From Place d’Armes, a Picture of Awful and Thrilling Beauty

Place d’Armes. Orange Line. Opened 1966.

On 25th April 1849, a group of Montrealers set out from Place d’Armes and burnt their country’s parliament to the ground. The army and police did little, despite warnings. Afterwards, among those arrested was the editor and owner of the Gazette.

In 1849, the effects of the previous decade’s Rebellions were still vividly felt, and with the passing into law of the Rebellion Losses Bill, a mob of English-speaking Montrealers marched on the parliament to protest the “insanity” of a law which they saw compensating the very rebels who they had fought against twelve years previously. This was perhaps inevitable, given that the reforms of the Durham report were designed to correct the flaws in colonial government which had led to the Rebellions by giving more power to the elected assemblies. As the rebels included popular politicians such as Papineau, it is hardly surprising that they were re-elected and so in a position to devise such a compensation scheme.

Still, it is easy to see why those who fought to preserve the authority of the Crown in 1837 and 1838 might feel betrayed when it’s representative assented to that widely drawn compensation scheme, and below the reporter from the Gazette gives a graphic account of the ensuing conflagration.

But the Gazette’s role in the events was more than that of recorder. Since the introduction of the Bill in Februrary 1848, James Moir Ferres, the editor and proprietor of the Gazette, had been leading petitions against it, and when Parliament met the day after the fire, in Bonsecours Market, questions were raised about an Extra that had been printed on the evening of the fire. This had led Members to speak with military before the protests. No military action was taken, perhaps unsurprisingly, but Ferres was arrested on the morning of the 26th April. He was not charged however, and in one account of the events of 25th April he is working on the Petition for the recall of the Governor-General, Lord Elgin. Nevertheless, this account is not without its confusions.

Their labours [in preparing the petition] were soon disturbed by cheering in the streets, and on looking out, a number of men were seen in advance of a calêche, in which two persons were seated, bearing the Mace of the House of Assembly, the crowd singing the national anthem, and cheering for the Queen.

For the remainder of the proceedings we are indebted our contemporaries and our Reporter. We refer to their reports. The city remained perfectly quiet during the night.

Clearly with the cheering, the singing crowd, and the Mace of Parliament proceeding through the streets, things were not “perfectly quiet”. But was this the moment when Ferres was arrested? Or had he left his drafting to join other men, “too respectable to have aided in the incediarism,” and stand and look silently on the burning parliament? The slip seems to have been lost in the “awful and thrilling beauty” of the night’s proceedings, which are recounted here by the Gazette‘s unnamed reporter.

Sacking and Burning of the Parliament House

The writer of this Report, on proceeding to the House of Assembly,on Wednesday evening, at about nine o’clock, to take his place in the Reporters’ Gallery, fell in with a crowd of persons marching towards the House by different streets from the directions of the Place d’Armes. It speedily surrounded the House and commenced throwing stones through the windows. The crowd was large but not very dense; the writer was able to walk about through every part of it. The excitement appeared to be intense. A party of the more violent among the crowd proceeded to burst open the halldoor, which they succeeded in doing in the space of a few moment, smashing the door to atoms. They then rushed up the main stairs into the Hall of the Assembly, a few members only having remained, among whom were Messrs. Stevenson, Galt, McConnell, and Dr. Fortier, – the first named, with great coolness planted themselves in such a manner as to escape the volleys of stones, and like philosophers cooly surveyed the scene: the last screaming and yelling from very fear. The mob proceeded to demolish everything in the Hall. One fellow took possession of the Speaker’s Chair, and declared, in a solemn voice, that he dissolved the Parliament in the Queen’s name, and that the members had better take themselves off, or he would not answer for their lives. The remaining members, together with other individuals and four or five ladies, had in the meantime taken refuge behind the Speaker’s Chair. One of the Reporters jumped from a window in the second story. This, however, was needless, for instead of having to pass through a lobby full of yelling demons, as hon. gentlemen anticipated, they had simply to walk out.

The writer proceeded round the house on the outside; the crowd appeared to be composed, as far as he was able to observe, of merchants and other respectable citizens of Montreal for the most part.

