Grenelle 1794: Rescuing, Compensating and Caring for the Victims of an Industrial Disaster during the French Revolution

By Claire Barillé, Thomas Le Roux, Marie Thébaud-Sorger

On 31 August 1794, a gunpowder plant in the Grenelle district of Paris exploded. This accident killed around 1,600 people, making it the most serious industrial disaster in the history of France. While this event had very little impact on risk-related legislation, the aid to victims revealed the State’s role as a precursor, promoting the right to compensation. After quickly and generously distributing emergency aid, Revolutionary administrations took the time to build files for lifetime annuities, even if this meant being strict in awarding settlements and having to face many appeals notably due to the lengthy process. By asserting a legal framework, the handling of the consequences of the explosion was a landmark for aid and compensation policies for injured workers or widows, and this experience foreshadowed the protective State. Due to its public administrative nature and the number of workers employed at the gunpowder plant, the follow-up was different from prevailing trends in public works or mines, where work-related accident victims had until then been compensated depending on the generosity of their employer or by local mutualities. A localised, one-off event at the dawn of industrialisation, the gunpowder plant explosion nevertheless suggested the tensions surrounding the compromises of the industrial society of the 19th century.

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