I was asked recently about Old Montreal and how the origins of the city could be presented visually, and I had to think quite a bit about the matter. For me, that section of town presents itself in such a myriad of ways. From many years of research, reading old newspapers, diaries and such, I have formed in my mind a vision ofMontreal’s oldest part in the nineteenth century. But how to describe what is for me a personal journey into the past.
My ‘vision’ ofMontrealin the nineteenth century centres on Place Jacques Cartier. In the day, it was the centre of commerce, serving as a market and a thoroughfare leading up to the Champs de Mars, where all military celebrations and demonstrations took place. Cut now by the construction of several buildings and the Villa Maria expressway, the Champs de Mars is greatly reduced, but you can imagine in the nineteenth century the area filled with men in uniform, their buttons glistening, and the noise of the crowds gathered to watch them.
On the King’s birthday, (and later the Queen’s) the forces stationed inMontrealwould march from the barracks which were situated just past the Bonsecours Chapel, east of Place Jacques Cartier. The men would stand on the field of Champs de Mars and perform some feats of marching in time, and then would fire their guns. The guns at the fort on St Helen’sIslandwould also be fired, and also those at the barracks. This was a very public event, and those living in the area, which meant, at the time the majority ofMontreal’s population, would come and watch the performance.
At the top of Place Jacques Cartier, below the Champs de Mars is a statue erected by the population ofMontrealin honour of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. It was placed there about 1808. The citizens of the city raised the funds, and the statue was one of the first erected in the empire in honour of the victory. Now the statue has a bit of a neglected air, and a homeless man uses its base as a target for his hockey balls. He tries to lure tourists to shoot for a price, his way of making money. But it leaves its mark on the base. In the nineteenth century this statue was a place of honour.
Further down the street, towards the water is theNelsonHotel. It is now a building holding offices, and behind it lies the Jardins Nelson, a building shell which serves as a restaurant in the warmer months. In the nineteenth century theNelsonHotelwas one of the biggest buildings of its type. Not only did it house visitors coming toMontreal, but it also hosted the banquets and celebrations held by its citizens.
I can picture it vividly in my mind on St Patrick’s Day. The St Patrick’s Society often used the hotel for its meetings in its early days, and their annual dinners were often held here. But it is the parades which most capture my imagination. In the morning, before their annual mass held at Notre Dame Basilica, the Irish society would gather its members at the hotel. Its windows would be decorated with flags and boughs of evergreen. The members, other societies, and many other Irish who were not members of the St Patrick’s Society would gather at the hotel, and accompanied by the military band from the garrison, would begin marching towards the church. According to accounts in the newspapers, theNelsonHotelwas not the only building decorated for the occasion. The men (as these societies at the time were entirely masculine in their membership) would march up the Square and then turn left onto Notre Dame street, past Nelson’s Column and march to the church, flags waving, and curious spectators lining the streets. They would march past the government buildings to Notre Dame, where they would enter to attend the service. The church would have been full of the Irish, and others, celebrating their patron saint, and their pride in their identity.
Following the service, the Irish would march back along the same route and disperse at the Hotel. But it wasn’t only the Irish who would do this sort of thing. If you walk a few feet from theNelsonHoteland turn left ontoSt Paul’s East, you will find Rasco’s Hotel. It is probably most famous for hosting Charles Dickens in 1842. It was here in 1835 a group of Scots met together to form the St Andrew’s Society. When they celebrated their first official St Andrew’s day, it is here that they assembled before they too marched along to their Church, the St Gabriel’s Street Presbyterian Church, for their annual service. The other societies in town, the St George Society, the German Society and the St Patrick’s Society joined them in their march from their offices in hotels along the route. Their hotels, including theNelsonHotel, were bedecked in flags and banners and greenery in honour of the occasion, and their members joined them in their march.
St Gabriel’s Church was on the southeast corner of the Champs de Mars.
Then there is the Bonsecours Market, onSt Paul’s East, constructed in 1832. I can imagine the market bustling day after day with people buying and selling. But what sticks most in my mind is the celebrations held there, on the second floor, in honour of Halloween in the 1860s. The Caledonian Society held concerts there several times. The area was huge, and the society reportedly filled the place to the brim. The newspaper reports talk of over a thousand spectators lured to the venue to hear songs and music fromScotland, and speeches about its brilliance and the genius of Robbie Burns, whom they honoured when they spoke of Halloween.
For me, Old Montreal is the vivid life that swirled around these buildings. They stand now as remnants of active social lives, lived in and around Place Jacques Cartier.