Montreal-City of Wealth and Death
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Montreal-City of Wealth and Death

In the 1860s, Montreal was a thriving city of more than 100,000 people. It was home to many of the wealthiest and poorest citizens of the colonies.
Montreal was a thriving city, home to some of the richest and poorest people of British North America during the mid-1800s. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
Montreal was a thriving city, home to some of the richest and poorest people of British North America during the mid-1800s. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

The English-speaking elite lived in an enclave on the south slope of Mount Royal called the Square Mile. They controlled about two-thirds of the country's wealth, fortunes that came from beer (John Molson), furs (James McGill), sugar (John Redpath), and flour (the Ogilvies).

The richest was Hugh Allan, a shipping magnate who shunned tobacco and alcohol, preferring hard work and curling. His mansion had 34 rooms and from his bell tower, he could look through a brass telescope to the harbour to watch his ships being unloaded.

Many of the wealthy were Scots Presbyterians who came to Canada with little money or education and built their fortunes. These people were the country's aristocracy and they were eager to associate with British royalty.
Industry in British North America was becoming mechanized in the 1850s and 60s. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
Industry in British North America was becoming mechanized in the 1850s and 60s. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

In 1860, the Prince of Wales visited Montreal during his tour of British North America and a ball for three thousand was held in his honour. The ballroom was 100 feet long and the dinner menu was printed on pink silk and listed 60 dishes including lobster mayonnaise, oysters in aspic, beef, mutton, salmon and duck. Fountains burbled with champagne and another sprayed eau de cologne.

In contrast to this ostentatious wealth, many Montreal residents lived in wretched poverty. Many poor, including children, worked in the new steam-powered factories, at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Some factory owners were ruthless, taking advantage of people's desperate circumstances. Some workers laboured for nothing during their first months on the job and the troublesome ones were beaten.
In the 1860s, Montreal had one of the highest levels of infant mortality in North America - one in three children died before reaching the age of five.
In the 1860s, Montreal had one of the highest levels of infant mortality in North America - one in three children died before reaching the age of five.

Winter was hardest on the poor when the port froze up and the factories closed. People turned to volunteer organizations and churches for help. Montreal had one of the highest levels of infant mortality in North America; one in three children died before reaching the age of five.

Every day children were found abandoned on the steps of charities. Some of the parents had died of typhus. Other families were too poor to feed or clothe the children. In 1867, the Grey Nuns, a Catholic order, took in 662 infants. Within a month of their arrival, 369 had died. At the end of the year, only 39 survived.

The convent of the Grey Nuns was a clearinghouse for illegitimate children. The babies were found by the river, left in baskets at the orphanage's doors, or discovered wrapped in newspapers. The few survivors were sent to live with rural families.

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