Who bought them…and why?

The development of the Éolienne Bollée coincided with the realisation that water was a valuable commodity. This was expressed most strongly by the French aristocracy, anxious to replenish ornamental lakes and grottoes, raise fountains, and irrigate the farms and vegetable gardens (jardins potagers) of the estates.

Only rarely did the local villages and communes benefit by anything other than the installation of a water trough or a drinking fountain, even though a link between polluted water and the typhoid bacterium salmonella typhi (which caused septicaemia by entering the bloodstream through the intestinal wall) had been demonstrated in France in 1854. Though bacteria could be spread on food, or even by an unwitting human carrier, the most common cause of infection was the pollution of domestic wells that had been sunk no more than a few metres and were readily contaminated by excrement or the run-off from agricultural land.

Above, left to right. The picture of an elderly lady filling a ceramic jug from a public water-fountain was taken in the 1920s, but reflects the primitiveness of early twentieth-century rural water supply in France. Even as late as 1960, almost three communes in four still lacked satisfactory supplies of eau courant (running water). This explains why some communal Éoliennes Bollée were still fulfilling their original purpose in the 1970s. The other photographs show two surviving hand pumps, one in Épuisay and the other, with a flywheel to improve efficiency, in Berchères-les-Pierres. These are typical of hundreds (perhaps thousands) that are still to be found. Pump photographs taken by John Walter in April 2001.

The first communal water-supply station was not erected in France until 1870, in an insignificant town in the Département de Gers. According to Daniel Lapotre, writing in “L’éolienne de La Postolle”: ‘…the inhabitants [of the village] obtained water from the communal wells, or in the ditches between adjoining properties. Others built water-butts, often contaminated by sluice water… various epidemics caused serious problems. That of 1841 lasted from 8th August to 1st November causing 120 illnesses and thirteen deaths amongst the 310 villagers…’

The situation changed radically in 1886, when the daughters of the secretary of the Académie des Sciences died in a Parisian typhoid outbreak. This inspired a search for better water supplies, and the typhoid mortality of 1895 had been halved by 1908. Yet progress was slow and a major outbreak in Lyon as late as 1928 claimed several hundred lives.

Change was resisted in many parts of France, especially those where religion, superstition or folk-lore focused on the curative properties of local springs and wells. The sources of these waters could be deep and pure, but they were rarely able to answer ever-increasing public demand. It is not known when the first wind-engine was erected in France, but Halladay-type machines were exhibited in Paris in 1867 and it is suspected that a few may already have been at work.

Most nineteenth-century wind-engine enthusiasts were aristocrats, landed gentry and Propriétaires. However, the machines soon attracted the interest of a few forward-looking villages keen to provide clean drinking water. The first of these Éoliennes Bollée was erected in 1879 in Saint-Germain-sur-Avre (Eure-et-Loir), to provide drinking-water fountains, and the Compagnie de Chemin de Fer du Nord installed one in the same era to supply the water-tower of the railway station in Mouy-Bury (Oise).

Above: a picture-postcard of the Château du Hutreau, dating from about 1900. Baron Laity, the owner of this particular mansion, purchased a No. 2 Éolienne Bollée as early as 1874. The machine apparently still survives in store, in a dismantled state. Courtesy of M Sylvain Bertoldi, Directeur du service Archives–Documentation–Photothèque, Angers.

A list prepared in August 1888 by Auguste Bollée fils indicated that 145 Éoliennes Bollée had been installed: 141 in France, two in Britain, one in Belgium and another in Spain. But only six of French installations were satisfying communal needs, and only the machine that had been erected in 1885 in Sorigny (Indre-et-Loire) was supplying a Lavoir public, or public wash-house. Production was surprisingly consistent, output averaging about ten machines annually, and had reached 218 by February 1894. It is predicted that total production in the ‘Bollée era’ (1872–98) was in the region of 255.

Above: a 1920s picture-postcard view of Épuisay, in Loir-et-Cher, showing the No. 3 wind-turbine erected by Lebert in 1911. This installation, which was typical of the 'communal' purchases, still survives in good condition. By courtesy of J. Kenneth Major.

The transfer of business to Édouard-Émile Lebert (February 1898) was accompanied by a change in the pattern of sales. Site-rosters indicate that communal enthusiasm increased as rapidly as aristocratic patronage declined, a trend that continued to 1914 with pylon-mounted No. 3 Éoliennes Bollée predominating.

There is no evidence that work slackened until the First World War began, but circumstantial details suggest that considerable time was spent on refurbishment of older Bollée éoliennes and that fewer new machines were erected. Consequently, it seems likely that Lebert's contribution to production totalled only 65–70 Éoliennes Bollée; allowing for a handful erected by Gaston Duplay and SAEB in 1919–31, therefore, total output must have been 325–335. This is less than had previously been claimed, owing largely to improvements in knowledge. But it must be admitted that in the continued absence of any Lebert client-lists, the conclusions are still speculative!

Éoliennes Bollée have been found in 44 of the French Départements. Statistically the most important are currently Indre-et-Loire (55 sites known), Sarthe (40), Yonne (20), Loire-et-Cher (18), Maine-et-Loire (16), Eure-et-Loir (15), Eure and Orne (12 each) and Loiret (11). Conversely, thirteen of the 44 departmental inventories contain only a single site.

Unlike many other wind-engines, which were often advertised as power-sources for sawmills and light industrial machinery, Éoliennes Bollée were conceived solely to raise water. It is possible that the No. 2 installed in 1881 in the Château Bouvet-Ladubay in Saint-Florent (then a village on the outskirts of Saumur), may have been used to drive a Gramme dynamo, but this is the only site of its type to have been identified.

Above: a recent aerial view of St Hugh's Charterhouse at Parkminster, near Cowfold in Sussex. Only two Éoliennes Bollée were ever erected in England, both on this particular site — created in the 1870s by a French architect (believed to have been Clovis Normand). One machine was destroyed in the 1960s but the other survives and it is hoped that the 1881-vintage No. 1, currently near-derelict, will be restrored to working order in 2004/5.

Distribution outside France

Only a handful of Bollée wind-engines are known to have been exported. Two are known to have been purchased by Carthusian monks in Britain and another by the Carthusians in Spain (in Tarragona). One machine went to a phosphate mine in Brazil; another served a hospital in Tunisia; and a Lebert-made wind turbine found its way to Cotonou, capital of the French African colony of Dahomey. There is no reason to suppose that these were unique, and it is possible that a few Éoliennes Bollée were sent elsewhere in the French colonial empire prior to 1914.