Thursday 26 October 2017

From Paul Decauville to narrow gauge modelling

Once, the name of Decauville stretched around the world from France to coral islands in the Pacific to Australia. The history of the Decauville family is full of contradictions. Paul Decauville was an ardent Republican yet had adopted an aristocratic name. He was a hard-boiled engineer with the soft centre of the visionary. For most of its existence, the Decauville Company – it went through many name changes – had no connection with the family. The company was lauded for patriotism and enlightened working conditions and reviled for collaboration. Were all these claims incompatible ?
The Decauville nameplate resembled a coat of arms, Photo taken at the Chemin de fer Touristique de Tarn - well worth a visit - by Malcolm Wright
The Decauville genealogy goes back to a certain David. He came from Coville. He considered that enough to enough to give himself the aristocratic surname 'de Coville'. Years later, Paul Decauville though a professed Republican gave his products slightly aristocratic nameplates. Amand Louis Victor, born 1821, changed the family name to Decauville.  His son, Paul Amand, born 1854, the most celebrated of the family, started the Decauville Company. Roger Bailly told the story in his 'Decauville ce nom qui fit le tour du Monde'
Amand Decauville was a prosperous farmer who part-owned and part-rented 700 hectares by the Seine upstream of Paris (Seine et Oise). He went over from cereal cultivation to the new crop, sugar beet. This produced sugar for human consumption and spent pulp for animal feed. The Decauvilles treated their own sugar beet to that the pulp could stay on the premises. The escarpment above the farm provided another ‘cash-crop’ – building stone. By 1854, Decauville had a a total workforce of 70. He formed a valuable connection with Fowler, supplier of agricultural machinery. He was praised as an employer for providing good working conditions, a form of health insurance and a cooperative shop for the workforce.
Turbulent times! This reproduction of a famous lithograph by Ciceri shows the scene outside the Pantheon in Paris 1848. Collection MD Wright
From 1854 onwards, Paris was rebuilt. The narrow streets and bulwarks of the old town were replaced by boulevards, lined with smart new buildings. Masons came from central France, stone from the hills south of Paris. Amand Decauville had a potential fortune in stone, could he remove it from the quarries. Paul Decaville, when still a very young man, helped to develop a cable railway to bring it to the river where barges took it on to Paris.A nice little video entitled Decauville is available on the RMweb website.
Various elements were in place: there was already a railway of sorts on the premises, a good workshop and a large area devoted to sugar-beet. Equally important were attitudes. The family prided themselves on their progressive outlook, morally as well as commercially, and also their international links, especially with the Fowler Company.
In 1870-1, France was ravaged by the Franco-Prussian War. Paul Decauville was a Citizen volunteer - a photo shows him in uniform when he was the member of a gun battery. When France was eventually at peace, he returned home to find his father dying. Responsibilities to immediate family, the farm and to a largish workforce were now his.
The autumn of 1875 turned into a nightmare for a conscientious boss. The good news was that the beet fields had been particularly productive. The bad news was that it could not be harvested. Months of rain had turned the fields into a morass. There was no way that existing methods – loading the contents of wheelbarrows into horse-drawn carts – could transport 9000 tonnes of sugar beet. Without beet, his customers would be angry, the beasts would starve and there would be no money to pay the workers. Then he had a flash of genius. The solution was already around him!
A Decauville portable railway in action. This elaborate railway shows how a single person could transport a considerable weight without breaking sweat. The railwas in fact very light and easy to lay. From catalogue 130 courtesy Jim Hawkesworth
There were lengths of prefabricated rail in his workshop and suitable mini-wagons in the quarry. A few lengths of track connected the field with the gate and the farm lane. The rail supported the barrows which once they were full.  Once the field was cleared, the rail and rail-mounted barrows were moved to the next field until all had been harvested.
Decauville's idea literally rested on this portable track. Prefabricated lengths of 5 metres could be fitted together and support up to half a tonne, then easily moved elsewhere. It took some years of improvement. Further refinement gave us the Pechot system whose 60cm track could support weights of up to 3.5 TONNES per axle. Courtesy Jim Hawkesworth

Decauville saw a commercial opportunity. By the autumn, a portable railway and prefabricated track were on sale. That first year, sales of the ‘porteur Decauville’ were to the value of 200,000 francs, 1879, 2.3 million, 1881, 8 million. As well as farms, he supplied factories. In 1882, he devised his first porteur militaire. In 1889, millions of passengers took the little Decauville railway round the great exhibition of Paris.
A certain officer in the French artillery had been watching the progress of Decauville. Sarah Wright tells the story in her book 'Tracks To the Trenches'.  In the late 1870s, industrial porteur Decauville was being used in army bases.  In late 1914, a thousand kilometres of track was ready to be laid on the Western Front, many more thousand by the end of 1918.
Magnificent beast! This Pechot-designed bogie wagon is 110 years old and counting. It has suffered amputations and modifications but is still functional. The Pechot system was famous for sturdiness and longevity. Photo taken in 2014 by Malcolm Wright at Apedale Staffs.
The Pechot designs went back to first principles - Paul Decauville had been content with what worked for him. In 1888, the French government looked to buy hundreds of kilometres of ‘voie Pechot’. The Germans were watching and were soon devising a system which shared many of the Pechot features.
In the meantime, what had happened to Paul Decauville? 1889 should have been his year of triumph. After the Great Exhibition, orders flooded in. A postcard showing a Decauville railway can be found on the St Margarets London Assets Images (Pelabon Works) website. Railways to serve holiday traffic were due to open, commercial railways were planned, there were many enquiries from abroad. The company went public with Paul Decauville as its first Director. In a few years, he had been ousted. By the turn of the century, he had left the area. He continued as innovator and entrepreneur and made his name again, with reinforced concrete. The 'cuirasse Decauville' was used into the 20th century.
An airship in the centre of Paris. Paul Decauville had interests in the new 'dirigible' technology. We can see how sleek and prosperous the Paris of the Belle Epoque has become. Author's collection.
The Decauville Company did quite well until 1940, going down many fascinating by-ways. It produced cars and bicycles, tanks during World War 1 and some extraordinary railcars.  Though accused of collaboration, it survived the Second World War. In the 1980s, manufacturing had moved to tipper trucks and cranes. At present, Decauville SA is still a registered company name, though enquiries to its address in Evry go unanswered.
Narrow gauge railways inspired by Paul Decauville and Prosper Pechot spread around the world. Decauville railways were found in quarries, industry and agriculture. After World War 1, 'army surplus' was sold everywhere and with them went designs originating with  Pechot. Again, these were in quarries and settings rural and indudtrial. A really intriguing model could be made featuring railways serving frontier forts of the late 19th century.

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