A couple of residents at the ball in the Salle des fêtes of the Biermans-Lapôtre Foundation in the 1960s.
A self-made man
From Shawanigan back to Europe
Jean-Hubert Biermans was born in Herkenbosch, in Dutch Limburg, on December 31, 1864 in a family of modest means whose father was a baker. Although he completed his primary education at the Athénée in Hasselt (Belgium), Biermans is of Dutch nationality. In 1877, at the age of 13, he began working on the railway works of the engineer and entrepreneur Florent Lapôtre. Biermans, without qualifications, was a laborer before becoming a worker and then a skilled worker. He deploys an unusual energy and strength to the work, completes his training with numerous readings. In short, his motivation and his spirit of initiative caught the attention of Florent Lapôtre who hired him on larger projects: the construction of railway lines in Luxembourg, Italy, Corsica ... soon in Algeria (where Mostaganem is connected to Thiaret).
From that time on, Hubert Biermans coveted the (only) daughter of the "boss", Berthe Lapôtre, born on March 10, 1866, in Agimont (in the province of Namur). At that time, the Lapôtre family settled in the province of Hainaut, in Carnières, one of the three sections of the commune of Morlanwelz in the Centre region. Berthe's birth certificate indicates that the father was "employed" and the mother "housewife". Without being rich, the Lapôtre family is not wealthy, but it is a form of success that pushes Florent Lapôtre to reject Biermans, this subordinate, when he asks Berthe to marry him. The latter marries Félix Remacle, accountant at the coal mines of Mariemont (next to Morlanwelz) and comes from a cousin family of the Lapôtre family.
In December 1889, Biermans was hired by the Congo Railway Company to connect Matadi to Leopoldville by rail. For 8 years (until 1898), the young man, soon to be head of department, was involved in a difficult undertaking that cost the lives of a good hundred Belgians and thousands of African workers. His dynamism attracted the attention of the director and true initiator of the project, Albert Thys, who decided to involve the Limburgers in his future railway projects. In this case, Biermans makes a decisive meeting! General Thys was, in fact, Leopold II's secretary and trusted man for "African affairs" since the time of the "national" expeditions (in charge of establishing the bases of the Belgian colony at the end of the 1870s). It is as a businessman devoted to the Belgian colonial cause - the various companies of the Thys group were worth 72,250,000 gold francs in nominal capital in 1915 - that he founded the Banque d'Outremer (in 1899) in order to have sufficient capital to carry out his ambitious projects.
As proof of the confidence the General had in Biermans, he sent the latter to Canada in 1900 to check on the progress of the work to set up one of his companies, the Belgo-Canadian Pulp Cy. The company, located in Mauricie (Quebec), was then faltering. Biermans immediately noticed the potential of the business: he noted the presence of powerful waterfalls nearby, which made it possible to install electrical transformation turbines, not to mention the plethora of trees in the surrounding area. In 1903, he created the Belgo Pulp and Paper Cy (reconstituted as Belgo-Canadian Pulp and Paper in 1905), controlled by the Banque d'Outremer, whose mill would produce pulp and newsprint. The facilities are located in Shawanigan-Falls, a city founded in 1901 (renamed Shawinigan in 1958). Biermans started out as site foreman, but soon rose to the position of director of the "Belgo", whose prosperity owes much to him. He also became such a prominent figure in the Canadian economy that in 1924, when he was elected president of the American Paper Manufacturers, he was able to earn 54,000,000 gold francs from the resale of his business.
Meanwhile, on May 2, 1904, Felix Remacle died. Berthe thus found herself a widow with a son, Florent (born on March 26, 1897), whose health was precarious. Hubert Biermans waited for his time with determination... He corresponded for two good years with the daughter of his former boss before finally marrying her in 1907 in Middelkerke (near Ostend). The following year (which is also the year of the death of Florent Lapôtre, widower for several years), Berthe embarks with his son for Quebec.
