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February 24, 2013


Rue Saint-Roch – A Street With A Secret

by soundlandscapes

AT FIRST SIGHT, the Rue Saint-Roch seems to be an ordinary street in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, a stones throw from the Jardin des Tuileries and the Musée du Louvre. But, as is so often the case in this wonderful city, things are not always quite what they seem.


Let’s start with the obvious. The most prominent feature in the street is the Église Saint-Roch at the junction of the Rue Saint-Roch and the Rue Saint-Honoré.


The church was built in the late baroque style. Louis XIV laid the foundation stone in 1653 and building was completed in 1754.

Sounds inside the Église Saint-Roch:


The church suffered during the French revolution, it was ransacked, and many works of art were stolen or destroyed. Scars of the revolution are still to be seen on the façade of the church with the marks left by flying bullets.


It’s a well-kept secret, but the Église Saint-Roch is notable because the French aristocrat, revolutionary politician, philosopher, writer and notorious libertine, the Marquis de Sade, was married here on May 17, 1763.


The  Église Saint-Roch is special for me because it is yet another Parisian church with an organ that has the fingerprints of the master organ builders, François-Henri Clicquot and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll all over it.


In 1750, François-Henri Lesclop was commissioned to build the first organ but he died before the work was completed. François-Henri Clicquot was asked to finish the work, which he did in 1756. The organ was restored just over a hundred years later in 1859 and again in 1881 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. This magical combination of work by François-Henri Clicquot and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll is to be found in churches all over Paris, not least in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.


And so, back to the Rue Saint-Roch itself. The origins of the street date back to somewhere around the tenth-century. It was officially named for the first time in 1450 as Rue Saint-Vincent then, several hundred years and several name changes later, it became Rue Saint-Roche in 1879.


Today, amidst scaffolding and extensive building work, Rue Saint-Roche is home to the Paris Bureau of the BBC who advertise their presence in rather austere terms compared to the other more elegant signage on the rest of the building.

Sounds in the Rue Saint-Roch:


The sounds of the Rue Saint-Roch may be what I came to listen to but what I especially came to see was this house, two doors down from the BBC office, N°41 Rue Saint-Roch. An ordinary looking house you might think, but this house has a history, a secret history. During the First World war, N°41 Rue Saint-Roche was the headquarters of a secret British military intelligence operation involving an underground espionage ring operating behind enemy lines.


The story of 41 Rue Saint-Roch is intriguing and brilliantly set out in Janet Morgan’s book, The Secrets of Rue St Roch. It’s a story of ingenuity, bravery and meticulous attention to detail, the very stuff of espionage behind enemy lines.

During the First World War, the Germans depended on trains to sustain and move their armies. The Allies realised the crucial importance of timetable information and of knowing what troop trains in occupied territories were carrying. Movements of men and guns from one part of the front to another, or the clearing of hospitals in forward areas, indicated the position and timing of the next offensive.

It was difficult to find people who could provide such intelligence, and difficult for it to be passed on. The front line was impermeable, neutral borders mined and electrified, movement restricted and clandestine radio and aerial reconnaissance were in their infancies. The Allies made many attempts, but German counter-espionage was formidable – though one network, La Dame Blanche in Belgium, was an espionage triumph. There was no coverage of tiny Luxembourg, which became, as the war went on, an increasingly important rail hub.

It was partly to address this that Captain George Bruce, later Lord Balfour, was assigned to a department of British military intelligence at 41 Rue Saint-Roch. He identified a possible recruit, a middle-aged Luxembourgeoise called Lise Rischard, whom he persuaded to return to her country as a railway spy. She began reporting by letter and newspaper code, which was a difficult business but this improved when she was joined by another of Bruce’s agents, an irrepressible Polish-Belgian soldier called Baschwitz Meau, who had escaped five times from German prison camps.

Meau was inserted into Luxembourg by hydrogen balloon at a late and crucial stage of the 1918 German spring offensive. The importance of the intelligence that he and Rischard provided from the agents they recruited can be gauged by the honours they later received – she the CBE, he the DSO, and both were made Chevaliers of the Legion d’Honneur.


I often wonder how many of the people who pass along the Rue Saint-Roch every day have any idea of the secret history of the house at N°41.

I walk the streets of Paris endlessly, observing and listening, and I am constantly intrigued by how the seemingly ordinary can often turn out to be quite extraordinary. The Rue Saint-Roch is a perfect example of this serendipity.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Feb 24 2013

    What an amazing story for such a forgettable looking building. Among the many pleasures of living in a place with a rich history is that there are stories quite literally on every block.

