Portrait de Pierre-Paul Riquet - Fonds Maguès

The Canal du Midi management:
from Riquet's family to the French State

How is it possible to effectively manage a 240-km-long canal? Ownership has passed from Riquet's family to Voies Navigables de France, not-to-mention the Compagnie du Canal du Midi, but one thing is certain, everyone has managed to adapt their methods and ensure this exceptional masterpiece has always been correctly maintained and showcased over the years!

Seigneury over the Canal du Midi and the Riquet family

Riquet, the 'Lord of the Canal du Midi'

On 5 October 1666, two weeks after the Edict of Saint-Germain was signed, King Louis XIV appointed Pierre-Paul Riquet as entrepreneur for the construction of the canal.

Two years later, in 1668, the King placed the canal seigneury up for auction. That is when Riquet acquired ownership and as such, became 'Lord of the Canal du Midi'.

Along with this title, he also acquired numerous rights such as the exclusive rights to allow boats to transport goods and passengers, or the right to administer justice for any offence committed along the Canal du Midi route.

However, the toll fees and transport tariffs were set by Royal authority. The revenue generated was used for maintenance work to the canal, to keep it in perfect condition.

Pierre-Paul Riquet

Construction of the Canal du Midi

Heirs burdened with debt

When Pierre-Paul Riquet died, his two sons inherited his assets and therefore both gained the title of 'Lord of the Canal du Midi'.

His eldest son, Jean-Mathias de Riquet, was 'Président à Mortier' at the parliament of Toulouse. He inherited the Bonrepos estate upon his father's death. The younger son, Pierre-Paul de Riquet, had embarked upon a military career. His father had bought him the county of Caraman and so he was given the title of Count of Caraman. 

But don't be fooled by the apparent wealth! In actual fact, Riquet also left significant debt behind for his heirs. To pay this debt, his heirs decided to sell a part of their shares in the canal. Financer Reich de Pennautier and the King's engineer, Antoine de Niquet, became co-owners of the canal. However, the sale of these shares included a buy-back clause.

In 1724, the debts had been paid and business was flourishing for the Riquet heirs (Jean-Mathias died in 1715) .
They bought back the shares they had sold 30 years earlier and became the masters of the canal seigneury once again!

The hierarchical structure of management
put in place by the Riquet family

At the end of the 17th century, once the canal was completed, the Riquet family took on the management of the waterway.

Very quickly, the family opted for a hierarchical structure of management which included the following:
- a 'general manager of the canal' based in Toulouse
- a group of individual managers, each responsible for a section of the canal.
Each manager was in charge of the maintenance work for their local area.

The same structure was applied for financial management: a general collector based in Toulouse would be in charge of individual collectors in each department along the canal route. If the need arises, a controller-general, assisted by individual or mobile inspectors can ensure the right management approach is used in each department.

Locally, the lock keepers and spillway guards are in charge of the general operation of the engineering structures. Local policing is carried out by the 'gardes à bandoulière' officers under the orders of police lieutenants, themselves operating under the orders of the judge.

This sort of organisation was particularly effective for a 240-km-long structure!

Did you know?

Pierre-Paul Riquet's 3 daughters did not have any shares in the canal seigneury. Their wealth came from 'successful' marriages into the great families of Languedoc: Lombrail, Lavalette, Barthélémy de Gramont Lanta. These relations were valuable to the affairs of the canal.

The upheaval of the French Revolution

The Canal du Midi was no longer known as the 'Canal Royal du Languedoc'

In 1789, the canal was the property of Pierre-Paul Riquet's heirs. But as time passed, and the rules related to inheritance evolved, the shares of the seigneury were no longer divided evenly between Riquet's descendents. It was therefore divided into 28 equal shares, and 21 were allocated to the Caraman branch and 6 to the Bonrepos branch.

But, things changed at the time of the French Revolution! Serfdom was formally abolished in France on 4 August 1789. As a consequence, the feudal rights to the canal no longer applied.

In 1792, the Canal Royal du Languedoc was progressively changed into the Canal du Midi. On 22 September 1792, the first day of the First Republic, the canal which had already been stripped of the word 'Languedoc' in its title, also lost the word 'royal'.

