In the Library collections is this print intriguingly captioned “The false bearded sapeurs-pompiers at Fourneaux”. The caption tells us that the figures are firefighters in a small town on the French-Italian border, but what’s the story behind the false beards?
The only clue is that the print appears to be a page from The Graphic, dated October 7 1871. The Graphic was a weekly illustrated newspaper published in London from 1869-1932. Some digging in the 19th century British Library newspapers collection uncovers the accompanying article in the October 7 issue, entitled “Inauguration of Mont Cenis tunnel”.
Here then is the story of the false beards. The print relates to the opening of an alpine railway tunnel between France and Italy at the town of Modane. The opening ceremony took place at nearby Fourneaux.
Three days before the ceremony a member of the Comité d’Organisation proposed that, in addition to the National Guard, a corps of ‘sapeurs-pompiers’ should be present to greet the dignitaries. The small fact that the local towns around Modane had no firefighters was not a problem. Three local gendarmes along with two of the tallest workmen in the vicinity were transformed into ‘sapeurs’ complete with yellow leather aprons, gauntlets and bearskin headgear.
However, a member of the committee who had been to Paris knew that ‘sapeurs’ were without exception “bearded men of might” and raised the concern that “the beardless workmen and clean shaven gendarmes would merely excite ridicule and contempt”.
With just three days to go, there was no time for the men to grow beards. Undeterred, the committee, with the aid of a barber and some horsehair, provided the five men with false beards for the occasion.
There was much pomp and ceremony at the Grand Opening that Sunday morning according to the Graphic’s correspondent. The Agriculture Minister, Monsieur LeFranc delivered a speech “with more gesticulation than an Englishman would deem necessary”. Unfortunately the five ‘sapeurs-pompiers’ made for a comic spectacle: “The horsehair beards sat uneasily on the unaccustomed chins. The tall bearskins were at every possible angle” and they were subjected to some ridicule from the crowd.
Sadly we don’t have a French account of the event, but the fact that “several members of the English press… were ignominiously refused permission to enter and were forced to retreat amongst the laughter of the assembled crowd” might explain the tongue-in-cheek account of proceedings.
What a shame that the faux sapeurs-pompiers, failed to convince in spite of their false beards – and who knew that beards were so essential to a firefighter’s identity?