Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Rue de l’Agent Bailly: rare recognition of ordinary heroism

London has its Postman’s Park, where individual acts of (tragic) heroism are remembered, but you have to look hard to find anything similar in Paris.

In the 9th arrondissement though there is one such place – the Rue de l’Agent Bailly, a street named after a member of the city’s nascent river police who, in 1901, died trying to save a woman from drowning in the Seine.

The agent Charles Bailly
Charles Gaston Bailly was born in Poitiers in 1871. He initially came to Paris in 1898 to take up employment as a Gardien de la Paix in the 1st arrondissement of the city. Searching something a little more adventurous, he was quick to join the new ‘brigade fluviale’ (river brigade) which was created especially for the 1900 Exposition Universelle being held in the city.

It was on November 2nd 1901 that tragedy struck. That morning, Bailly and another member of the brigade named Marmas were alerted by the cries of a group of people alongside the river. A woman had jumped in near the Pont Marie, and was being swept along by the current. Bailly immediately jumped in after her and swam to her assistance. Just as he reached her, the current dragged both of them under a group of barges that were moored alongside the quai. Marmas, who leaped in the river in an attempt to save both of them, was quickly fished out and survived, but Bailly and the woman were trapped and died.

Little was ever known about the woman. She had the name Émilie stitched on her blouse, and it is believed that she was a 38 year old concierge named Émilie Vallée. The name of Charles Bailly though soon became famous throughout the city. The newspaper Le Matin published full details of the story in its edition of the following day, and all of Paris was touched by Bailly’s heroism.

The Rue de l'Agent Bailly
His funeral was held on November 4th, and paid for by the city of Paris. The procession through the streets of the city wound its way from the Prefecture de Police via Notre Dame to the Montparnasse cemetery, where Bailly was buried with the city's other 'victimes de devoir'.

Bailly's story didn't end there though. His act of tragic heroism continued to be featured in the press, generating a movement towards the creation of some kind of lasting memorial. The city authorities eventually decided to give his name to a street, renaming the Passage Rodier the Rue de l'Agent Bailly in 1904 - perhaps the only time that such an honour has been granted.

The brigade fluviale - which was still a temporary organisation with an uncertain future before Bailly's death - was immediately given an official and permenant role in the city (a role it still has today, incorporating around 100 officers). It should be noted that at least two other successful rescues previously took place in the river in 1901, but it is seemingly only tragedy which leads to change. 

The Rue de l'Agent Bailly has obviously never been one of the city's major arteries, but it still retains a certain charm today. Originally an impasse, it became a full passage in 1899, but still seems to be more of a backstreet than anything else.

Curiously it is exactly 100m long, and as narrow as a footpath. Cars don't seem to use the street, and its blank walls have become something of an open-air gallery. Another curiousity is a self-service bookstand that someone has set up half-way along its length. Empty when I passed by, people are encouraged to share books by putting their used ones on its shelves and picking up anything else that takes their fancy.  

The scruffy walls seemingly have many stories to tell, although the messages are mostly muddled and peeling away (and there is even one - at dog height - which seems to address them directly). Each person tries to leave behind a trace of their existence, but it is only the legend of one brave - but tragic - police officer that will live on in this street.



Tobias Sagner said...

Thank you so much for this interesting background story of the street I am living in. Had a lot of pleasure reading it.

rgsoundf said...

Good job Adam (as always).

Nathalie said...

Fascinating story. The open air swap book shelf is a remarkable find too !

Tim said...

Excellent post - nice mix of historical background, human interest and information about Rue de l'Agent Bailly itself. Every street (and street name) tells a story!

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