A Reminiscence of '49. Who burnt the Parliament Buildings?

From Independence of Québec
Jump to navigation Jump to search

A Reminiscence of '49. Who burnt the Parliament Buildings?
The Montreal Daily Star, Carnival Number, 1887

In a special issue of the Montreal Daily Star for the occasion of the Montreal Carnival of January & February 1887, Alfred Perry recounts his implication in the events that lead to the burning of the Parliament buildings in Montreal on April 25, 1849.

Alfred Perry, trader, fire marshal

Britain granted Canada Responsible Government after the rebellion of '37 and '38 in the "Perambulating" Parliament. In 1849, this Parliament sat in Montreal. At that time St. Ann's market was two stories high, and the upper story was used as Parliament Houses, and there the members of Parliament debated, while outside, the market went on as it does to this day, and then, as now, pork chops and sausages were sold at its stalls. The Rebellion Losses Bill passed the House. The loyalists became furious, and the people now anxiously awaited to see what the Governor-General would do. It was now early Spring and the first ship had arrived at Quebec, on the 24th of April. A new Customs Bill had been passed during the session, and it was necessary for the Governor-General to come down to the House to sign it, in order to place the ship's cargo under its provisions. On the following day, April the 25th, Lord Elgin left the official residence at Monklands, three miles from Montreal, and four-in-hand drove down to the Legislature. The weather was fair. Lord Elgin stopped in front of the St. Ann's market, went into the Legislature, and signed the Customs Bill and the Rebellion Losses Bill too! The news spread with ominous rapidity, and the already anxious and sullen loyalists crowded into the streets; mobs gathered at the corners and naturally drifted towards the Legislature. The people had not long to wait for a new excitement. Lord Elgin's carriage stood before the door, liveried servants were waiting to bow him to his seat while the horses were nervously prancing, because of the angry shouts which were coming from the excited and demonstrative mob. And then the door was thrown open and Lord Elgin appeared. a volley of groans came from the people and a dropping fire of eggs, good and bad, were flung at the servants, the aide-de-camp and Lord Elgin, all of whom were spattered with the dripping and saffron colored contents. Pale and anxious looking, Lord Elgin got into the carriage, the door of which was quickly closed by the footman who mounted the box, when the driver applied the whip and, under a shower of eggs, which daubed the carriage with slimy yokes, Lord Elgin was rapidly driven away at a gallop. Bang, bang, the eggs continued to fly as Lord Elgin was driven furiously up McGill street, along St. Antoine and Mountain streets and away to Monklands. This headlong flight only added fuel to the flames. All along the route taken by Lord Elgin the people saw with astonishment the furious rate at which his horses were being hurried, and the crowds along St. James street and McGill street soon surged into masses as they moved along the way. The streets were nearly choked by the people who thronged them, but, as yet, there appeared to be no definite plan of action, no decision, no head. But at six o'clock a vent was found for the egress of the multitude. a cab was driven down St. James street and a furious Tory, holding on to the top and flourishing a bell taken from Dolly's Chop House, was shouting "To the Champ de Mars." After struggling through the crowds the cab was rapidly driven along all the adjacent streets and at 8 o'clock thousands of excited Tories had assembled on the Champ de Mars where the Hon. George Moffatt, Col. Gugy, and others spoke and denounced the Governor-General for having signed the Rebellion Losses Bill and urged the people to petition Her Majesty to recall him. But "petitioning" did not suit the temper of the people and there was something more sympathetic in the wild cry of "Fire, fire", as the bells were heard sounding the alarm. But there was no fire. The alarm was given as an "Assembly" and the red jackets of the Union men, followed by the Hose Company and the Queen's, each man holding a burning torch in his hand, were soon seen rushing towards the Champ de Mars where the meeting was still in progress. At that time I was Captain of the Hook and Ladder and Hose, and I mounted the platform. The crowd called on me for a speech and I stepped to the front and, taking the cap off my head I extinguished the torch by which the "petition to Her Majesty" was to be read. I said that "the time for petitions had passed, but that if the men present were in earnest let them follow me to the Parliament House." A wild cheer was the reply and the great meeting surged up St. Gabriel street, down Notre Dame, through St. Francois Xavier and St. Peter streets, cheering, shouting and wildly denouncing Lord Elgin on the way. The House was soon reached and the main entrance surrounded by the yelling mass of some five or six thousand men. The door was closed. Howard, Courtney, myself and others tried to force an entrance, but to no effect. Then the order was given to "bring up the hook and ladder carriage," and in a few minutes we were using the thirty-five foot ladder as a battering ram with John H. Isaacson, notary, on one side and myself on the other. At the first dash we ran the ladder about ten feet through the panel of the door while the people yelled in their now almost frantic excitement. At the second dash the door was torn from its hinges and we were within the building! A few of us rushed up the steps leading to the vestibule while the mob outside yelled with dangerous excitement. On reaching the corridor I saw the pictures of Her Majesty and Papineau.

