox-cart men were not the same 40 drivers claimed for the next forge upstream, Chez Baillot, which is only one kilometre away.
Nevertheless, the impact of the forging industry in the 17th century was profound; within 8 kilometres of Nontron, there were no less than 15 forges on the River Bandiat and other rivers nearby. These forges consumed an enormous quantity of timber to produce the charcoal used for smelting. Principally operating over the winter months, Forge Basse alone used 3,000 brasse – i.e. 12,000 cubic metres – of wood – chestnut and oak, each winter.
In addition to the direct labour employed, the industry supported a whole wealth of sub-industries – ore-miners, metal traders, stockists, leather workers (for the bellows) carpenters (for the mill wheels, which had to be refurbished every year, and the forge buildings), tool-makers, charcoal-producers, and of course woodmen to produce the timber for the charcoal. Additionally, nearly all the forges were situated on large properties, which themselves were exploited by agricultural hands who turned to the forge for work in the winter.
From the foundry industry, there sprang up the inevitable middlemen and marketers. There were several metal-traders in Nontron who made their living by buying up waste product from the bigger forges, as well as raw material, and selling it to the ‘forges battantes’ of the Bandiat valley. All this material needed storing somewhere, and between 1750 and 1766, the square in the centre of Savignac was used as a metal warehouse for several of the merchants of Nontron, who were keen to ply their wares to the 6 forges within 2-3 kilometres of Savignac.
The demise of the foundry industry was long and drawn out. Throughout the late eighteenth century and through into the nineteenth, successive government commissions urged the forgemasters to update their technology to compete with the Swedish and English steel industries. The owners saw no need for this, so progressively lost market share to foreign imports, assisted by free-trade agreements in the early 19th Century.
The supply of iron products to the local markets began to diminish rapidly with the arrival of the railways, when consumers discovered they could get as good quality ironware from elsewhere in France (and Europe) more cheaply than the local products. The last forgings in the area were carried out in the late 1880s; Savignac Lédrier, (now under restoration as an archaeological industrial museum) about 25 kilometres away, carried on until 1929.
At Forge Basse the forge chimneys and the charcoal hall were demolished around 1917; the forge building itself existed until about 1960, when it too became dilapidated and was demolished. The wall by the swimming pool is now all that remains. The Forgemaster’s House was rebuilt around 1815, replacing an earlier dwelling.