A short history of Charleroi

Charleroi, the youngest of Belgium's cities

In 1666, the Spanish built a fortress on a headland overlooking the valley of the Sambre. The stronghold was named Charleroy to glorify Charles II, the infant King of Spain. The following year, the fortress was taken by French armies and it was under French occupation that fortifications were completed and extended by Vauban. Louis XIV, who wanted to promote the development of the new town, granted its inhabitants privileges. In 1678, under the treaty of Nijmegen, Charleroi was given back to Spain. A first industrial change based on coal, iron and glass industries brought about a rise in Charleroi’s population.


Charleroi, a real battlefield

Great powers went on fighting for the control of the strategic position of the city. French armies besieged and occupied Charleroi three times in 1693, 1746 and in 1794 , on the eve of the battle of Fleurus which was to seal the fate of Belgium for 20 years. Charleroi was renamed by revolutionary armies " Libre-sur-Sambre ". The Emperor Napoleon stayed two days in Charleroi before the battle of Waterloo and on the eve of his last victory in Ligny, on the 16th of June 1815. The Dutch built a new fortress which was stormed by the inhabitants during the Belgian Revolution of 1830. In 1914, during the First World War, Charleroi was for the last time the theatre of a great battle.

Cradle of the Industrial Revolution

More than two thousand years ago, iron ore was already used by the Celts in the area between the Sambre and the Meuse.  Though coal-mining began as early as the 13th century, the development of the coal industry was slow until the invention of the fire pump in the 18th century. It was in this same century that German glassworkers produced window glass through the cylinder blowing process. At the beginning of the 19th century, the industrial revolution which started in England brought profound changes in traditional metallurgy industry. The use of coke instead of charcoal and the use of steam engines instead of hydraulic energy resulted in the shift of metallurgy centres from the forest regions of Ardennes to the coal-mining sites of Charleroi.

It was the "Coal Country"

chassis charbonnage

The huge energy needs of emerging heavy industry together with the introduction of new technology and the intervention of financial groups such as the Belgian "  Société Générale " made coal-mining regulate Charleroi economic life. On this occasion, the Region of Charleroi was named the " Coal Country ". With its annual production of ten million tons (the last mine closed down in 1984), Charleroi was the biggest coal basin in Belgium. Today, Charleroi is still one of the leading glass and iron and steel centres in Europe. Since 1964, the agency for economic development ADEC (now called IGRETEC) has developed a wide-ranging programme ensuring Charleroi’s industrial reconversion.


Breeding ground for inventors

Charleroi was the home of notable and enterprising inventors overflowing with imagination.:Georges Lemaître and Albert Einstein
1735: The marquis Desandrouin introduced the first fire pump " Newcomen " in the continent ;
1827: Paul Huart-Chapel built the first coke smelting furnace in Belgium ;
1864: Ernest Solvay set up the first soda manufacturing plant of his huge industrial empire;
1881: Julien Dulait built the first hydroelectric generators ;
1903: Emile Fourcault developed his process for the mechanical production of window glass ;
1930: Georges Lemaître was the first to put forward the " Big Bang " theory which later on will be resumed by Albert Einstein ;
1937: Jean Dupuis printed his first comic albums.


" Region of Charleroi, you're the one I like the best "

The presence of a large working class contributed to the industrial growth of the area. Very early, the development of social institutions was significant : cooperatives, insurance benefits, company benefit schemes which were socialist or Christian as well as public grew (Intermunicipal Company Benefit Schemes in 1935). A big effort was made to increase the level of educational standards and to provide industry with the needed technicians (Université du Travail and Aumôniers du Travail in 1901). Coming from the four corners of Belgium and of Europe, the people of Charleroi are the result of successive interbreedings (Walloon , Flemish, French, German, Polish, Italian). The number of Italians grew significantly following the "fight for coal " and the agreement on immigration signed between Belgium and Italy in 1946.
Some people of Charleroi also brought their know-how to Russia and the United States, more precisely to Pennsylvania where they founded a city called " Charleroi ".

A city equal to its ambitions

Around 1870, the fortress was demolished. On the many hectares of clear land, new suburbs were put up favouring population growth in Charleroi. At this period, the City finally asserted itself as the primary centre of the "  Coal Country ". In 1911, Charleroi hosted an outstanding international industry exhibition. In 1930, King Albert I opened major works such as the filling in of original bed of the Sambre. In 1936, the new Town Hall represented municipal rights. In 1952-1957, with the building of the Palais des Expositions ( Exhibition centre) and the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Palace), the City had buildings to match its ambitions. In 1976, following the merger of boroughs, Charleroi became the third largest city in Belgium.

history of charleroi in BD