Monday, 19 October 2009

Have space suit - Will travel

Almost a year ago I posted this image of a rather bizarre transportation device in an article on Photo-Sleuth in the hope that readers would be able to help solve the mystery of what exactly it was, and why it appears in my aunt's collection of old family photographs. The footnoteMaven's 18th Smile for the Camera Carnival has the theme of "Travel" and seems an opportune moment to revisit the subject, summarizing what I've learnt.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Transport contraption, St Malo, France
Carte de visite by unknown photographer
Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison

The carte de visite is part of the Payne family heritage, held by my aunt, which I scanned on a visit to England a couple of years ago. There is no background to it at all, except that it probably came from the collection of my great-grandfather Charles Vincent Payne (1868-1941). The photograph shows some kind of viewing platform on which at least two dozen people are crowded, itself mounted on stilts or a tower standing in water. Ripples in the water around the base of the legs suggest some movement, either of the water, or of the contraption itself. It is apparently located in a bay, as a shoreline with buildings is vaguely visible in the background.

© Ed Emshwiller and courtesy of Wikipedia
Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein,
1958 hardcover edition illustration by Ed Emshwiller,
published by Charles Scribner & Sons, New York

The contraption is a little too rectangular - and authentic - to be one of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds tripods, but it does seem almost in the genre of science fiction, or what passed as science fiction in the Victorian era. Hence my somewhat off-the-wall visualization of the theme of Robert Heinlein's 1958 book which lends its title to this article.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison

There are some further clues to the moving tower. Handwritten in purple ink on the front and reverse of the card mount is the following text:
Passes between St Malo & ...
It goes by
I passed over it last year
& again this year twice
Aug 1882
It takes about 3 minutes
to cross, its only 1 sous
By comparison with handwriting that I know to be that of Charles Vincent's father Henry Payne (1842-1907) - from an 1891 letter, reproduced in a previous Photo-Sleuth article - I believe this must be the hand of Henry. If he did indeed travel from his home town of Derby in the English Midlands to France a couple of times in the early 1880s, Henry must have been a pretty well travelled - and busy - man. In 1880 Henry, his wife Henrietta and children made a short-lived attempt to settle in America, spending a few months farming at Bladensburg, Maryland before returning to England late that year or in early 1881.

What was Henry doing abroad again so soon? Nigel Aspdin has suggested in a comment to the previous article that he may have used a separate and more circuitous route back from the United States, rather than the more direct Baltimore-Liverpool run which the rest of the family presumably took. He also postulates that wrapping up the farming business venture in North America may have required another trip, and it was easier, quicker or cheaper to "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." All of these possibilities are worth thinking about and investigating in further detail some time, but I will resist getting too sidetracked for the duration of compiling this article.

Nigel also remarks on the sous (or should that be "sou") apparently still being used as the colloquial price for a fare, almost a century after the official currency had changed from livres/sous/deniers to francs/centimes. Another diversion which I shan't pursue for the moment, although still of interest.

Image © and courtesy of the Melbourne Meccano Club Inc.
Meccano model of the St Malo Transporter Bridge, Brittany
Image © and courtesy of the Melbourne Meccano Club Inc.

Nigel again provided the vital clue to the real nature of what I had referred to as a possible tourist trap with the key search words, "St Malo transporter bridge," which brought up a modern image of a Meccano model made by a hobbyist to a design from the May-June edition of Meccano Magazine.

Image © and courtesy of
Part of front page of Meccano Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 9, May-June 1919.
Image © and courtesy of Rémi's Meccano Pages

I also found an original image of the design in the facsimile online Meccano Magazine hosted by Rémi's Meccano Pages, which includes in its caption: ... an excellent representation of the Rolling Bridge which conveys passengers from St. Malo to St. Servan.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Fibo.cdn
Côte d'Émeraude. 535. Saint-Malo - Le Pont Roulant à marée basse
Postcard published c.1900
Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Fibo.cdn

From this it was but a short step to several descriptions of the history and numerous images of what was more correctly termed the Pont Roulant of St. Malo. Two of the most informative are on the Tramway Information pages and in a Wikipedia article. The latter is in French, which I could conceivably have read (with some difficulty), but for which I more conveniently used Google's handy Translation Toolbar. The result is not too bad in terms of fluency, although as is common with most online translators, it produces an unintentionally amusing commentary on the workings of the unusual machinery:
The bridge was traveling on Vignoles rail 38 kg / m, whose spacing was 4.60 m. The truck was supported by wheels 1 m in diameter, which was placed before a stone-hunting.
The platform 7 mx 6 m, surrounded by a railing crossbar with benches in length, included a pool party where the passengers took shelter in bad weather.
The set of 14 tons was pulled by strings. A steam 10 c. was prepared in a wood shop located on the wharf. The driver of the platform indicated by the sudden departure of trumpet at machinist posted in this shop. The arrest was served by a second blow of the trumpet.
Image © John R.Prentice and courtesy of Tramway Information
1509. Côte d'Émeraude. 19. Saint-Malo-Saint-Servan - Le Pont-Roulant
Image © John R.Prentice and courtesy of Tramway Information

