Petit Ranelagh or the French Ranelagh

Petit Ranelagh or the French Ranelagh, sometimes called the Garden of the Ranelagh, has an interesting history. It began in 1773 with a barrier guard and a lodge keeper named Morison (also sometimes spelled Morisan). He had an inn in the Bois de Boulogne and obtained permission from the Prince de Soubise, who was the governor of the Château de la Muette, to erect a building in imitation of the one built by the first Earl of Ranelagh in London, which had been built on the banks of the Thames between 1688–89 and was called Ranelagh Gardens.

Petit Ranelagh or the French Ranelagh

Ranelagh Gardens Rotunda in London. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Petit Ranelagh opened to great success on 25 July 1774. Its entrance fee was 24 sous, and it contained a cafe, restaurant, ballroom, and a theatre. Because of its outstanding success the Petit was soon dropped from its name making it simply Ranelagh. Five years later, the grand master of the rivers and forests of the environs of Paris decided that his rights had been infringed upon. He argued that the governor did not have authority to allow anything to be built on the grounds of Château de la Muette, and, so, Ranelagh was closed. The grand master also decreed that he would “destroy all the works … constructed in the Bois de Boulogne,”[1] which would include Ranelagh.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Public Domain.

Morison immediately went to King Louis XVI, presented his case, and the decree was revoked allowing Ranelagh to reopen. It was during this time that the French Ranelagh enjoyed its most brilliant splendor. A society composed of a hundred members began to host weekly balls on Thursdays. These balls were extremely popular with Parisians, and when Marie Antoinette stayed at the Château de la Muette, she also patronized Ranelagh and attended the balls. In fact, according to one source, the French Ranelagh got its start because of her:

“When Queen Marie-Antoinette came to live in the castle of La Muette, she had grown accustomed to go with the ladies of the court to join in the country dances which occurred on the lawn. As the queen was afraid of the … evenings, Marshal Soubise, governor of the castle of La Muette, authorized the construction of a ballroom.”[2]

Besides Marie Antoinette as a patron, Ranelagh was also filled with the beau monde. America’s Benjamin Franklin was said to be fond of visiting Ranelagh when he lived in Passy, as was the Princesse de Lamballe. Another visitor was the famous general and admiral Charles Hector, Count d’Estaing who was lauded at Ranelagh and “conducted to a seat of honour from which he was to behold a grand feu d’artifice, fired on the occasion of the taking of Grenada.”[3]

When the French Revolution began, Morison had difficulty keeping Ranelagh going and sold his furniture to pay his debts. It soon became a dance place for Sunday amusements of the sans-culottes and then closed. Under the Directory, several “coxcombs” attempted to revive the balls: “but the people became jealous, the dancers were insulted and menaced, finally arrested, and the ballroom taken possession of by a battalion of guards.”[4]

Ranelagh remained closed until the overthrow of the Directory by Napoleon Bonaparte. Then it catered to such people as the politician Paul Barras and popular salon hostesses and leaders of fashion Madame Tallien and Madame Récamier. The first half of the 19th century saw it revived, and once again on Thursday nights, it drew large crowds. Men paid three francs to enter and women paid one franc.

Madame Tallien (left) and Madame Récamier (right). Public Domain.

Around 1812, Morison died. Following Napoleon’s defeat, between 1814 and 1815, Russian and British troops occupied the Bois de Boulogne. They chopped down thousands of trees for shelter and turned the area into a stable and then into a hospital. From 1815 until the French Second Republic, the forest remained largely empty, home to tree stumps and stagnant ponds.

In 1818, Morison’s son-in-law reasserted his ownership of Ranelagh. He opened it under the protection of Charles X, but not long afterwards, a hurricane destroyed the building. When the Restoration occurred, the proprietor pleaded to be allowed to rebuild Ranelagh, and permission to reopen was given in 1826. It reopened under the patronage of the Duchess de Berry.

In the 1840s, a Paris guide-book noted that certain amusements in Paris could only be visited by gentleman. However, they also noted:

“An exception must be made in favor of Ranelagh, at the entrance of the Bois de Boulogne, close to Passy, where the company is in general of a better description.”[5]

The guide-book also noted that Ranelagh was located in front of the Chateau de la Muette, and provided this additional description:

“Ranelagh, a well-known and most agreeable place of public amusement … consists of a ball-room, a small theatre, and good gardens with a cafe attached, wherein balls are given every Sunday and Thursday during the summer and occasionally dramatic representations. It is well attended, the subscription balls are the best in the neighbourhood of Paris.”[6]

During the reign of Emperor Napoleon III, Ranelagh closed and disappeared in 1858 after creation of the park called Bois de Boulogne.


  • [1] Household Words, Volume 16, 1857, p. 91.
  • [2] Journal officiel de la République française, 1879, p. 4357.
  • [3] Photographs of Paris Life, by Chroniqueuse, 1861, p. 49.
  • [4] Household Words, p. 91.
  • [5] Galignani, A. and W. Galignani, Galignani’s New Paris Guide, 1842, p. 476.
  • [6] Ibid.

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