Between 1793 and 1809, the ownership shares of the Riquet de Caraman family were confiscated. The canal became the property of the French State.

A 'Compagnie du Canal du Midi' to govern this unique waterway network

In 1808, Napoleon I decided to sell the canals owned by the French State to fund the construction of new waterways. The funds transferred to the Deposits and Consignments Fund were divided into 1,000 shares.

The shareholders were grouped together within the 'Compagnie du Canal du Midi', established by decree of 10 March 1810. The French State kept a certain control over the canal, via the 'Conseil Général des Ponts et Chaussées'. From then on, the personnel was partly reorganised so that there were enough people to take care of the technical management, commercial operation, land management, law enforcement, and the collection of taxes and duties. Engineers were also recruited, some of whom had studied at the Ecole Polytechnique and the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées.

None of Riquet's heirs were among the shareholders in 1820! But five years later, the Riquet de Caraman family was able to acquire shares that had been in the hands of the Emperor until then. From 1824, representatives of the Riquet family held a key role on the Compagnie du Canal du Midi Board of Directors. Their influence went from strength to strength until the late 19th century. They were actively involved in the management of the canal and had a close friendship with the general manager of the canal in Toulouse.

The world of inland navigation in turmoil

In 1858, one year after the inauguration of the railroad between Toulouse and Sète, it was obvious that the Compagnie du Canal du Midi was struggling to compete. The 'barque de poste' and accelerated navigation services were abandoned.

Therefore, at the beginning of 1858, the Compagnie du Canal du Midi leased the operation of the canal for a period of 40 years, to the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Midi. This company also managed the Canal de Garonne and so was now in control of the two key communication routes between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. They introduced a pricing policy that gave the upper hand to the railroad.

From then on, traffic along the waterway went into decline and numerous bargemen were forced to close down their businesses. To give you an idea, the shipping tonnage for the canal was 110 million tonnes-km (= each time a tonne of goods covers 1 kilometre) in 1856, and this figure fell to 28 million tonnes-km in 1896! Almost four times less! 

Did you know?

The name of the Canal du Midi services (Services des Canaux du Midi) was changed to Service Midi-Garonne and then Service de la Navigation de Toulouse.

The Canal du Midi passed back into the hands of the French State

The State wanted to revive inland waterway transport

In November 1897, a law gave the State authorisation to buy back the Canal du Midi. The price was set at 40 million French francs.

Under the authority of the 'Ministère des Ponts et Chaussées' (Ministry of Roads and Bridges), the new 'Service des Canaux de Midi' took some radical measures in an effort to revive waterway traffic: navigation taxes were abolished and modernisation work began on the canal and the boats.
The results were rather positive in that traffic increased from 65 million tonnes-kilometres in 1900 to 81 tonnes-kilometres in 1910. But these efforts ceased when the war broke out in 1914.

After that, it wouldn't be until the 1950s that waterway traffic would really take off, driving the French State to invest in significant modernisation work of the whole network in the late 1960s.

The Canal du Midi has been managed by Voies Navigables de France since 1991

In the 1990s, management of the Canal du Midi was taken over by Voies Navigables de France (VNF).

This organisation took over from the Office National de la Navigation (ONN). It was created with the goal of reclaiming the waterway network, to supply water to the populations, farming land and for the industrial sector, as well as to develop transport, tourism and leisure. From January 2013, Voies Navigables de France was integrated into the services of the French State responsible for managing inland waterway networks, including the former navigation services.

This public establishment was in charge of maintaining, operating and developing navigable canals and rivers. These measures would contribute to enhancing and developing the public inland waterways. Voies Navigables de France also acts with sustainable development and territorial development in mind, together with local authorities and the French State.

Today, the Canal du Midi is mainly used for river tourism and has become a destination in its own right! The canal is also now well-known for the range of leisure activities on the water's edge and the transport of water for farming uses, as well as tourism.

The Canal du Midi
listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In 1995, Voies Navigables de France, and the French Ministry of Culture and Equipment, decided to submit an application to add the Canal du Midi to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The members of the World Heritage Committee were won over by the ingenuity of this 350-year-old waterway, the quality of its architecture and landscape value, and acknowledged its exceptional universal value!

On 7 December 1996, the Canal du Midi was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.