The Tramway Information article reveals that the Pont Roulant was constructed in 1873 by a local architect, Alexandre Leroyer, who held a concession to operate it for sixty years. It spanned the entrance to the French port of St Malo, which at low tide could be traversed along a stone causeway, and was designed to transport passengers between the towns of Saint-Malo and Saint-Servan. The original two-minute (or three, according to Henry) passage on the 13 metre-high rolling platform was made between two specially designed "docking stations," powered by a steam engine housed at the St.-Servan end, and carried up to two thousand people a day. Later, after the Leroyer's death the new concessionaire replaced the steam engine with electric motors. The centre of the platform had a covered cabin with glazed sides, affording panoramic views even under inclement weather conditions. Despite being seriously damaged by fire on one occasion in August 1909, and by collisions with ships in February 1889 and November 1922, it continued running until its eventual closure in November 1923.

L'Épopée du Pont Roulant de Saint-Malo à Saint-Servan, by Henri Fermin

The tourist attraction has also, I have discovered, been the subject of a book, L'Épopée du Pont Roulant de Saint-Malo à Saint-Servan, by Henri Fermin.

I even found a stereographic image of the Pont-Roulant, presumably from around the turn of the century ...

Image © and courtesy of Collecting House
Pont-Roulant, St. Malo, c.1890
Magic lantern slide
Image © and courtesy of Collecting House

... and a lantern slide from slightly earlier showing passengers alighting.

Côte d'Émeraude 226 - Saint-Malo - Le Pont Roulant
Postcard posted 1910

Judging by the number of extant used and unused postcards from the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, such as the example above posted in 1910, the ride continued to be a popular novelty with tourists right through to Edwardian times. I have noticed, however, that the postcard views rarely show as many customers aboard as Henry's carte de visite.

The final words I will leave to Phil Beard, who in his commentary on the visual arts and popular culture refers to the Pont-Roulant as Leroyer's "magnificent indifference to appearing ridiculous" and a product "of the Nineteenth Century imagination, notable for [its] impudent attempt to conquer time and space with the most slender resources." Perhaps so, but it succeeded in catching the tourists' imagination, and their sous.

18th Edition of the Smile for the Camera Carnival - Travel


St Malo Rolling Bridge from Tramway Information

Pont roulant de Saint-Malo from Wikipedia

Heilprin, A. & Heilprin, L. (1906) The Geographical Dictionary of the World. partially available online from Google Books.

Fermin, Henri (2005) L'Epopée du Pont Roulant de Saint-Malo à Saint-Servan, Nouvelles Impressions, ISBN 2951473508.

Le Pont Roulant by Phil Beard's Notes on the Visual Arts and Popular Culture


  1. Thank you Carol. It's good to hear that I'm keeping at least one person entertained. Regards, Brett

  2. At least two! I loved how you presented this and figured out what it was. My initial thought when I saw the first picture was a viewing platform like the ones shown in one of the Harry Potter movies.

  3. I liked the "other world" look of the carte moving thru the water, a wonderful scientific -engineering contraption of the 1800s.

  4. Thanks, both of you, for your kind comments, and also to Apple for the hat tip in your Weekly Rewind over at Apple's Tree. Regards, Brett

  5. Wonderful! I had never seen such a contraption before... I really enjoy reading your sleuthing process and love the photos. Cheers!

  6. Thanks Michael-Ann. If you got a even a small fraction as much out of reading it as I did from researching it, then I am content. Regards, Brett

  7. i have just discovered a whole book of old postcards with this fascinating machine among them, they are still bound and have the protective layers between them, do you have any idea when they were produced examples of some of the numbers are 309 thru 264 but the numbers do not run in order but there are 24 total in this book still in very good shape. I am going to copy you contact info and see if I can contact you for more info thank you silver

  8. Brett - very interesting article! I think I learn something new each time I read one of your posts! It's so fascinating how the "mystery" was solved. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Thanks Wendy. I learn so much too, and I think that's why I do it. The joy is in the looking as much as in the finding. Regards, Brett

  10. What an interesting article on a most unusual mode of transportation. You have really done your research!

  11. Hi Brett,

    It looks as if there was something similar for a brief time off the south coast of England. I saw this first on the BBC series 4 of Coast - called 'Coast & Beyond' which had a movie of it in action, though I can't find this on the web (they're obviously hoping everyone will buy the DVD for Christmas!)

    It was built by Magnus Volk and called the Daddy long-Legs.

    You can see some info here - click on the button near the top left entitled 'Daddy Long-legs'

    Hope that's interesting!


  12. Thanks Tracy for your comments.

    Fiona - Yes, I came across some mention of the "Daddy Long Legs" at Brighton when I was researching the Pont Roulant, but I certainly didn't find the interesting web page with some great pictures, or I would have included a link. Thank you for pointing it out.

    Regards, Brett

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