This morning I’m at the Grand-Hornu, the famous 19th century coalmine. Admission is free to walk around this majestic site, brimming with history. I really want to find out a bit more. This place raises so many questions. How was life organised here? What’s inside these neo-classical buildings? Why is there a castle at a coalmine? And what is this statue in the middle of this grassy oval all about? The weather’s perfect, and at 2 Euros for an audio-guide, it would be a shame not to.

Avec Henri De Gorge comme guide !

I’m not going to be disappointed. Easy to use, lightweight, crystal clear sound and a script that takes me two centuries into the past to understand what life was like here. And that’s no surprise, as it’s Henri De Gorge himself who accompanies me for the hour-long tour. A lovely surprise, I am the guest of the owner. This captain of industry with a confident, serious voice, explains his ideas to me, telling me all about how this perfect village is organised. The statue in the courtyard is him, presiding proudly over the “engineers’ building”, the operational administrative office. Each building has a purpose, the square courtyard with its hay storage areas and stables that are now exhibition spaces for the MAC’s and Grand-Hornu Images. The main courtyard is the principal thoroughfare right in the heart of the village. Then there’s the machine room, one of the first in Belgium where locomotives were built. Mr D. Gorge had the idea of using his own machines in the basement, as well as building a trail-blazing mining village on this site for “his” workers.

La vie quotidienne du charbonnage dans le casque

He built more than 450 houses around the site for miners. He was constantly trying to provide the best possible living environment, starting with houses with 6 rooms, paid for by the week for the equivalent of one day’s wages. A miner’s wife whispers in my ear, or at least, in my earphones, that she had never imagined that she would one day live in such a palace. A school, shops, a dispensary, leisure activities and areas for relaxation and culture… Everything was done to give miners and their families the best possible living conditions. For no other reason? The arrival of a lawyer who came to advise miners to set up a savings fund didn’t go down well with the paternalistic boss, “Ah, what is it with these people with their socialist ideas, my workers are happy here!”… History has been set in motion, and you can enjoy your guide’s running commentary.
There is plenty more information and surprising stories to listen to. The development of the Grand-Hornu was no easy ride! There were floods, riots and competition from other coalmines throughout its life. I’ll let you find out for yourself. It is with some regret that I say goodbye to Henri, a visionary and enlightened entrepreneur. He still lies with his family in the family crypt at Grand-Hornu. He has left an indelible mark on the history of this site.


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