The Burning of the Parliament Building in Montreal, painting attributed to Joseph Légaré, about 1849

The latter was to me like a red rag to a bull. But we passed on until we reached the door of the assembly. Here, one O'Connor, a messenger, disputed my right to enter the House. It was no time for showing tickets, and a clip from my axe handle settled the matter. We rushed into the chamber. The speaker, Morin, was in the chair. Although calm he as evidently alarmed. Before him there stood the customary table and on it the mace. The Sergeant-at-arms, Chrisholm, who afterwards became M.P. for Brant, was close at hand. Howard, a stalwart Irishman, held a blackthorn in his hand, and well he knew how to use it. We passed the bar of the House, the members rising in indignant protest. Sandfield Macdonald resented our intrusion by striking Howard a well directed blow on the head and the blood flowed freely from his Orange brow. Then my axe handle came into plan and Sandfield was floored. The ball was opened then in earnest. Other members crowded around us. Ink stands, rulers, books and chairs flew in all directions. Stones, thrown from the street, were falling fast about us. Courtney was struck with an inkstand and at this point we got the worst of it. Howard had retreated to "bind up his wounds," while Sanfield Macdonald, backed by several other members, fought with a will. Step by step they drove the few of us who were in the room back to the door and then out into the corridor. We were thwarted, but not beaten. I called for volunteers to try it again. Howard was on hand; Courtney had recovered from the blow he got from the ink stand; volunteers responded and we again made for the door and again entered the chamber. Inside all was confusion. The members were in evident alarm. Stones and brickbats were still coming in the the House in all directions. Morin look frightened. Blake, father to the Hon. Edward Blake, Aylwin, and Price, showed fight, but to no avail. We were now too many for them. Morin left the chair and Courtney took his place. The mace was still on the table, when Courtney said: "Perry, take that ____ thing away." I approached the mace. The sergeant-at-arms interfered and drew his sword, when a blow from my axe handle again settled the matter. The sergeant was disarmed and I grabbed the mace, and was retreating from the chamber when Courtney claimed the mace as loot. Just then a stone which came through the window struck Courtney under the ear and that settled the question. The mob had now complete possession of the House and the members, despairing of help from the military authorities, were endeavoring to escape. Blake showed his activity by sliding down the metal spout attached to the building on the McGill street end. The field was now clear. We had driven the members from the House and our work was, so far, accomplished. A move was made towards the door, and in passing through the corridors the pictures, with their massive gilt frames surrounding the likeness of some of Canada's most illustrious sons, were torn from the walls. The pictures of Papineau and the Queen were side by side. a man armed with a plank soon brought Papineau to the ground and with an oath he jumped on it, putting both feet through the canvas and, as he did so, he fell fainting to the ground. Meanwhile the people were leaving the chamber. The crowd outside was still tumultuous. a few of us remained in the room. In looking around I noticed the speaker's chair, elevated on the dais and covered with deep crimson cloth. Wood work, elaborately carved, ornamented the surroundings, while a massive Lion and Unicorn surmounted the decorations. Just above the chair, but beneath the Lion and Unicorn, I saw a large circular clock. I