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French railway business

After the success of the first French railway from the Place de l'Europe in Paris to St Germain, which had opened in 1837, James de Rothschild's confidence in the future of railways grew and he was moved to comment "the world can no longer live without the railways".


France was seized by railway mania. There was fierce competition for the concession for France's first major railway, through its mining and industrial heartland, the Paris-Lille Valenciennes Line with a spur from Lille to the coast at Dunkirk and Calais. In September 1845 the contract to construct and operate this railway was awarded to James's company, the Compagnie du Chemin de fer du Nord (known also as the The French Northern Railway, or the Nord company. It was owned by among others de Rothschild Frères of France, N M Rothschild & Sons of London, England, Hottinger, Laffitte and Blount. Much of the investment came from N M Rothschild & Sons in London. The Chemin de fer du Nord opened in 1846, and despite an early accident, developed into a very profitable railway. Baron James de Rothschild served as the company's first president from its inception until his death in 1868.

Lines of the Chemin de Fer du Nord

A royal ordnance dated 10 September 1845 granted exploitation of the railway from Paris to Lille and Valenciennes, branch lines to Dunkirk and Calais and two new lines Creil - Saint-Quentin and Fampoux - Hazebrouck to the  Chemin de fer du Nord. From the Gare du Nord station the company built in Paris, the Paris–Lille railway line led north towards Belgium, first connecting in 1846 to Amiens, Douai and Lille, with a branch line from Douai to Valenciennes. Lille and Valenciennes had already been connected to the Belgian railway network in 1842. The new line made it possible to travel by train from Paris to Brussels and further. In the following years, the network was rapidly expanded:

  • Paris–Lille railway (1846–1859)
  • Douai–Valenciennes railway (1846)
  • Longueau–Boulogne railway (1847–1848)
  • Creil–Jeumont railway (1847–1855)
  • Lille–Fontinettes railway (1848–1849)
  • Arras–Dunkirk railway (1848–1862)
  • Amiens–Laon railway (1857–1867)
  • Creil–Beauvais railway (1857)
  • Hautmont–Mons railway (1858)
  • Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme (1858)
  • Busigny–Somain railway (1858)
  • Paris–Hirson railway (1860–1871)
  • Lens–Ostricourt railway (1860)
  • Chantilly–Crépy-en-Valois railway (1862–1870)
  • Lille–Tournai railway (1865)
  • Boulogne–Calais railway(1867)
  • Rouen–Amiens railway (1867)

Development of the railway

In 1855 James de Rothschild commissioned photographer Edouard Baldus to create a series of photographs of the various landmarks on the railway line between Boulogne-sur-Mer and Paris. The photographs were used to create an album for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as a souvenir of their visit to France that year. The album can be seen today in the photographic collection in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle.

The potential for expansion of the Chemin de fer du Nord territory was limited by other companies: the Chemins de fer de l'Ouest to its southwest, and the Chemins de fer de l'Est to its east. By opening a line to from Paris to Hirson via Soissons and Laon from 1860 to 1871, it protected its eastern border against Chemin de fer de l'Est expansion. The concession for the line from Creil to Beauvais, owned by  Chemin de fer de l'Est predecessor Chemins de fer des Ardennes, was exchanged for the Nord's concession for Laon–Reims in 1855. In 1926, together with the British Southern Railway, the company began the regular connection between London and Paris of a luxury passenger train; known from London to Paris, as The Golden Arrow, and from Paris to London, as the Fleche d'Or.

Nationalisation and the twentieth century

The company remained under Rothschild control until 1937 when all privately-run railways were obliged to tranfser their assets to a public corporation, the  Sociéte Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF). Thereafter, the Compagnie du Nord became a holding company for the French Rothschilds' industrial and mining activities. In 1978 it merged with Banque Rothschild and was nationalised with the bank in 1981.

Archive sources

The Rothschild Archive in London holds little on the French Rothschild railway interests. A collection of papers concerning the railway business of the French house will be found in the records of de Rothschild Frères, (Fonds 132 AQ) and other related papers located in the Archives Nationales du Monde du Travail in Roubaix, France. See the links on this page for further information about these sources.