From Rural France to Paris: Les Bougnats

Les Monts du Cantal in France’s Massif Central. A region noted for its beauty, but not for agricultural prosperity

The odd-sounding combination of coal merchant and bistro owner was quite common in Paris during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These establishments were usually the métier of immigrants from the Auvergne and northern Aveyron, where the poor soil made farming a thankless task.

Rural exodus

The depopulation of rural France during the 20th century is well documented. Perhaps less well known is that this exodus began during the 19th century. The arrival of the train was partly responsible.

The mountainous areas of les Monts du Cantal and the Aubrac were virtually inaccessible to the railways, which spread across the land in the 19th century. Farmers who lived near railway towns benefited from the new fertilisers, brought by train, to enrich their soil and specialise in certain products, such as wheat. Subsistence farming, which had persisted for centuries, began to break down. In the more remote areas, farming was less and less profitable. In addition, the old cottage industries, such as weaving, also became less sustainable, as the trains brought cheaper, factory-produced textiles.

The village of Aubrac, in the high plateau of Aubrac, noted now for its race of cattle and its annual transhumance festival.

Auvergnats & Aveyronnais move to Paris

Farmers from these areas began to up sticks and move to the towns, particularly Paris, in search of work. By 1879, there were around 700 Auvergnats/Aveyronnais in Paris, who settled mostly in the 11th arrondissement, around la Bastille. By the end of the century, the stream had become a flood.

To begin with, the rural immigrants often worked as water carriers for the public baths. But, as the Parisian water supply network developed under Haussmannian urban development, they changed métier. Increasingly, they turned to wood and coal delivery, the latter probably because of their links with the mining towns of the Auvergne and northern Aveyron. At this point, they started to be referred to as bougnats, probably from the Auvergne dialect word for a charcoal burner, charbouniat.  

A bougnat in the 1930s, from an original postcard. Unknown 1930s, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Close-knit community

At the same time, many of them opened cafés. The husband would deliver the coal, while the wife served drinks and sometimes meals, under the sign Vins et Charbon (wine and coal). Some of the most famous Parisian cafés were founded by bougnats. These include the Brasserie Lipp, bought up and developed by Marcellin Cazes, who was born in Laguiole, Aveyron. The bougnats’ apogee was in the first decades of the 20th century.

The bougnats were always a closely-knit, hard-working community and many of them made their fortune in Paris, often sending money to relatives back home. They were also firmly attached to their region of origin and kept alive their traditions and folklore through fêtes and dances, wearing their “peasant” dress of smocks, broad-brimmed hats and clogs. These friendly societies still exist today.

Traditional Auvergne dancing. My shot, taken when we stayed in Cantal a few years ago
More Auvergne dances, showing the traditional dress.

My latest novel, Overture, begins in the southwest département (county) of Aveyron in 1897. Two of the characters are bougnats who have already moved to Paris in search of their fortune, and have set up a restaurant, the Bistrot Mazars. Henri Mazars runs a coal delivery business, while his wife, Berthe, runs a restaurant, for which she has considerable ambitions. Some of the action takes place in and around the restaurant.

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Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2019, all rights reserved.

Published by Vanessa in France

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.

6 thoughts on “From Rural France to Paris: Les Bougnats

  1. Reblogged this on Ocelot Press and commented:

    In a series of posts about the historical background to Overture, to be published on 28th May, Vanessa Couchman looks at the exodus from rural SW France to Paris in the late 19th century.


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