was that the finger pointed 9.40. The spirit of destruction was around that night. Like a flash, I determined to smash that clock. Its "tick, tick, tick" was out of harmony with the wild events that were happening around. It appeared to me that the "tick, tick, tick" sounded satirical in their regularity. I picked a brickbat from the floor and let fly at the clock. I missed its mark and I tried again with no better success. But in my second shot I struck the chandelier. Several gas jets were knocked out. The gas tubes were then made of soft composition and not of iron as now. Once the burners were displaced the gas continued to burn, melting the tubes while the fire gradually kept running up to the ceiling and gradually disappeared burning in the loft. The Queen's picture had escaped injury. It was very large, with heavy, massive frame and of great weight. A stalwart Scotchman, dressed in plaid, and with a Scotch bonnet on his head, entered the main entrance as I was descending the stairs. He rushed passed me and used no choice language at our having abandoned the picture of Her Majesty to the flames. Aided by some others, and with smoke and flame about them, they found means of taking the picture from the wall. This was no easy matter, but they worked with a will and saved the picture, which now adorns the Parliament Buildings at Ottawa. That gentleman was Sandford Fleming, the now well known eminent engineer. The people cheered and I made my way out. Holding on to the mace I was soon in the street, and, jumping into a calèche, I moved off, up McGill street, the crowd following, while cheer after cheer broke out from the surging mass, as it reached the corner of St. James street. Just then the cry "To Hinks, to Hinks" was raised and an attempt was made to turn the horse's head up Beaver Hall Hill, towards Phillips Square, where Sir Francis Hincks then lived. All the time I was standing up in the calèche with the mace on my shoulders. I believed I was carrying something as mighty as "Caesar and his fortunes". The mob looked with joy at the emblem of dethroned dignity. The great mass of people were watching the mace as if it was something "for their mirth, yea, for their laughter". They surrounded the calèche in a dense mass and when the cry "To Hinks" was raised I appealed to them to refrain from any more excesses. The appeal was opportune and Mr. William Rodden caught the head of the horse and by sheer force turned him up St. James street. It moved on and the mace was afterwards given to Sir Allen McNab at Donegana's Hotel, and the residence of Sir Francis Hinks was safe. Just then a glow of light shot up from somewhere near the river side. The sky became the color of copper and we knew that the Parliament House was in flames. "Fire, fire", was now the cry. "The Parliament Building is in flames", was joyously shouted by the infuriated people. A dark column of smoke gloomily ascended from the burning building, to which all faces were now turned. Duty now becomes the word. We should at least save the Hotel Dieu Nunnery opposite the buildings on one side of the street, and its hospital. The fire bells pealed the alarm, and the people were in the temper beget a panic, if the flames were not arrested. The Hero and the Voltigeur Company, all of whom were French Canadians, were afraid to turn out until assured that they would not be injured. Chief Perrigo, of the Fire Department, declined to put in an appearance on any consideration. The Union engine was taken out of the house and drawn down towards the burning building when the front wheel dropped off. The nut had been removed from the hub. The Queen, Protector, Hose, Neptune and the Montreal were quickly on the scene and took up a commanding position.

