According to the Montreal historian Alan Hustak, author of Exploring Old Montreal (2005) and Sir William Hingston, an epic account of nineteenth-century Montreal, Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine would have seen little of the Montreal on the itinerary of today's typical tourist, partly of course because much of it was not yet constructed, but partly because, after landing at the granite docks (now built over) he would have been (in the current jargon) "embedded" with the garrison, some 12,000 British soldiers and their families, in a mixed English- and French-speaking population of some 32,000. Adds Hustak,

Montreal was a pretty tense and anxious place in the spring of 1842, with the memories of the 1837 rebellion still fresh, especially the hangings in 1839, and the burning alive by the British of French Canadian civilians in Ste. Eustache. Dickens's host would have been Sir Richard Downes Jackson, who acted in the show, and who was the chief military administrator, until Governor Bagot arrived. The arrival of the Dickenses coincided with Canadian-American tensions, so that Jackson, fearing a U.S. invasion, was building up the troop strength of the garrison, of whom there were about 12,000 that spring. The situation was all the more precarious in that the old walls from the French colonial period were no longer standing, having been torn down after the War of 1812, before the 1837 Rebellion. Much of Dickens's stay in Montreal was spent at (and coming from and going to) Jackson's home in Sorel across the river. Dickens and Bagot would have known each other, at least by reputation in England. However, except for among the members of the British garrison, Dickens would not have been a household name in the city of Montreal in May 1842. (personal communication 22 August 2007)

Rasco's Hotel Rasco's Hotel

Two images of Rasco's Hotel, where Dickens stayed during his visit to Montreal

[Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

In the area of the garrison and of Francisco Rasco's Hotel, in one of whose eighty rooms he and Catherine stayed for nineteen days in the spring of 1842, Charles Dickens would undoubtedly have seen the Auberge Pierre and the Maison Calvet (1771), and the governor's mansion, the Chateau Ramezay (1705), designed by Pierre Courturier with fifteen interconnecting rooms, but they would not have seen the magnificent ballroom known as the Salles des Nantes, this room and the tower having been added early in the 20th century to make the residence look more like a pre-French Revolution chateau. After the British capture of Quebec City, the Chateau had become the residence of the Governors-General of British North America, and briefly of American Generals Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold and American diplomat Benjamin Franklin, sent to convince the French Canadians to join the rebellion against England, during the brief Yankee occupation of Montreal during the American Revolution.

The Chateau Ramezay The Chateau Ramezay

Two images of The Chateau Ramezay (1705), 280 Notre-Dame Est. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Across the Street from the Queen's Theatre, where he and Catherine performed with the largely aristocratic "Garrison Players" on 25 and 28 May, 1842, he would have seen the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours (built between 1771 and 1773, but remodeled many times since), sometimes called "The Sailors' Chapel," surmounted by a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, replaced in 1894 by Philippe Laperle's much larger, six-tonne metal sculpture commemorated in Leonard Cohen's song "Suzanne" as "our lady of the harbour."

Figure7A. Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours (1771-3), or Sailor's Chapel.

Every morning while he was in Montreal Dickens would take a stroll along the granite quays, where he saw

vast numbers of emigrants who have newly arrived from England or Ireland . . . grouped in hundreds on the public wharfs about their chests and boxes. . . . The vessel in which we returned from Quebec to Montreal was crowded with them, and at night they spread their beds between decks. . . . They were nearly all English; from Gloucestershire the greater part; and had had a long winter-passage out . . . . Cant as we may, and as we shall to the end of things, it is very much harder for the poor to be virtuous than it is for the rich; and the good that is in them shines the brighter for it. (American Notes, Ch. 15)

Rasco's Hotel Rasco's Hotel

Right: Bonsecours Market. Left: The Nelson Column. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Construction on the Bonsecours Market (330 Saint-Paul Est), designed by British architect William Footner after the model of Dublin's Customs House, had not yet begun, and the Dickenses would not have seen the historic walls of the French colonial period, which were torn down shortly after the War of 1812 but prior to the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion. However, the couple would have admired nearby the splendid monument to the four great naval victories of Horatio, Lord Nelson, whose 1809 statue stands atop a 10-metre column.

Other sections of Dickens in Montreal


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

"Charles Dickens describes Montreal theatre." Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia. Athabaska University and Association for Canadian Theatre Research. Accessed 21/08/2007. 20Mon

Dickens, Charles. American Notes for General Circulation and Pictures from Italy, Volume 20. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, n. d. [1912? American Notes was first published in volume form by Bradbury and Evans, London, in 1844.]

Forster, John. "Niagara and Montreal." The Life of Charles Dickens. Vol. 1. London: Chapman and Hall, n. d. Pp. 172-177.

Glancy, Ruth. "Canada." Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens, ed. Paul Schlicke. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1999. Page 66.

Hustak, Alan. "Charles Dickens's Amateur Theatricals in Montreal, 1842." Personal communication to Philip Allingham sent 22 August 2007.

---. "Dickens dropped in: Scholars echo author's journey." The Gazette (Montreal). 15 July 2007. Accessed 21/08/2007. 4d

---. Exploring Old Montreal: An Opinionated Guide to its Streets, Churches, and Historic Landmarks. Montreal: Vehicule Press, 2005.

Morley, Malcolm. "Theatre Royal, Montreal." Dickensian 45 (1949): 39-44.

Nayder, Lillian. "Catherine Dickens Plays Montreal: Amateur Theatrics and the Idea of Privacy." Paper given at the 12th Annual Dickens Symposium, Montreal, Quebec. 19 August 2007.

"Theatre Royal." Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia. Athabaska University and Association for Canadian Theatre Research. Accessed 21/08/2007.

"Vanished Dickensland: Montreal as Dickens saw it. I. Rasco's Hotel." Dickensian Vol. XXVIII (Spring 1932) 1 March (No. 222), p. 108.

"Vanished Dickensland: Montreal as Dickens saw it. II. News Room." Dickensian Vol. XXVIII (Spring 1932) 1 March (No. 222), p. 110.

"Vanished Dickensland: Montreal as Dickens saw it. III. Theatre Royal." Dickensian Vol. XXVIII (Spring 1932) 1 March (No. 222), p. 128.

"Vanished Dickensland: Montreal as Dickens saw it. IV. Barracks." Dickensian Vol. XXVIII (Spring 1932) 1 March (No. 222), p. 131.

Last modified 30 October 2007