His name might mean nothing to you. I hadn’t heard of him either, until I discovered the amazing Grand-Hornu just a few kilometres

A patron of industry

Unbelievable. And I don’t use that word lightly. You won’t find another place like it any time soon. Henri De Gorge, the boss of one of the most powerful coalmines in Belgium, changed the day-today lives of a whole population in the 19th century. Born in the north of France, the son of landowners became a coal merchant with a flair for business. And that’s an understatement. In 1810, he bought the struggling Hornu coalmine and re-launched production by developing ultra-modern techniques for his team to implement. He hadcast-iron ruts put into his tunnels to make it easier to bring up the ore, installed steam engines and developed his own railway! In just a few years, the Grand-Hornu became a benchmark throughout the whole country.

A perfect town

Henri De Gorge was a pioneer. In the middle of a vast ogival-shaped courtyard, at the heart of the former coalmine, towers a statue of this man. Above and beyond his industrial genius, it is his humanism that really struck me when I went to the site. You get the impression that something really unusual happened in this former mining village. Remember Germinal?With its black faces, worn down by hard work. The families living in such atrocious conditions. Henri De Gorge wanted another kind of destiny for his workers. In 1816, he started work on a major architectural project, based on the idea of a “perfect town” in which workers could enjoy unheard of comfort. Of course, we shouldn’t be naive: the idea was to hold on to a mobile workforce and improve productivity, but still...

A brand new world

For his workers, he had 450 spacious homes built,each with hot water and a garden. He opened a school, made it compulsory, even for girls. He built a dance hall, shops, a dispensary... All of these houses are still there. What’s more, they’re listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, surrounding the former mining complex. Henri De Gorge didn’t want to be the only one to benefit... What a surprising lesson!That’s why I describe this site as unbelievable. The buildings have been converted and are now used to house two fantastic design and modern art museums. It’s amazing how you can get a feeling of historyas you walk through the site. Standing in front of the statue of this visionary, I think of all those “black faces” that served the country. Hats off to Monsieur De Gorge.


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