Encountering Secret Police in the Archive

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Hospice in Elbeuf, Normandy.

(other pics will follow)

Excuse the click bait title but today I did, for the first time, encounter secret police reports in my archival research. This came as quite a surprise to a historian familiar with the largely banal municipal politics of the inter-war English city. I am sure there were political agents keeping an eye on groups like the National Unemployed Workers Movement, the official CPGB and the Fascists but I didn’t expect to find police surveillance of the workings of hospital boards! And the information wasn’t just about political affiliation or radicalism.

The first week of my research trip to Rouen has been full of culture clashes characterised mainly by an old fashioned French view of public service which has little to do with serving the public. This does not relate to the service I have received from the staff of the Seine Maritime Departmental Archives which has been exemplary but to the maintenance of opening times that suit the archives and not the users.

It was for this reason I found myself catalogue surfing, seeking inspiration in fonds of the Prefecture which showed a complete lack of interest in hospital management. Then I seemed to have find what I was looking for – a file of hospital and hospice reports. After an afternoon of damp squibs I ripped it open excitedly only to find another seemingly unhelpful selection of crumbling brown paper files taking me through the procedure for appointing members to the Hospital or Hospice Administrative Commissions of the small cantons of Seine Inferieur. Indeed as I flicked through a series of papers identifying the vacancy, requesting information on the candidate – but only if they were new – and confirming their appointment I came across a large wad of scrap paper evidently filed with the year’s work by an absent minded (or mischievous) clerk.

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A pile of scrap paper filed and archived for 80 years

I was on the point of giving up when a new type of document caught my eye. There had obviously been some kind of clamp down on the appointments procedure and it now fell to the clerk to have potential candidates vetted by the secret (or special) police. Admittedly in most cases the process wasn’t very vigorous. For two candidates in the small town of Elbeuf the police were asked ‘to transmit, as completely as possible, after enquiries both discrete and profound, all confidential information on M. …, notably on his conduct, his morality, his social situation, his reputation and his political attitudes.’ (Archives Departmentale de Seine Maritime 1 M 666) It struck me that, for all our fears of snoopers’ charters, it is unlikely that electronic surveillance would tell the state much about our conduct, morality or reputation – these were characteristics that could only be measured in face to face societies.

Nor was there much to fear. One of the Elbeuf candidates was a known socialist but also hard working, involved in associational culture and happily married. The other was an older man with impeccable civic credentials and no known politics. One character did attract rather more attention. A fire brand socialist (though also a small businessman) he had been under police surveillance for a number of years and was perceived to be a trouble maker intent on spending the public’s money on his clients. In this case the Surete became involved and a long letter was despatched by an inspector who was out to get his man. In this case the candidature was dropped and another, politically safer, man was found.

But the police were not only there for vetting – they could also provide information others were reluctant to divulge. Once again the focus was Elbeuf, but on this occasion the police were providing inside information on a crisis within the board which saw resignations, allegations of financial irregularities, public rows in the council chamber and gossip in the press. At the centre of the affair was the Ordonnateur (secretary/treasurer) of the Hospice d’Elbeuf, a charcutier and councillor with a big reputation in town. In late October 1937 the Prefect was informed of the resignation of one of the leading members of the hospital commission by a former Ordonnateur who noted that the reason for the resignation was something he could not explain in a letter. Evidently there were further developments and on 30 November the chief of police wrote to the Prefect with the rather enigmatic message confirming that ‘the Christmas Tree Ceremony at the Hospices d’Elbeuf the previous Sunday, had run without incident.’ However, he continued that he did note ‘a very cold reception reserved for M C….’

Within a few days the crisis had exploded and the Chief of Police was able to furnish the kind of information no one else would state in public. In a lengthy letter of 3 December prompted by extensive press speculation about the management of the hospice, he was able to confirm that the root of the problem was the ‘improper attitude’ of the Ordonnateur with regard to some of the female personnel at the establishment. M. C… was married and a father but had taken ‘for a mistress one Miss Le C…, an employee at the Hospice in charge of the children’ an allegation given weight when the Oronnateur ‘had been surprised, in an embrace, in a room in the establishment’. Moreover, he also demonstrated ‘cavalier manners towards other female employees (misplaced jokes, furtive touching etc).’ And – if more were needed – he had also undertaken some work without the authority of the Commission. Clearly an all round bad character.

In these circumstances he was invited to resign at the end of the year rather than seek a renewal of his term. He refused to resign, prompting the exit of Vice president of the administrative council. This prompted the suggestion that the workers at the hospital would go on strike to get him out – and though the local union refused to back action other members of the administration supported the demands of the staff. In the face of so much hostility the Ordonnateur had to go – but his exit was smoothed by a hypocritically fond farewell for the ‘retiring’ administrator. He was feted by his colleagues on the town council and given the opportunity to thank everyone for supporting him and to point out how he had put the hospital’s financial house in order.

With only hints and gossip in the press, coy insinuations from other members of the hospital commission and the council minutes which venerated the outgoing Ordonnateur one would never know the root of the problem at the hospital in Elbeuf. But thanks to the directness of the chief of police, his sexual and financial abuse of power was stopped and a record left for the historian. Evidently police surveillance could be used positively – whether to confirm that most socialists offered no danger to the social order or to bring down small town bullies abusing their small town power.

Real names have not been used as this is sensitive material and less than 100 years old. All documents come from Archives Departmentale de Seine Maritime M1 666 (appropriately).

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