As the Lords of the Canal Royal du Languedoc (former name for the Canal du Midi), only Pierre-Paul Riquet and his descendents and the King could decide to build the constructions needed for administration purposes.
Due to its significant length, managing the canal was not an easy task. When building work for the Canal du Midi was completed, it was necessary to build a great number of buildings used for administration and operation of the canal, starting with housing for employees and revenue and inspection offices.
The buildings along the canal include the engineers' houses (in Agde, St Ferréol, Naurouze), intermediate navigation control stations (Capestang, Bram), revenue offices, etc. Some of these buildings such as the Sallèles d’Aude engineers' house also have a symbolic purpose, and were built as a sign of prestige and authority.
Other more prestigious buildings related to the canal seigneury were built alongside the Canal du Midi such as Hôtel Riquet in Agde or the Château du Canal du Midi in Toulouse. These two buildings house the chambers of justice, used to try any offences along the Canal du Midi route.
Today, the lock keeper's houses are still the most iconic buildings on the Canal du Midi! They are a key part of the canal scenery.
These buildings also have a practical purpose and are essential for navigation. They have been used as official housing for lock keepers since the 17th century, and also serve as markers for the boats sailing along the canal. There is a plaque on the front of the building with the name of the lock and the distance to the next one, upstream and downstream.
There are also service houses for personnel in charge of maintaining the engineering structures, as well as guard houses. All these constructions resemble the lock keeper's houses. There are also offices and housing for administrative personnel.
In around 1750, guidelines were set for the typology of lock keeper's houses and service houses. Local variations were very limited in this unitary style of management and organisation.
At the end of the 17th century, houses were simple constructions over one single storey. They were around 11 to 12 metres long and 7 to 8 metres deep. Inside, there were two rooms of fairly equal size: living quarters and the stables. The main façade facing the canal was symmetrical and regular. There was a front door with a window on either side.
In the last quarter of the 18th century, houses were extended and made more comfortable. The stables were progressively transformed into living quarters, the attic was raised and covered half a storey and new windows appeared at the rear and acting as ventilation for the attic. In the 19th century, there was a significant modification: another floor replaced the half-storey. This raised extension still had to respect the features of the initial façade however, so that the lock keeper's houses kept the same style.
Lock keepers added various outbuildings to their houses such as chicken coops, pigsties, bread ovens, stables, sheds, etc.
After 1918, side extensions were added to the lock keeper's houses, mainly related to the introduction of new features such as sanitary facilities, bathrooms or garages, or to meet additional needs in terms of space or office facilities.
These extensions were never formalised in terms of efficiency or architectural standards.
Did you know?
The oldest known plans for a lock keeper's house are those for Ayguevives lock, dating from 1720. According to these plans, it seems that the lock keeper's independence was a key factor in designing the construction, as there is a bread oven and fairly sizeable living quarters.
When the locks became mechanical, some of the lock keeper's houses were no longer needed. From then on, new projects were needed to breathe new life into these iconic constructions along the canal, to make sure they didn't fall into disuse.
The Canal du Midi and its constructions are protected by various initiatives and world heritage classifications, and so project leaders have to ensure the ancient characteristics are safeguarded, and the architectural style remains intact for the lock keeper's houses.
To find out more about the buildings available in the public inland waterway domain, VNF has set up a special website which features all calls for projects, ideas and spontaneous expressions of interest : Public inland waterway domain (domaine-public-fluvial.vnf.fr).
Back then, coaching inns were places to eat and sleep.
They were built along the Canal du Midi and there were rooms reserved for the controller, tax collector and guests (lounge, cabinet and bedroom), as well as living quarters for postilions, managers and their stables. Passengers stayed in the auberges.
Likewise, religion was also a key part of everyday life, and some users of the 'barque de poste' requested that chapels be built so they could attend mass throughout their travels along the Canal du Midi.
Did you know?
The hamlet of Le Somail, in Aude, is a perfect example of a stopover during the 17th century. The only remaining ice box from the Canal du Midi was found there. Back then, it was used to serve travellers sorbets!
The Canal du Midi crosses the Lauragais plains, and the region's star crop, wheat, arrived in the town centres by the ship load! That is why Riquet decided to build mills in Castelnaudary, Naurouze and Toulouse and that was where flour was made!
But they aren't the only mills on the Canal du Midi! Riquet decided to use the driving power of the canal waters for economic gain! He therefore built numerous mills to make use of the excess waters of the canal. These mills generated a significant share of revenue for the canal owners thanks to leasing.
The water supply system for these mills was a simple one: a by-pass canal was dug out parallel to the lock (often multiple) so that the difference in height could be utilised. The water then flowed back into the canal at the by-pass canal outlet!
In the 18th century, these mills were so profitable that it was decided to build two mills at each location. One at the top so that the sluices could be used as water inlets, and a new one at the bottom of the lower chamber.
The first one went on to be quickly abandoned and then demolished. In the 19th century, technological developments meant that many of the mills on the Canal du Midi were doomed. Some of them, downstream from the by-pass canal, were transformed into modern flour mills, little factories where flour was refined and stored in barrels. Technological development in terms of coal and steam meant that modern steam-powered motorisations were added to some flour mills so that they could stay in business. There were also living quarters and stables in the mills.
When construction work on the canal was completed, most of the areas the canal crossed through were bare countryside. It was therefore necessary to build docks near the villages to load and unload goods. Warehouses, trading companies, cellars, hay barns, wood-fired kilns, etc. Constructions popped up alongside the canal and began shaping the landscape. Other buildings related to canal transport were also built, for rope makers, carpenters and ship repair. The regions were bustling!
Warehouses were built near the ports so that goods could be protected and stored as they awaited boats to be transported. These buildings were either built by merchants near the canal or by canal management on their own land. They still bear witness to the canal's former trading activity, especially with regards cereal farming and also the wine trade.
In the 19th century, thanks to the prosperous winegrowing industry, the canal's activity reached its peak, and there were many wine merchant cellars alongside the Canal du Midi and the Canal de la Robine!
Like the tobacco factory on the banks of the Canal de Brienne or the metalworks on the edge of the Grand Bassin de Castelnaudary, factories choose locations near the waterway so they can obtain their raw materials by boat and easily ship their production in the same way.
Thanks to the new commercial outlets for wheat and regional wines, local agriculture was booming. Vast farms were built in the surrounding area of the Canal du Midi.
The rural setting of the canal became the latest trend for the upper class. Aristocrats, prominent figures, merchants and wealthy businessmen had manor houses built, surrounded by vast grounds and with direct access to the waterway.