The Lady Superior, surrounded by the sisters of the Hotel Dieu, was already out in alarm. Kneeling on the steps of their buildings they were engaged in prayer as the firemen dashed up and began to play on their cherished institution. They piteously asked the firemen not to go away until all danger was over, a request with which the firemen cheerfully complied. They fought the fire inch by inch until they beat it back to its original centre in the Parliament buildings. The surrounding buildings had been drenched with water, but not one drop had been thrown on the burning House. Nor would it have been safe for any one to attempt it. At twelve o'clock the fire was over and the bugle sounded for the troops to fall in, the mob had dispersed and the firemen had packed and returned to their stations. It was now past one o'clock, and drenched and fatigued I left the scene, accompanied by a few friends. I was going home, but not to rest. The police were after me. I soon found this out by a knock at the door and the entrance of the Sub-Chief of Police Germain. cold and shivering he read aloud a warrant for my arrest. It was the usual "Victoria by the Grace of God" charging Alfred Perry with burning the Parliament House, and ending with the usual "God save the Queen." I was in no mood to submit tamely to what I then considered an unwarrantable outrage, but the door was opened and the sub-chief significantly drew my attention to a company of regulars, as well as a squad of police, and I saw that resistance was useless.

Out in the street again and this time away to the police station. It was just daybreak. The murky gray of early dawn had spread around, as, surrounded by glittering bayonets, I was ushered into the presence of Chief Wylie, an old associate and friend. At that time the police station was in the basement of the Bonsecours market, and in opposition to the imperious commands of Alderman John Tully, the chief refused to send me to the cells, but placed his private room at my service. The news of my arrest had got abroad. Sub-Chief Wylie told me at six o'clock that mobs were already gathering and that they threatened to rescue me from the station. I then consented to go with Sergeant McCormack to the gaol for sake keeping. It was then seven o'clock. A closed cab was brought to the door and in the company of the sergeant I hurried out. A large crowd had already assembled around the prison. The air was charged with threats as we appeared. A volley of oaths greeted our ears. The cab was upset, the harness cut and the affrighted horse ran pell-mell through the streets, raising sparks of fire from the cobble stones with which the streets was then irregularly paved. "Rescue", "rescue", was then the cry. I appealed to the crowd. I told them that I have given my word to Chief Wylie and Mr. Tully, that I would go to gaol and that I was determined to keep it. That changed the temper of the mob, and the arrival of a company of the 71st accompanied by Tully settled the matter. The mob cheered the soldiers who were well known to be in sympathy with our side of the question. Another cab was then found and, accompanied by McCormack, I entered. An escort of the 71st surrounded us. The mob refused to go back. They marched behind the escort, cheering as they went along. It was now eight o'clock and we were at Dalhousie Square, then the headquarters of the military. Here the cheering from the people caused the horse to rear. Then the escort fell back a little as the horse pranced and threatened to run away. In an instant the mob broke through the open ranks of the soldiers and I soon found myself in the midst of my friends. The troops could not act as there was no magistrate present. I then got on top of the cab and appealed to the people to be quiet. I again told them that I promised to go to prison, and go I would. Just then Chief Wylie and a squad of police rushed up at the double. They were met by a volley of stones, bricks, pieces of wood, lumps of hard clay, anything that was available, and they retreated in hot haste.

Meanwhile Sergeant McCormack had stood his ground. In fact he could not escape. He was, however, stripped of his uniform and he stood next door to "mother naked", surrounded by the military. And then the cry of "fire, fire", was heard again. The bells began to toll and soon fire company after fire company arrived on the ground. The fire bell was used as a signal to assemble and the red jackets of the men soon pushed their way to the front, as the crowd fell back, and I was quickly surrounded by nearly all the men of the brigade. It now began to look serious. Thousands of excited citizens were in the square. The police had been beaten off the ground. The soldiers could not act and the mob had it all their own way. A rush was made for me by the Protector fire brigade men. My own Company, the Union, made a hostile demonstration to release me at all hazards. I again appealed to them to desist, and that appeal was again successful. Sergeant McCormack, looking as dilapidated as one of Falstaff's ragged regiment, escorted by the troops, was again at my side, and we once more resumed our route towards the gaol. Then the cheering began again. It was like a triumphal march. En route Col. Gugy arrived and took charge of the military and after a while the mob became comparatively quiet. At his request the services of the military were dispensed with and we then led the way to the gaol. In fifteen minutes I was inside the prison walls, but before I entered I again addressed the people.

