Looking at the picture on the left, readers familiar with Bordeaux will have recognised the Colonne des Girondins , which stands at the w...

1907 International Maritime Fair: when Bordeaux was the maritime capital of the world

Looking at the picture on the left, readers familiar with Bordeaux will have recognised the Colonne des Girondins, which stands at the western end of Esplanade des Quinconces. What is a more unusual sight is the extravagant “Grand Palais” structure to the right. This ephemeral edifice was just one of many built especially for festivities held between May and November 1907: we give you the international maritime fair, or “Exposition maritime internationale de Bordeaux”. 

The six-month extravaganza was the brainchild of the Ligue Maritime Française, an institution which aimed to develop and promote the nation’s military and merchant shipping industry. The decision was made to open up the exhibition to other countries, many of whom accepted the invitation to take part in the event which was also an excellent opportunity to commemorate the centenary of steam-powered shipping. From there the event developed further still to showcase other wide-ranging sectors of activity as well as being the venue for 50 trade conferences.

When researching the subject, I was surprised to see how little information was available. The most complete accounts were all the work of former IT executive Hervé Guichoux, an industrious 86-year-old author and member of the Société Française d’Histoire Maritime [please see footnote]. I arranged to meet Mr Guichoux who talked me through the collection of photographs and artefacts that he had compiled for a “virtual visit” of the exhibition, released on CD-ROM in 2007.

“For six months, Bordeaux was the absolute centre of the maritime world,” Mr Guichoux comments. “The fair drew hundreds of thousands of visitors, including VIPs such as the Prince of Sweden and the King of Spain. Many people would pay return visits because it took so long to see everything there was to see! It was as if a whole town had been built from scratch!”

Sights at the fair including (top) the Belgian and American pavilions, the Gironde wine pavilion and the Grand Palais; (bottom) the restaurant and the Pavilion de l'Automobile (note the Chocolat Louit advertisement).
Inside the main concourse, the Fair's international "commissioners" and one of many congresses held during the event (a gathering of printers).
Many of the structures were built to the designs of Albert Tournaire, later chief architect of the city of Paris. The main façade of the Grand Palais, the showpiece of the fair, was 35 metres wide and 20 metres tall. The building stretched the full length of the esplanade, making for a main exhibition area that measured 150 metres in length. Displays in the main concourse included those of shipbuilders from France, the UK, Germany and elsewhere. There were additional upstairs areas where visitors could learn about fishing, watersports and seaside resorts.

At the riverside end, the structure was flanked by two towers that were 45 metres in height. Elevators enabled visitors to reach the top and enjoy panoramic views over the fair, the Garonne and the rooftops of Bordeaux! At night, the towers were illuminated and shone powerful beams of light over land and water.

The official map.
Quayside, including the metal footbridge (details below).
On the promenades that flank the esplanade, pavilions promoted everything from wine and confectionery, to horticulture and the nascent automobile industry (companies displaying the wares included Peugeot, Renault and Bordeaux manufacturers Motobloc). A “colonial” pavilion provided pedagogical information to visitors about France’s colonies at the time. A metal footbridge served as a convenient means of crossing the road and tramlines to be able to visit foreign pavilions, including Belgium’s offering, a replica of the Het Steen medieval fortress in Antwerp, and the USA’s contribution, which was a reproduction of part of the White House. Russia and Greece were among the other countries present.

Elsewhere, visitors could also enjoy the silver screen delights provided by the Royal Palace Cinématographe, the “Aéroplane” rotary ride attraction (where patrons would spin at speeds of up to 50km/h), and a rich programme of musical performances.

The "Aéroplane" in full flow outside the Cinématographe, the bandstand during a performance, and another busy day at the fair.
As unbelievable as it now seems, one of the most popular “sights” was the “village africain”, a part of the fair which had been made to resemble a “typical village”. Up to 90 men, women and children of different northern African ethnicities were present to be observed by hundreds of visitors daily.

"Le village africain".
Artefacts: poster, a raffle ticket, a postcard and the cover of the official guide.
Finally, this being a maritime event at heart, magnificent ships were ever-present throughout the duration of the festivities. Vessels travelled from afar: Argentina, Japan, Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Sweden, UK and USA, to name but a few. The then-frontline maritime status of the city of Bordeaux itself was cemented during the fair: the battleship Vérité, which had been entirely built at the shipyards in Bordeaux, was launched. 100,000 people were there to witness the event. The Vérité went on to have an illustrious career until she was decommissioned in 1920.

The maritime fair by night and the scene on the Garonne (including Russian destroyers, bottom right).
The Vérité sets to sea.
Why has such a major event become little more than a footnote in the history of Bordeaux? Could it be the colonial undertones and the uncomfortable legacy of the African village? Hervé Guichoux considers rather that “it has been forgotten about because Bordeaux has struggled to come to terms with its maritime past and has chosen instead to focus on its wine heritage. The wine-trading districts and the working-class shipyards were worlds apart. The naval industry here was massive though, producing 205 warships over the years. It all came to an end in 1989 and shipbuilding is very much in the past now – current and future generations will be unaware of it.”

As for the fair itself, absolutely nothing remains of it today. “Everything was completely dismantled and destroyed,” Mr Guichoux says. “It was with a clean slate that Bordeaux organised its next big event, the 1909 Fête des Vendanges, celebrating the wine trade.”

The detailed CD-ROM Hervé Guichoux painstakingly produced, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the fair, really does provide a sense of the atmosphere and scale of the event. “My aim was to construct a virtual museum, using archive photos from books and personal collections.” Thanks to this labour of love, the 1907 fair has been fully documented and, in many ways, continues to live on.

> Update: Sadly, Hervé Guichoux passed away in August 2015. I very much cherish the precious time he spent with me discussing this event. His online legacy lives on here: http://bordeauxmaritime.free.fr Farewell Monsieur Guichoux! 
> Pictures featured here (lifted from the CD-ROM) are mainly from the collections of Francis Moro and Jean-Claude Bertreau. 
> The African village was not unique to Bordeaux in 1907 as an Exposition Coloniale was also held that year in Paris: Invisible Paris explores the remnants here.


  1. What a great post, and thanks so much for going to all the trouble to write this up, collect photos, and share it with us all. So sad we cannot get to see it all today. Diane

  2. Where's the legacy? Couldn't they have transformed the Grand Palais into social housing...or a Premier League football stadium?

    1. Fair point. We think about today's society as being all about consumerism and disposability (I think that's a word), but today's large-scale events are driven by "legacy"... at least London 2012 was). Don't think London would have got the Olympics if they'd reassuringly told the organisers that at the end they'd dismantle evreything and (possibly) set fire to it all. It would have made for a great closing ceremony though.

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  4. Thank you for sharing! It is nice to know how Maritime operates before! This is really interesting and want to re blog this or create a replica of this! As a soon to be seafarer, I was so grateful to read your post. More Power and give me luck to finish my course at http://www.pntc.edu.ph/. Thank you!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. May I put a link to this page on my website?

    Kathryn Atkin.

    1. Yes, by all means, please do.

    2. My pleasure, the photos of the Bordeaux event on your page are stunning!