While the Garonne river naturally represents the eastern flank of the heart of Bordeaux, the remainder of the central city’s modern-day ...

Octroi collection offices: the tax is no more, the barriers (and wisteria) remain

While the Garonne river naturally represents the eastern flank of the heart of Bordeaux, the remainder of the central city’s modern-day boundaries are formed by a semi-circular succession of wide boulevards which took shape from 1853 onwards. With the development of the boulevards came the construction of offices whose duty it was to collect an ancient and generally unpopular tax, the “octroi”.
The octroi was a duty that had to be paid on any type of consumable good being brought into the city (it could apply to anything from fish, honey, oil, flour and alcoholic drinks to coal). In France this form of tax can be traced back to Roman times and even played a small part in the French Revolution of 1789, as recounted in a piece about the system in Paris on partner website Invisible Paris.

With the inception of the boulevards, a physical barrier was set up at each main junction with roads leading into the city and an octroi collection office was built. These junctions are still, to this day, referred to as “barrières”. Of the fifteen octroi collection offices (which were manned day and night by a 170-strong workforce), only three can still be seen, at Barrière de Toulouse, Barrière de Saint-Genès and Barrière du Médoc.

Barrière de Toulouse office (above and below).

The Toulouse and Saint-Genès offices were built around 1866 to the designs of one Charles Burguet, perhaps better-known in Bordeaux for his covered market structures (including Marché des Chartrons and Marché de Lerme). These two octroi offices are simple red-brick buildings topped off with a slate roof, and as such don’t look anything like the residential and trade properties in the area. The Saint-Genès office is currently disused while the Toulouse office now serves as a meeting point for an association that has been formed to support the sick and bereaved. 

Barrière de Saint-Genès office (above and below).

Further north, the Barrière du Médoc office, conceived by Marius Faget, boasts a slightly grander, more elaborate (and spacious) design. The façade comprises a clock, the triple-crescent emblem of the city and the Bordeaux coat of arms, as well as the word “octroi” displayed on both sides. The building is now a post office. 

Barrière du Médoc.

Of course, to many the octroi duty was seen as more of a challenge than an obligation: goods would regularly be cunningly smuggled into the city, often under the cover of outsize garments! Despite these tax evaders, come 1884, the money from octroi duties accounted for two-thirds of the city’s income. However, the tax was abolished in 1927, no doubt to audible sighs of relief… apart from in districts like Caudéran and La Bastide, just outside the central city’s administrative grasp, where a number of bars and inns made a healthy living out of their “duty-free” status.

The death of the octroi tax also meant a turnaround for an historic building in central Bordeaux, best-known as Hôtel de Ragueneau (pictured below).

This mansion had originally been built between 1634 and 1656 by architect Pierre Léglise for Jeanne de Seurin, the widow of parliamentary councillor Pierre Ragueneau. The building was acquired by the city of Bordeaux in 1860 and became the main office for the administration of the octroi duty (and, appropriately enough, was known at the time as Hôtel de l’Octroi).

In the 1930s, the building was restored under the guidance of Jacques d’Welles, chief city architect and the man behind the design of Stade Lescure (now Stade Chaban-Delmas) football stadium, the Bourse du Travail near Place de la Victoire and the art deco bains-douches public showering facilities in the La Bastide quarter

He personally designed the main gate of the former Hôtel de l'Octroi which, from 1939 onwards, welcomed the city’s archives department, the Académie de Bordeaux and associated scholarly societies (“societés savantes”). The Académie and the scholars later relocated to premises near the Jardin Public and the property is now solely the home of the municipal archives... although they too will be moving to new right-bank premises in 2014.
Finally, above the gate and stretching along the top of the wall of Hôtel de Ragueneau is the city's finest specimen of the flowering plant wisteria sinsensis ("glycine de Chine" in French). The plant has been through hard times of late, mainly because termites have taken a liking to its trunk... the base of which a careless driver also happened to recently manoeuvre into

Fortunately, extensive treatment has been administered by horticultural experts and the wisteria is set to live another few years. It is thought that the wisteria was planted some 150 years ago, which by my calculations takes us back to the 1860s when the building was taken over by the city... conveniently bringing us full circle to the age of the construction of the boulevards and the glory years of the octroi tax!


  1. Never knew why there were so many barriers in Bordeaux! Good post!

    1. Yep, they're still referred to as "barrières" even though the barriers themselves are no more!

  2. You always find such interesting things to write about and this is no exception. Diane

    1. Thank you Diane... then again, there are so many interesting subjects to choose from! All the best!