Bâtiment des archives du canal du Midi, Toulouse - VNF

The Canal du Midi archives:
a journey back through history

The Canal du Midi archives are in the centre of Toulouse, close to the Halle aux Grains, and you can expect a fascinating journey back in time there. The 700 linear metres of documents stored there cover four centuries of history of the Canal du Midi and its 'little brother', the Canal de Garonne. Visitors can come here with a prior appointment, to see for themselves the wealth of documents and witness the historic function of this archives building and its remarkable heritage integrity, still intact.

The history of the Canal du Midi archives

Port Saint-Etienne: at the heart of life on the Canal du Midi

The history of the archives building is strongly connected to the history of Port Saint-Etienne. In 1708, the creation of this port between Montaudran and Guilheméry bridges was a strategic decision as it would make the transport and storage of goods easier.

Between the early 18th and late 19th centuries, several buildings were erected at Port Saint-Etienne to meet the needs of the canal owners. These buildings housed the administrative and legal services linked to the management of the canal. These buildings hold historic significance, and one of them is the Château du Canal, the former court of law for the seigneury of the canal, created by Louis XIV for Riquet and his descendants.  

The fact that the chosen location of the archives building was near the château was no coincidence! The close proximity meant that the judges serving at the château could find the documents they needed for their investigations much more quickly.

But up until 1750, the paperwork for the canal was spread across all the buildings where the Canal du Midi management executives were working, including the offices in Toulouse, Naurouze, Castelnaudary, Trèbes, Le Somail, Béziers and Agde. Other archives were stored at the home addresses of the general manager, the general collector and the controller-general, who all resided in Toulouse. Other documents were kept at the home addresses of Riquet's heirs. 

Riquet's heirs were well aware of this system's shortcomings, that would most likely lead to documents becoming lost, and so they came up with an idea to ensure the preservation of the canal's written memory. In 1747, an archivist was appointed and entrusted the mission of drawing up an inventory and sorting the most important documents.  

A place to gather all the documents related to the waterway network and its history

With this concern for the preservation of written heritage linked to the history of the Canal du Midi in mind, it was decided to build a special building devoted to this purpose. This building was erected in 1750, on the corner of Port Saint-Etienne and the current Avenue Jean-Rieux.  

Very quickly, the building became too small! The archives came from all points of the canal, transported by boat. Sorting the documents was a laborious task and the Count of Caraman dispatched his secretery to assist the archivist. To facilitate archive consultation, the means of sorting was defined first of all, and then documents were sorted by topic. The documents sorted into supplementary topics were then sorted into chronological order.

A new location was needed for the archives… But after 1789, the abolition of the court leet meant that the court of justice at the Château du Canal was available to be used to store archives. This temporary solution would suffice for several decades until the proposal for a new building was put forward in the 1820s by Jean-Polycarpe Maguès, deputy director of the Canal du Midi. When he was appointed director in 1828, he entrusted the task of monitoring construction work to his son, Urbain Maguès. In 1830, a new building devoted to archives was unveiled, and all the documents were transferred there in 1832… 190 years later, they are still there.

Did you know?

The archives building was built in a Neo-Classical style, in the memory of both Pierre-Paul Riquet and of his creation. Initially, there was a bust of the canal's creator at the centre of the main room, and his portrait was on display in the lobby, along with portraits of Louis XIV and Colbert. These artworks were dispersed after 1898, but the exterior and interior of the building has been preserved ever since, including original furniture and the initial purpose of the building remains intact. In 1991, it was listed as a Historic Monument.

Archives that are quickly saturated, even today

The Canal du Midi archives allow us to gather and store all the paperwork that has been required over the years to manage the canal effectively. But such a collection requires a lot of space! Housing 700 linear metres of stored documents, the historic archives building has reached the limit in terms of capacity.

Since 2019, Voies Navigables de France, in charge of managing the canal, has been using a second archives building in Toulouse. This is where all the archives from the 20th century are progressively being moved to.

Journey into the history of the
Canal des Deux Mers

Types of documents stored in the Canal du Midi archives

The Canal du Midi archives stored by Voies Navigables de France – Direction territoriale du Sud-Ouest (south-west branch) represent over 1.5 km of documents, divided into two main sub-sections: 

- Old archives from 1598 to 1898. These are the documents related to the Canal du Midi and the Canal de Garonne, including maps, plans, shipping registers, financial documents and documents on specific topics, construction studies, etc.

- Contemporary archives from 1898 to 2000. These are the documents related to the management of the Canal du Midi (documents from the 'Service des Canaux du Midi', from the 'Office Nationale de la Navigation' and the 'Consortium pour la Modernisation des Canaux du Midi', and from 'VNF-Direction Territoriale Sud-Ouest').

Together, these archives represent the main elements of the canal administration, from Castets-En-Castillon (around fifty kilometres from Bordeaux) to Thau lagoon in Marseillan. It is also possible to find information here related to the other canals and waterways in these regions and in France.

How to consult these historic documents?

The Canal du Midi archives are available to the public and all researchers, from Monday to Friday, with an appointment.

If you would like to come and browse the archives, you can contact the archivist for VNF Sud-Ouest:  Samuel VANNIER 

  • samuel.vannier@vnf.fr 

  • +33 (0)5 61 36 24 72 

  • Voies Navigables de France,
    Direction Territoriale Sud-Ouest  

    Canal du Midi Archives Building
    2 Port Saint-Etienne
    31073 Toulouse cedex 7