Letter from Europe

Luxembourg - From Iron Foundries to Diplomacy

Issue no. 2020/4

Picture above: The deep valleys which bisect Luxembourg City were focal points for early industrialisation, making the most of fast-flowing rivers and local iron ore deposits (photo © hidden europe).


Deep in a valley just a short hike north from Luxembourg's ville haute, in villages which once echoed to the clamour of forges and foundries, the might of industry has been replaced by the soft power of diplomacy.

Dear fellow travellers

We have been in Luxembourg these past few days, and it's set us thinking about the Industrial Revolution.

Mention the Industrial Revolution, and chances are that you'll think of one of the great cities of the Industrial Age. Birmingham, perhaps, which in the 19th century grew almost from nothing to become one of the great English centres of manufacturing and commerce. Essen, Lille and Katowice spring to mind, all three continental hubs of industrial growth.

But Europe didn't shift in a generation from feudalism to industrial capitalism. The 19th-century changes in the mode of production were presaged by decades, even centuries, of proto-industrialisation in some areas. And those early steps towards mechanisation took place not in cities but in some of Europe's more rural regions. Water-powered blast furnaces were commonplace in the valleys of the English Weald by the late 17th century. By the 18th century, the early effects of industrialisation were transforming the Flemish countryside.

Southern Luxembourg was well blessed with key resources to support early industrialisation, namely accessible deposits of iron ore and plentiful forests - the latter a source of charcoal for fuel for smelters. Thus it is that in the valleys of southern Luxembourg, we see early evidence for what was eventually to develop into one of Europe's core areas for the metallurgical industries.

Visitors to the capital city are struck by its topography. Two fast-flowing rivers, the Alzette and the Pétrusse, join in the extraordinary gorge below Luxembourg's fortified upper town (which is known as the ville haute). Few capitals have so dramatic a setting. For those inclined to explore on foot, it is possible in a matter of minutes to swap the busy thoroughfares of the beautiful ville haute for quiet footpaths in the deep valleys around. That's part of the charm of the city of Luxembourg.

Wander down the Alzette Valley to reach the spot where way back in 1609 Jean de Ryaville, a migrant from Lorraine with an entrepreneurial eye, created the first small-scale processing plant for iron ore in the region. The development of industry in Luxembourg, as indeed elsewhere in Europe, depended heavily upon individuals with vision and finance.

Monsieur de Ryaville may have been the pioneer, but two centuries later other industrialists arrived in the Alzette Valley and created new plants around de Ryaville's original foundry at Dommeldange - in those days a rural village, but now part of the city of Luxembourg. Two of them were Émile Metz and Charles Collart; each man built a fine villa which reflected their status as leading industrial magnates in an increasingly prosperous region. Today the homes created by Metz and Collart are respectively the embassies of the Russian Federation and the Peoples Republic of China.

Here, deep in a valley just a short hike north from Luxembourg's ville haute, in villages which once echoed to the clamour of forges and foundries, the might of industry has been replaced by the soft power of diplomacy. Today, one-time industrial villages like Eich and Dommeldange ooze that quiet affluence which is a hallmark of the Grand Duchy. Yet, for those who take the time to look, there are still the former mills and workshops, the oldest of which date back to before the heyday of the Industrial Revolution.

Long before the diplomats and international bankers arrived, long before Luxembourg carved out a niche as a major centre of European political life, the people of the Alzette Valley looked to the local rocks and power of their rivers to create wealth - and they were doing that very effectively well before the 19th-century growth of Europe's great industrial cities.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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