The Biermans-Lapôtre couple became Canadian citizens while Hubert was made an honorary citizen of Shawanigan, a city with which both were generous. Hubert even tried unsuccessfully to get elected in the 1919 provincial election. From that time on, both of them made donations to educational institutions such as Stanislas College in Montreal and the Universities of Montreal, McGill and Laval (more on this later).
In the autumn of 1926, Biermans having ceased to be an "industrial" strictly speaking, the couple returned to Europe. Biermans placed his assets in about ten banks and invested, bought, resold... in sectors such as energy (oil, electricity), transport (railways, river steamboats), mining, steel and communications (telegraphy and telephony), not forgetting the paper industry where he remained an expert. In short, as a stockbroker concerned about his important assets, he takes care of a fortune that is also managed by a few trusted men. Among his nominees, Biermans counts Charles Lapôtre, his wife's cousin and tax advisor, who is also in charge of the accounts of the Banque d'Outremer and the Guaranty Trust of Brussels. Residing in Belgium, Charles Lapôtre is a proxy for everything that concerns the "host country". Among the close guards, Frans van den Eynde, a childhood friend of Biermans and, even more so, Aquila Dehauffe, are also among these trustworthy men. The second, met in Shawanigan, acts as secretary, adviser and intermediary faithful to the businessman to the point of having followed him from Canada to Europe. Dehauffe checked all current files (including those relating to Berthe Lapôtre's property) under the strict control of Biermans, to whom he sometimes wrote several times a day.
A couple of patrons
The couple leads a life of active retirees, very comfortable, between their French, Canadian and Monegasque residences (where Hubert Biermans stands out at the casino...). They stay in North America in the summer and in Europe in the winter according to a custom already practiced at the time when Hubert ran the Belgo. For Berthe cannot stand the Canadian winter: from the beginning of the 1920s, she spends almost 9 months out of 12 on the Old Continent (5 of which are far from her husband) to escape it. In order to do so, in 1924, she acquired, apparently with her funds, the Villa-Printemps in Monte-Carlo. In poor health from 1937 on, she would not even accompany her husband on their summer pilgrimage...
However, it is mainly in France that the couple settled. In 1928, they ordered the erection of a private mansion in Paris (rue de Bourgogne, 7th arrondissement) to the architect Armand Guéritte, to whom they had just entrusted the construction of the "Maison des Belges". We will come back to this. In October of the following year, they acquired the domain of Salneuve (Montargis, Loiret), composed of two farms and a castle surrounded by 420 hectares of land. In the end, Biermans seemed to suffer little from the socio-economic crisis of 1929. Certainly, from Salneuve, he followed the news of the New York stock exchange with anxiety. And to strike in Dehauffe, at the beginning of 1930: "from the first takeover, most of the shares were sold". But he nevertheless continued to build, despite the turmoil.
This wealthy couple is without descendants. Berthe's son, suffering from poliomyelitis, dies before his mother and stepfather. So the Biermans wish to last other than through the interplay of generations. When they donate to a Foundation or an association whose values they share, they demand nothing more in return than to see both their names appear on the commemorative plaques. In this sense, like other Belgian businessmen who have lived in North America or simply been influenced by the practices of the New World, Hubert Biermans admires the great figures of American patronage such as Andrew Carnegie or John Rockefeller. John Rockefeller is one of the most important donors to the Cité Internationale. Biermans can only admire a Carnegie who, like him, did not go to school much and had to migrate for economic reasons. In his "timely essays" (The Gospel of Wealth and Other), "Gospel of Fortune," the American believes that the rich man has a duty to distribute. According to him, there can be no question of bequeathing his entire fortune to an individual, nor even to natural heirs (who must be provided for, without more, at the risk of corrupting their will). Carnegie is even more critical of those who would leave their money to an administration, a city or a state because their gift would be subject to "a political decision", at the risk of being mismanaged or squandered. In his view, the pledgee must settle the question of his estate during his lifetime.The Gospel of Wealth and Other), « évangile de la fortune »…, l’Américain estime que l’homme enrichi a le devoir de distribuer. Selon lui, il ne peut être question de léguer l’entièreté de sa fortune à un individu, ni même aux héritiers naturels (qu’il faut pourvoir, sans plus, au risque de corrompre leur volonté). Carnegie réprouve encore plus ceux qui laisseraient leur argent à une administration, une ville ou un Etat parce que leur don serait soumis « à une décision politique », au risque d’être mal géré ou dilapidé. A ses yeux, le nanti doit régler la question de sa succession de son vivant.