So far I had been more like the conquerer than the conquered, but once inside the door the scene changed. I asked by whose authority, and on what charge I had been arrested. Once again I heard, this time from Col. Ermatinger: "Victoria, by the Grace of God, Queen, defender of the Faith, etc., etc., Mr. Alfred Perry is charged with treason and the crime of arson. God Save the Queen." And down I went to the cells, which were cold, damp, cheerless and without a stick of furniture. I was then thoroughly used up and I complained of being unwell. But there was no consideration to be had in that quarter. However, I was allowed to send for my doctor, who, accompanied by Sheriff Boston, arrived in about half an hour. They were both bitter Tories. I was immediately removed to more comfortable quarters by orders of the sheriff. At about 11 o'clock P.M., I was aroused from my sleep by hearing Mack, Ferris and Heward coming in. They too were prisoners and were escorted by a file of soldiers. Heward laughed, Mack took out his snuff box and asked us all to "take a pinch" while he vowed vengeance on Elgin, Lafontaine, Hincks and the rest of the Reformers. Just then Dolly, of Dolly's Chop House, arrived. Two of his waiters accompanied him and for a while we forgot our troubles in roasts and the sweets and the wines which the sympathetic restaurant proprietor had spread before us. And then came another surprise, for the door opened once more and Montgomery, of the firm of Edmonstone, Allan, & Co. and the leader of St. Andrew's Church Choir, was shown into our room. He was a man of culture and fine appearance and the idea of being in prison shocked him. But we made him welcome to our room and there was "a sound of quiet revelry" that night within the prison walls. The night passed pleasantly. Next day was ominous of trouble. The clock struck one. The door again flew open and Sheriff Boston excitedly told us that "the people of the city were up in arms." There could be no mistake about it, for outside we already heard a cheer which told us that something was in the wind. And so there was. An excited mob had gathered and demanded our release. The Sheriff was uneasy. With his permission I mounted the prison walls and saw before me thousands of angry men and heard their deep voices shouting, "Jump, jump." I appealed to them to be quiet, and I told them that we did not desire to leave the prison. Oil had been thrown on the waters and the people returned to the city.

Meanwhile Parliament had assembled in the Bonsecours market and measures were taken to arm some of the friends of the ministry. This, as Moffatt, McNab, Prince, Sherwood and others said, was only adding fuel to the fire, but it was done. And our friends outside went on arming also. A feverish uncertainty pervaded all classes of people. In order to lessen the excitement the Hon. Mr. Moffatt was authorized by the Government to come to the prison and offer all the prisoners, except Perry le diable, as the French Canadians used to call me, their liberty. Those terms were by the prisoners indignantly refused, a resolution which met with the approval of our friends outside. Night came again. Our room was crowded with visitors. The clock had struck nine when a messenger entered with the news that Lafontaine's house had been attacked and that blood had been shed. Sir E. Taché, Col., then joint Coroner, Coursol and several of their associates were inside. Some shots were fired from the entrance and a young man named Mason was killed. This put a stop to rioting for that night1. But next day they were at it again. Parliament, under the protection of the 71st regiment, assembled once more at the Bonsecours market. The ministry appealed to the Hon. Mr. Moffatt to aid them in restoring order. This he consented to, but it could, he said, only be done by the liberation of the prisoners. The Government was paralyzed. It was assembling under military protection. The troops and the buildings were all the time surrounded by infuriated Tories. The situation was dangerous and the Government yielded, and an order was passed for our liberation. In a few minutes this was known to the crowd, cheer after cheer followed and the great mass of the people headed for the gaol, and the members breathed freely.

The prisoners were escorted from the gaol to the city by the thousands of men cheering all along the way. Meanwhile, and on the same day, the Parliament had passed an address to Lord Elgin, telling him that the riot was at an end. This address was taken to Monklands, the residence of the Governor-General in those days, and His Excellency replied that he would receive the address the following day at the Government House, the building that is now occupied by a branch of Laval University, opposite the City Hall. On the day appointed Parliament was again in session and troops dotted the open spaces approaching the buildings. At twelve o'clock the members of both Houses proceeded to the Government House only about one hundred yards away. They were greeted with hooting and yelling. The 71st acted as an escort and over the heads of the escort, eggs, onions and potatoes were showered on the persons of the offending members. Their clothes were dripping with slimy matter when the Riot Act was read. The man who was reading it received a well aimed blow of an onion in the mouth and then the soldiers received the command "fix bayonets, shoulder arms, charge," and drove the mob before them, from the Government House back to Jacques Cartier Square. Meanwhile, the members of the two Houses had scattered and the mob drifted down to St. James street, which was lined with an angry people. The sidewalks were impassable, and from all that living mass of men threats against Lord Elgin and the obnoxious members of both Houses were heard all along the way.

