"When the last of the Valois kings were persuing their inherited task of compelling the English to accept as definitive the work of Jeanne d'Arc, an insignificant fishing village grouped around the chapel of Notre Dame de Grâce, was chosen by François I as the port of Paris and received its present name".
from "Ports of France", Herbert Adams Gibbons, illustrated by Giovanni Petrina, The Century Co., 1926
Although Le Havre's reputation perhaps commenced in 1520 with the construction of the (then) largest french ship ever built, the Françoise, it was Colbert who decided on the creation of the Arsénal de la Marine in Le Havre in 1670 - various reasons being advanced for this establishment facing England between Dunkerque and Brest. This forced most commercial construction out of the city walls (builders Sence, Bonvoisin, Godefroy, Gosse, Deros, Vasse, Feret, Fouache and Reine all had their yards in the Perrey area) until the end of the Napoleonic period when, in 1824, the the closure of the Arsénal, with the exception of the cannon foundry and various other non-ship-building activities, was decided.
Le Havre was basically a marshy area and subject to silting in the floating docks and a heavy build-up of pebbles at the entrance (hence the sea wall to the North and West of the entrance). The Lamandé plan of 1787 was the first attempt at making the port into a viable commercial harbour, but because of the wars it was well over 30 years before it was fully implemented. However, the Bassin du Roy, the first dock in the harbour that had the capability of being "wet" or "semi-tidal", was complemented by two new basins - the Bassin de la Barre leading straight off the avant-port or outer harbour, and the "Bassin du Commerce" (a misnomer if ever there was one, as it was used primarily for naval purposes for many years and became the subject of bitter political squabbles) were started as early as the year II (1794). The beginnings of the Harfleur / Tancarville canal appeared much later.
The end of slave trading in the early C19th, combined with the closure of the Arsénal spurred commercial activity into other domains - including ship-building (Augustin Normand possibly being the most widely known) mostly steam but some smaller whalers and other commercial vessels, engineering and foundry work, and trading in leather and cotton. The cotton trade flourished until the end of the American Civil War, when prices increased substantially, and the importers turned to India for their supplies.
Dry docks were envisaged as early as 1834 (Ladvocat, Frissard, "Port du Havre, projet d'un bassin conçu et proposé par L. Ladvocat"), but the first was only started (bassin de Leure) in 1845 and with the crisis of 1848 was abandonned, just after the start of the transatlantic services (the Union belonging to Herout et de Handel from Cherbourg in 1847 and Donald Currie for Cunard in 1850 from Le Havre) for which they were planned, to be completed and formally opened on 28 January 1864 (Compagnie Worms) (Michel Eloy Le Havre de 1517 a 1966)
Some curiosities in this period of development include: Fulton's first experiments with steam (Nautilus, 1800), the development and testing of several "screw" propellers by Frédérique Sauvage, and the establishment of the "Société des Régates du Havre" and associated yachting activities (1839, under the tutelage of the Duc d'Orléans).
- Espace Maritime et Portuaire des Docks Vauban (Musée Maritime), Quai Frissard, 76600, Le Havre Tel: 02 35 24 51 00 - Madame Mauban, Conservateur.
- Musée de l'ancien Havre, 1 rue Jérôme Bellarmato, 76600, Le Havre Tel: 02 35 42 27 90
- Musée Malraux, 2, Boulevard Clemenceau, 76600, Le Havre Tel: 02 35 19 62 62
- Archives Municipales du Havre, Fort de Tourneville, 55, Rue du 329ième, 76600, Le Havre Tel: 02 35 54 17 32
N.B. Much detail has been ommitted above in the interests of brevity.