From the Archives: A Snapshot of Montréal’s Common Gaol in 1820

Prison commune de Montréal, Place Vauquelin, 19e siècle — Archives de Montréal, VM6,R3067-2_155E-1939-005

Life is full of surprises.

As I was doing research for the Bangle Files at the Archives nationales du Québec on Viger Street in Montréal, I unearthed a document among the criminal files shedding light on the appalling living conditions at Montréal’s Common Gaol, actually the same building where John Bangle and his wife, Marie-Louise Quevillon, were detained in September, October, November 1820 and beyond.

What I found extraordinary is that this document, dated October 30, 1820, is reflecting the very environment in which John and Louise were living at the time.

Well, that is what I call a great archive’s treasure!

District of Montreal

October 30, 1820

Court of the Sessions of the Peace

Sirs, Justices of the Peace
of His Majesty for the said District
and said Sessions

The Grand Jury of the said District have the honour to humbly report on their visit to Montreal’s Common Gaol and Jailhouse of said District.

Aware of how easily such institutions are open to abuses and how difficult it may be for detainees to inform the authorities about complaints that they may have, not only did the Grand Jury assess the state of the buildings, they also have dutifully enquired about the treatment of detainees and how they are governed in order to issue their report about what measures should be introduced, amended or cancelled. The Grand Jury are confident that this procedure, if repeated from time to time, should have a successful outcome, hence maintaining good order in these jailhouses by reminding the keepers that the Government is closely watching their conduct, and by giving the hapless people detained between these walls the assurance that the darkness of their cells does not hamper their rightful complaints to be heard and listened to.

During the course of their investigation, the Grand Jury noticed several problems that need to be fixed, as follows:

1st : In the north-east corner of the building, in a room on the first floor, the stove is so small that it is impossible to fit an entire wood log in it to heat the room. To address this issue, the stove’s front door was removed and the room is heated so hot that large numbers of prisoners are inconvenienced by this. Also, too much wood is used for heating, making the jailhouse a fire hazard.

2nd: A pervasive foul odour can be smelled in the room adjacent to this one on the North side, making it almost uninhabitable.

3rd: Several window panes are broken in the Gaol’s various rooms.

4th: The wooden floors in two of the jailhouse’s cells are in such bad condition that soil has surfaced from under the floorboards and is emitting fumes impairing the detainees’ health.

5th: Several rooms in the jailhouse need repairs. All interior walls have to be whitewashed for both cleanliness and health concerns.

The Grand Jury are pleased to report that nothing but favourable comments on the detainees’ treatment have been reported to the gaoler and the jailhouse’s warden.

Finally, the Grand Jury have noticed that due to unemployment, most of the jailhouse’s detainees of both genders have nothing to do, and that the main objective of the law—to condemn them to hard labour and rehabilitate  them — is overlooked and even hindered, since they spend their entire time on their vices, teaching each other how to become better criminals instead of being remorseful for their past conduct while performing hard but salutary work.

The Grand Jury are therefore humbly proposing that an estimate of needed repairs be made to address the issues mentioned above, to submit it to this Province’s Legislature at the next session, request the required amounts and take any other measures that would be necessary.

[…] Bedouin (signature)


[Translated from French]

About Montréal’s Common Gaol

At the end of the 18th century, the Jesuits’ former residence—located on the western part of Place Vauquelin and on a portion of the lot occupied today by City Hall—had found another vocation : it was the city’s jail.

Destroyed by fire in 1803, the city was then planning to build a new jail—same took place from 1808 to 1811. Originally intended to accommodate about 300 inmates, Montréal’s Common Gaol soon became overcrowded and deteriorated rapidly. Indeed, the population of Montréal was growing fast: 13,300 in 1811; 18,767 in 1821; and 27,297 in 1831. Less than 30 years after its construction, the prison was closed in 1836.

You might be surprised to learn that Montréal’s City Hall’s basement (public access not permitted) contains some remnants from this building. You may want to read this article from The Gazette, dated September 11, 2010. It even has pictures! Enjoy!

6 thoughts on “From the Archives: A Snapshot of Montréal’s Common Gaol in 1820

  1. Thank you. I really enjoy reading your discoveries.

    • Since this building was crumbling just after 30 years, it must have been awful!

  2. Wow! I love how you added the historical information, it is so important to a story and it helps show the horrific conditions in which the prisoners were detained. A place to avoid at all costs I am sure unless they were living on the street, and then it might have been welcome.

Comments are closed.