From a fishing village to a renowned seaside and health resort
It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the name “Berck”, which appeared for the first time in a text from 1215. There are several hypotheses: Germanic “Berg” meaning great dune, Scandinavian “Bekkr” meaning birch, or the Anglo-Saxon “Birk” meaning oak.
During the Middle Ages, the village, located next to the mouth* of the Arche river, prospered thanks to trade and fishing.
The oldest parts of the church Saint-Jean Baptiste of Berck-Ville date back from this period. The bell tower, then roofless, used to be a guard tower and a “foïer” (an early type of lighthouse). Every evening, a guard would light a fire on top of the tower to communicate with the other guards in Montreuil and St Josse-sur-mer. A chapel was built afterwards, near the 15th century tower, and thus the Saint Jean-Baptiste parish church was created.
During the 13th century, the Arche would be diverted towards the Authy river, and its silting-up would make it disappear with time. Next to “Berc”, we also find in texts the following names: “Berg” (1741), Berque (1671) and Berk (1779).
*The mouth of the river used to occupy the current place de l’Entonnoir, in front of the Tourist information office.
Berck as a fishing village
Since the Middle Ages and until the 1950s, Berck was a fishing village. At some point, up to a hundred boats, called “flobards”, would directly strand themselves on the beach; the city did not possess any port.
Fish was then brought to the great cities in “chasse-marée” (horse-drawn carriages).
As you wander in the city, you will walk in the fishermen’s footsteps; houses, churches, chapels and wayside crosses. You will also discover our Musée de France, where you can admire a beautiful and impressive collection of naturalist and impressionist paintings.
Berck as a health resort - Marianne "Toute Seule"
During the 1840s, doctors Danvin, Charpentier and Perrochaud, then regional members of the Assistance Publique, noticed the therapeutic qualities of the climate in Berck.
The symbolic character of “Marianne Toute Seule”, founder of Berck Health Resort, will take the likeness of two widows: Marie-Anne Duhamel at first, followed by Marie-Anne Bouville.
In 1854, ill children were entrusted by doctor Paul-Henry-Antoine Perrochaud (1816-1879) to Marie-Anne Duhamel of Groffliers, who would take them twice a day to the beach for bathing and healing. The children quickly recovered, but due to health issues, Marie-Anne Duhamel herself had to cease her activities.
Marie-Anne Brillard would take over her role. Born in 1812 in Berck, she loses four of her six children and her husband to cholera. She decides to live in a house near the beach, at the present Place de l’entonnoir, with her children François, Marie and her niece Adèle. At first, she looks after the children of fishermen's wives who fish on foot (verrotières), while their husbands are at sea.
Marie-Anne Brilliard begins her work by taking in eight children afflicted with tuberculosis, whom she takes to the beach in a donkey-drawn carriage. The children recover quickly once more.
The news of the beneficial effects of Berck's iodine air quickly reached Paris. The number of children taken in by the Widow Marianne Toute Seule continued to grow (up to thirty children). It was at that time that five nuns were sent to help her. Her house had to be extended. The Assistance Publique thus decided to build a temporary wooden "little hospital" on the seafront in 1861.
Berck as a health resort - the coming of the hospitals
In 1869, a larger building made out of bricks; the Hôpital Maritime, then known as the Hôpital Napoléon, replaced the small wooden hospital. It was built under the supervision of architect Emile Lavezzari and entirely dedicated to children. It was officially opened by Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoléon III.
To honour her arrival, the municipality decided to give her name to the street that crosses Berck, from the city to the beach. The Hôpital Nathaniel-de-Rothschild (1872), now the Centre Jacques Calvé, the Cazin-Perrochaud hospital (1890), the Saint François de Sales institute (1901), now the Calot institute, the Bouville hospital (1902), the Franco-American foundation (1920), the Union des Héliomarins (1922-1925) and other sanatoriums, later joined the Hôpital Napoleon.
Today, many streets bear the names of doctors who have left their mark on the city’s history and on their discipline: Calot, Perrochaud, Cazin, Calvé, Fouchet, Ménard…
Berck turns into a true resort
The regular presence on site by Doctor Danvin, a hydrotherapy enthusiast, the growing reputation of the health establishments and the arrival of famous and wealthy residents led to the expansion of Berck's seaside resort, which had been in its infancy since 1842.
