Friday, 31 October 2008

Transport contraption or tourist trap in St Malo?

Sometimes one comes across items in photograph collections that leave one rather puzzled. This rather battered carte de visite in my aunt's collection is one such example.

The photograph shows what appears to be some sort of viewing platform, occupied by a number of people, mounted on a tower standing in water, apparently in a bay, as a shoreline with buildings is vaguely visible in the background. However, ripples in the water suggest some movement, either of the water, or of the contraption itself, and this appears to be supported by the inscriptions handwritten in purple ink. On the front, it states, "Passes between St Malo(?) & ...(?)" - unfortunately the last part of the inscription has vanished along with torn corner of the cdv.

On the reverse, also in purple handwriting, "It goes by Machinery - I passed over it last year & again this year twice Aug 1882 It takes about 3 minutes to cross its only 1 sous." I believe the handwriting is that of my gg-grandfather Henry Payne (1842-1907). This suggests that it is the contraption which moves, rather than the ripples being produced by a water current.

I knew that he travelled to the United States in February-March 1880 and had returned to England with his family by November, as described in this article. However, I wasn't aware of any trips to the continent, as suggested by the reference to St Malo. A quick look at maps for northern France suggest that the destination of the contraption could have been Dinard, situated on the other side of the bay from St Malo. I used Google Maps' very handy Street View facility to check out the geography of the bay, and it seems quite possible that contraption was travelling from St Malo to Dinard.

I wonder if any other readers have come across anything like this extraordinary contraption, and can enlighten us further. I assume it was a tourist attraction of some sort.


  1. What a wonderful find Brett !
    This opens up hours of research into the ingenuity of the engineers of the 1800s. For those who like to do their own research I am not going to spoil it for you other than to hint that such a structure falls into the keyword of “transporter bridge”, Googling with which I found lots of material and I found this bridge at low tide, revealing all. As ex-Meccano boy I also loved the following link, a representation of this St Malo bridge

  2. I am getting hours of interesting surfing out of this photo today and as usual getting totally distracted at every point.

    I do think you may consider whether, on some of your GG-Grandfather’s Atlantic trips, he decided to cut costs or save time by taking what may not be an obvious route from Derby to Baltimore (or other east US coast port). Did he take a train Derby-Portsmouth, a ferry across to St Malo, and catch a ship in France, say Le Havre, St Nazaire, Cherbourg or maybe St Malo itself?

    Maybe he crossed back and forth more times than you know about in wrapping up his unsuccessful emigration to USA? I can’t see him having time to take holiday trips to St Malo so soon after returning to UK, perhaps with somewhat less cash than when he left.


  3. The fare...2 “Sous”...what are they?

    The French currency, up until 1795, was a “livre” (translates as pound, and from the Latin “Libra”). It was subdivided into sub-units of 20 “sous” and further sub-units of 12 “deniers”. The British pound was similarly divided into Pounds, 20 shillings in a pound, and 12 pence in a shilling, until 1971.

    For the benefit of non-UK readers: As a British schoolboy in the 1960s we would refer to money as “LSD” you have any LSD?.. we would ask. This was old slang. One might expect Pounds Shillings and Pence to be referred to as PSP, but we used the term as from the Latin, librae, solidi, denarii (all plural), albeit without really intending to speak in abbreviated Latin, it was just an inherited lingual habit. (Nor did it relate to LSD, the drug lysergic acid diethylamide, with which we were only familiar from the press and TV)

    So why was the term “sous” still used for a fare long after France had adopted a Franc, subdivided into centimes?

    It seems old habits die hard in France also, and they were still using the term “sous” colloquially nearly a hundred years after the unit was abolished, probably to indicate 10 centimes. Further examples of how currency habits cannot be broken are illustrated by the fact that the French Franc was re-based in 1960 by the division by 100, but I certainly recall that most market traders still chalked up their prices with the two extra zeros well into the 1980s or even up to the adoption of the Euro in 1999. Another French oddity is that even in 2008 a till receipt for goods sold in Euros often still shows the price in 1999 French Francs, converted at the official fixed exchange rate on that 1999 conversion day.

  4. Thank you, Nigel, for the very interesting research and comments on engineering, pecuniary and transportation aspects of this post. With your assistance, I've now found lots of references to the "Pont Roulant" between St Malo and St Denier, as well as a huge variety of postcard images. Perhaps this deserves a full follow-up article, rather than just a post script to this one.

  5. Hi,

    I think what you have is an image of the St Malo railway - a precursor to the more famous Volk's Electric railway that ran in Brighton. Here are a couple of links that might help:

  6. Thanks very much for that. Actually, I did quite a bit more research on this, and wrote another article a year later, posted here. Regards, Brett


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