The number of persons inside the House was not very large; there was a party in the lobby, engaged in breaking up the Committee Rooms, Clerks Offices, and knocking windows out. On the outside he saw five or six rough looking fellows, beating in the window panes with sticks and axe-handles. A few boys were throwing stones through the windows. The writer heard some expression to the effect that it was not  improbable that the mob in the building would set fire to it; these expressions did not seem unnatural from the manner in which the work of demolition was going on. On arriving at the west end of the building, he saw a few men break open a wooden gallery, which was employed as a store room for stationary. When the boarding (a kind of panelling) was broken through, some loose papers seem to have been strewed on the floor, which the writer thought were leaves of printed bills, as these were flying about in all directions. The men then fired these loose papers and threw them about the room. The wind was very high and in a very few moments the wooden gallery and a canvas covering above it were enveloped in flames. The crowd stood at some distance watching in an apparently impassive manner the progress of this handful of incendiaries. The anxiety of the moment was painful. Five or six resolute men might have arrested the incendiaries, and saved the catastrophe. The writer’s first impulse was to hasten for the police; he did not take this step, as the wild fire rapidity, with which the flames spread rendered it useless.

Some Fire Engines were immediately in the neighbourhood, but they did not play upon the fire. It was rumoured that the crowd would not permit them.

The writer again hastened to the hall of the House with the intentioin of endeavouring to aid in saving some part of the library or records. He found the hall dark and in confusion. He there were some persons engaged already in what he intended to do; and find that he could be of no use, again left the hall to watch the progress of the flames.

All this occurred in the space of ten or fifteen minutes. The wooden part of the building was now blazing with intense brightness. A dense smoke was visible inside the main building. A moment more and it belched through the windows and the chimneys with awful fury. It was now evident that any power less than the hand of God must be inadequate to save the building; and it would have been madness for human beings to have attempted.

All hopes of rescuing the Libraries were now at an end; but there was a rumour that a beautiful full length picture of our most Gracious Sovereign the Queen had been saved; and this simple act told eloquently, of the loyal feeling of the crowd. The centre part of the building, occupied by the library of the Assembly, in a short time fell in with a dreadful crash through the roof of the west wing of the building. In a little time more the whole building, from one end to the other, was enveloped in one sheet of living flame. It was now impossible to approach near the building, for the intense heat; the belching flames burst through the roof as it fell in. And the sight became awfully and magnificently beautiful! The night was clear and cold; and the high wind lashed the flames to maddening fury. Numbers of dazzlingly white flames, like balloons of fire, rose to some height above the raging flames, and were borne by the winds some distance. These fire-flakes appeared to be caused by burning scraps of paper being shot upwards by the fury of the flames. The whole heavens were illuminated; and the clear and beautiful blue firmament, with the moon and the stars brightly shining, contrasting with the maddened flames and white light below – made a picture of awful and thrilling beauty, such as it is rarely the lot of an artist to look upon, – and such a one that his pencil would vainly try to imitate.

The crowd was still not dense; it was not too much so to allow a horsemen to gallop through it. The expressions were various. Some were execrating the Governor General; some deploring the outrage; some speculating on the loss, more particularly of the two best and most extensive libraries in the Province; and some were exulting over the ruin; while others amused themselves with tearing to atoms numbers of bills which had been thrown through the windows. Some were making witty allusions to the warm and sudden dissolution of Parliament, comparing it to the long Parliament. There were various stories circulating about some fellows “taking away that bawble [sic],” the Mace; and some fellow taking possession of the chair, and declaring that the Parliament was dissolved. Some were wondering where the military were, and some gave out that they were coming; this did not, however, create the slightest alarm that the writer was so far able to perceive, except that a few Canadians catching the word, and on the hint respectively said, je m’en vais, which they immediately did. The feeling of the crowd might be divided in two divisions – deep regret on the part of the reflecting and better informed – and jesting exaltation among the unreflecting and ill-informed.

In the meantime the roofs of some houses on the opposite side of Commissioners’ Street had taken fire, and painful fears begun to excited that it would extend to the whole of St. Paul Street, the wind being so high. The Fire Companies, however, performed well their part, working in an intense heat and succeeding in putting down the fire; one or two houses only being burnt, of comparatively trifling value. The damage on the other side of the street, on the east side of the house, was confined to some wooden railings. The writer was on the spot until near two o’clock, when the rage of the flames had abated, all the flooring and roofing had fallen in, the bare walls alone stood, and the interior, from one end to the other, presented one mass of living embers.

It may be observed that it was a late hour before the Military arrived at the scene; and the writer observed no Police until the work of destruction had irretrievably commenced. This cannot be too much regretted, and the reason should be enquired into; for the writer affirms that five or six Policemen might have arrested the incendiaries, while the crowd, at some distance, looked passively on. The greater part of the crowd consisted of men too respectable to have aided in incendiarism; and it seems wonderful that they should have stood and looked silently on; the writer can only account for it by supposing that they had no idea of the sudden result.

The Next Morning

The House lies in smoking ruins. The stone of which was built being blue limestone, the walls are whitened, crumbled, and tottering in a very dangerous state.

Consulted for this post

The Gazette. Montreal. 27 and 30 April 1849.

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