This growth was favoured by the arrival of the Ligue des Chemins de Fer du Nord Paris-Boulogne, and by the new sea-bathing craze. After the sale of the imperial domains (70ha of dunes and Garennes) in December 1863, Berck-Plage, almost 3km away from the seafaring village, covered itself with chalets, villas and public facilities (casinos, hotels, etc.). At the end of the 19th century, the Notre-Dame des Sables chapel was built and became the parish church of the new districts in 1914.
Fishermen, the sick and wealthy tourists all regularly visited the beach.
The artistic Berck
The second half of the 19th century was rich in great currents of thought and art, in particular the School of Naturalism. Many artists travelled along the coast of the Côte d’Opale in search of water, sky, light and new themes in relation with the maritime environment.
Between 1860 and 1914, Berck would experience an intense artistic activity, in the wake of Edouard Manet (July 1973), Eugène Boudin (between 1874 and 1894), Lepic, Tattegrain, Lavezzari, Trigoulet, Roussel, would set the tone for some 130 artists who would come to Berck-sur-Mer.
Take a dive into the marine and into the past of our city and area! The Musée de France of Berck-sur-Mer allows you, among other things, to admire a notable collection of naturalist and impressionist sea-themed paintings.
In 1904, among the dunes of Berck-sur-Mer, the lawyer patron Ernest Ardeachon undertook to repeat the experience of the Wright brothers in the United States, who had succeeded in taking off a glider with a pilot in 1901.
Inspired by the Wright glider, the Ardeachon aeroplane was entrusted to the Lyonnais engineer Gabriel Voisin, who made a few modest but promising gliding flights under the watchful eyes of a large audience.
Among the spectators were some of the great names of the nascent aviation world:
Captain Ferber, a military man with a passion for aviation, who already had a solid experience on aeroplanes of his own design.
Jan Lavezzari, a painter from Berck and an engineer, who flew on a "Deltaplane" of his own imagination in the dunes of the Authie in February 1904,
Robert who had just experimented on March 3, 1901 his "aeroplane without engine",
Some important personalities of the Aero Club of France, Mrs Bonnecase, Ponche, Henri de Rothschild and a certain Louis Blériot.
The industrialist with a passion for aviation came to Berck after a series of failures in the numerous attempts he had made since 1899 on ... "heavier-than-air motorised machines". Blériot realised that he was on the wrong track in his research and that he first had to study and understand the problems of lift and penetration in the air, the key to master aeronautics.
From the meetings and discussions he had in 1904 with the "aviators" of his time, Louis Blériot drew valuable lessons. It was undoubtedly at this time that the idea of an association with Gabriel Voisin was born, which would lead him to his exploit of 25 July 1909, crossing the English Channel in an aeroplane.
The Sand Yacht
The sand yacht was born in Belgium; it appeared in 1898 as an invention of the Dumont brothers.
In Berck-sur-Mer, Jan Lavezzarri, Doctor Cazin, and Mr Belvalette, the great coachbuilder of the time, founded the first French sand yacht club, the Sporting Club Berckois, which included Baron Pierre de Coubertin among its members.
Louis Blériot would not forget the sand yacht, as he was busy with his research into aviation. After his feat of crossing the English Channel in the 1910s, he would stay in his villa in Hardelot, busy designing a sand yacht for his loved ones.
This achievement was a success with a very demanding public to which Blériot, in association with Cazin whom he had met in Berck seven years earlier, answered by creating two sailboats in his factory, sold in kit form from a catalogue, which he named "aéroplage", a brand name that would be here to stay.
Berck-sur-Mer, going with the flow
Berck-sur-Mer is rich of its location between land and sea, proud of its maritime heritage and of the great names that have left their mark on its history. Berck-sur-Mer nowadays displays a dynamic and invigorating image thanks to its exceptional climate, to the strongly iodized air, and to its splendid beach, which extends over 12km from the Bay de Canche to the Bay d’Authie.
This magnificent beach is used today as a development area for all sliding sports and Berck has earned its renown thanks to the practice of the kite and sand yacht.
In 1887, one of the first aerial photographs by kite was taken. Every year since 1987, the resort has hosted the International Kite Festival in April, which attracts over 500,000 spectators. As for the 6 hours of Berck, taking place every October, they have been for more than 50 years the mythical sand yacht race in Europe.
It was in Berck, in April 1991, that Bertrand Lambert set the world record for speed in a sand yacht (151.55 km/h).
To go further, we suggest you this historical tour which will enable you to familiarise yourself with the history and heritage of Berck-sur-Mer during your visit.