    • Feb 25 2013

      … and the stories are often endlessly fascinating. Thanks for taking time to leave a comment.

  2. hmunro
    Feb 24 2013

    I had to read your post three times to adequately soak in all the historical details. Thank you for opening my eyes (and ears!) to the secret story of a street I’ve strolled on many times, totally oblivious to its rich past. Congrats on another outstanding post!

    • Feb 25 2013

      Thanks Heather. Pleased you enjoyed this trip along rue Saint-Roch.

  3. Feb 24 2013

    Can I just say that this is the first post at which I have been “brave” enough to listen to the soundscapes? I know — it seems strange, but I was so afraid before, thinking that to hear Paris would make me feel to sad at missing it, and so I avoided it up until now.

    Well, I got brave and listened, and wanted to tell you that it was MAGICAL. Just magical. I felt so transported — together with the photos I was IN the Eglise Saint Roch, and I truly felt happiness not sadness at listening! What a joyful experience. Thank you so much. 🙂

    What’s interesting for me about this post is that I have a very personal story about the rue Saint Roch — not one for a comment, but I have to say it is very good for me (and somewhat healing, frankly) to have chosen this particular post to listen to and read. It has a lot of meaning for me… That was a nice synchronicity for me.

    All that AND there is an awesome story about N°41! Wow! I had no idea when I had walked that street before all the things that have happened there! My oh my. Paris certainly has its dynamic history, doesn’t it? I love this particular “Secret Story”! (Not so much the TV show, lol, but that is on another topic!)

    With sincere gratitude!

    • Feb 25 2013

      Thank you Karin. I’m so pleased that you listened to the sounds and that they had such resonance for you. Sound does that of course, it conjures up an extra layer of emotion that pictures and words alone cannot seem to do. I hope this experience will encourage you to explore more of the sounds here and that it will add to your enjoyment of these portraits of Paris.

  4. Feb 25 2013

    Very interesting as usual. Just a quick question though. Why was there a need to have a ‘secret’ British military intelligence HQ in Paris during WW1? It wasn’t behind enemy lines, although it wasn’t too far away from the front line. Was it rather a sign that they didn’t trust the French?

    • Feb 25 2013

      Thanks Adam. It is true that the British HQ for this operation was in Paris and therefore not behind enemy lines but Bruce’s agents most certainly were. They were operating clandestinely at enormous risk to collect intelligence which then had to be sent to Paris for analysis. Any compromise in the security of the operation or of the intelligence gathered would not only have resulted in a loss of the intelligence itself but also the near certain death of the agents involved. The fact that the British military intelligence HQ was classified as ‘secret’ was I think less to do with not trusting the French than with not being able to trust anybody.

  5. Mar 1 2013

    A great sense of acoustic space in the first recording; you’ve captured am interesting build-up of volume as people enter the church. I like the second recording for the fact that such typical 21st century sounds pass by a building that houses so many secrets, as if it is still camouflaged somehow.

  6. Mar 6 2013

    Thanks JD. Yes, N°41 does seem to fade into the background. But I suppose that’s what spies do.

  7. Jan Taylor
    Jan 12 2016

    I just discovered your site! I’m living in an apartment just across the street from No. 41 and down the block a ways. I was here from Oct. 2013 to March of 2014 and I’ve been here this time since March of 2015. Alas, I will be going home in 2-1/2 months. I was fascinated by your information and have ordered the book from Amazon. Thank you so much!

    • Jan 12 2016

      Thanks, Jan.
      I’m pleased you enjoyed the piece about rue Saint-Roche.
      Sorry to hear that you will be leaving us soon but I hope you come back again before too long.

  8. Ted Parker
    May 3 2016

    Thanks for that info,we are staying there this week

  9. Ted Parker
    May 3 2016

    I also understand that one of the world top fashion schools was there since 1927. Was it at #45 before the existing one that is there now?

    • May 3 2016

      I’m afraid I don’t know about the fashion school. Enjoy your stay.

  10. Lynette
    Apr 11 2019

    We were at St. Roch also, summer of ’14, staying on Rue Mont Thabor. I was heartbroken at the condition of the church itself. I have read the location is where Napoleon first displayed his skills, and then rose in rank and status.

  11. Kathleen Ann Hansen
    Oct 9 2021

    From Auckland NZ, I also walked down this street in 2012 to view #41. Had just read a book by
    Landau about the White Lady. After WW1, my husband’s father stayed at #27, hotel d’Anjour.. thereby hangs a tale!


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