What Biermans translates in a prosaic way: he wants to realize "all interests where the liquidation of my estate could (sic) present the slightest annoyance to those who will survive me", that is to say any share, any value that is not convertible in more than 48 hours...
Also, especially after his return to Europe, Hubert Biermans (alone or with his wife) was prodigal, especially with the Société Civile Immobilière de la Maison d'Amérique or the Association Belge de Bienfaisance de Paris (ABB). The latter, founded in 1937 and chaired by Maurice Solvay, counts Aquila Dehauffe among the members of its Founding Committee. Biermans offers 850,000 francs to this association so that it can renovate its premises, superbly installed in the former Belgian embassy on rue de Berri (formerly the hotel of Princess Mathilde). This generosity earned it the honor of being the guest of honor at the inaugural banquet on July 21, the Belgian national holiday, at the prestigious Cercle Interallié! Moreover, on the 24th, King Leopold III decorated him, as part of the International Exhibition of "Arts and Techniques in Modern Life".Exposition Internationale des « Arts et Techniques dans la Vie moderne ».
Berthe Lapôtre played an important role in the choice to support the Belgian "colony" in France (and elsewhere). But Hubert Biermans, like so many others who were moved by the martyrdom Belgium suffered at the hands of the "Boche" during the First World War, also showed himself to be a "patriot". Thus, he gives the benefit of his generosity to the National Federation of Belgian Military Mutilated and Invalids of War (25,000 francs), the Choir of the National Federation of Belgian Combatants in Paris (5,000 francs) of which he is the honorary president. He also supports Le Belge de Paris, the weekly organ of the 50,000 Belgians residing in France, and Le Journal des Belges de Paris et des Départements, the official organ of the Association des sociétés belges de France (5000 francs). It is also he who sends 25,000 francs to help build the Home for Belgian invalids in France. Finally, in April 1948, he donated his estate in Salneuve to the Belgian Union, a royal mutual and charitable society under the honorary presidency of the Belgian Ambassador. The latter set up a retirement home for "the old men of the Belgian Union". Le Belge de Paris, l’organe hebdomadaire des 50 000 Belges résidant en France, ou encore Le Journal des Belges de Paris et des Départements, l’organe officiel de l’Association des sociétés belges de France (5000 francs). C’est encore lui qui envoie 25 000 francs afin d’aider à l’édification du Home des invalides belges en France. Enfin, en avril 1948, il fait don de son domaine de Salneuve à l’Union belge, société royale de mutualité et de bienfaisance, placée sous la présidence d’honneur de l’Ambassadeur de Belgique. Celle-ci y installe une maison de retraite « des vieillards de l’Union Belge ».
In addition to supporting the victims of the First World War from a "paternalistic" perspective, Biermans are concerned to celebrate the "national glories" that distinguished themselves in the service of the "people". His concern is particularly for Queen Elizabeth, the "Nurse Queen", to whom he granted 50,000 and then, in 1928, 500,000 francs in favor of his Foundation. The Foundation, on the site of the great Brussels hospital Brugmann (inaugurated in 1923), houses laboratories, notably in clinical biology, dedicated to scientific research.
A patriot, Biermans also wants to be a man of order. Here he is encouraging (24,000 francs) the House of Peacekeepers, the work of Marcelle Lemaire de Villers, the wife of the very right-handed police prefect Jean Chiappe (whom Biermans also seems to appreciate).
In short, Biermans was generous with "its" homelands: Canada and Belgium, illustrating a type of Anglo-Saxon "patronage" that defies the State. On the other hand, it must be emphasized that it did not see fit to help colonial-type associations.
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