Suddenly the advanced guard of Jones' troop of cavalry galloped across Victoria Square and up St. James street, and then came the Governor-General surrounded by the main body of cavalry. He was riding in a closed brougham drawn by a pair of splendid bays. The crowd in the street fell back a little towards the sidewalk as the Governor-General proceeded at a moderate speed up the street, but the police and infantry of the line were powerless to clear the streets of people altogether. The passing of the Governor-General up St. James was accompanied by one continuous hoot or yell. As the street was cleared in advance by the cavalry, the people closed in behind, and curses and groans followed the Governor-General as his escort struggled to make a passage through the crowd. At last the St. Lawrence Hall was reached. Here the crowd was more dense than at any other place. The people blocked the way and the cavalry could not proceed. Jones became alarmed for his charge, and a trooper, whether accidentally or not, rode down a gentleman at my side. There was a rush to the spot and I found myself in the middle of the crowd with Lord Elgin's carriage close by. Unfortunately for the peace of the city, I kicked a brickbat at my feet. The action of the troopers, the close proximity of Lord Elgin, and the brickbat became mingled in my mind, and, quick as a flash, I stooped and hurled the brickbat through the windows of Lord Elgin's carriage.

The Governor-General saw my movement and he dodged his head behind the panels of his carriage, but not before the hat was battered from his head and broken glass flew around his shoulders. Then the cavalry closed up at each side and the rear of the carriage and the stones and bricks began to pop off the sides, back and front of the carriage, while the horses pranced, the coachman applied the whip and amidst a shower of missiles Lord Elgin and his escort succeeded in getting through the mob, while the horses were put to the gallop as they dragged the broken and almost wrecked carriage at their heels. Away they went across Place d'Armes, down Notre Dame, and then dashed into the enclosure in front of the Government House, the gates of which were then closed and Lord Elgin, without his hat, rushed up the steps with the agility of an athlete. He was terror, stricken, and his sudden rush into the house created an intense commotion among the obnoxious members of the two houses, who were waiting to present him with an address, assuring him that the riot was at an end! About this time, Col. Ermatinger, headed by a few troops, came to the rescue and the now gathering crowd, in front of the Government House, feared that the Governor-General might escape under the increased military protection. Notre Dame street was barricaded in anticipation of his return by that route. Timber was taken from a house in course of construction, at the corner of St. Gabriel and Notre Dame. The street was made impassable for a carriage. The mob now assembled near the Government House, and the soldiers were forcing the people back to Nelson's Monument.

Shortly after Lord Elgin, surrounded by his escort, left the building, but instead of going down Notre Dame and into St. James, he, in company with Col. Wetherall, went at full gallop down Gosford street and up Sanguinet towards Sherbrooke. The mob was wild when they saw that the bird had flown and cabs, trucks, calèches, water carts! anything we could lay our hands on were seized and every one went full chase after the flying Governor. It was a wild drive. The horses on both sides were lashed to fury. A continued yell was kept up by the pursuers as we dashed up German and St. Lawrence and other streets leading in the direction of Sherbrooke street and when Lord Elgin arrived at the corner of St. Lawrence and Sherbrooke streets, he was headed off and stopped. Then the play began again. Stones were ripped up from the streets, and the carriage was battered until its sides split and broke under the pounding. The route to Monklands, by Sherbrooke street, was now obstructed by some of the cabs, calèches, trucks, and watercarts that had headed the Governor-General off, and under a shower of stones, the coachman turned the horses' heads towards the mountain, and they dragged the remnants of the carriage through Côte des Neiges, back of the mountain, and on to Monklands, which was hurriedly barricaded, and Lord Elgin never put his foot in Montreal afterwards.


1. Perry's memory is failing there as the events did not occur on that night. He is mixing up the first attack on Lafontaine's house, which indeed occured on the day he speaks of, with the second attack of August 15th.

PD-icon.png This text is in the public domain worldwide either because its author died at least 100 years ago or because it was published by a public body. Translations published later may still be copyrighted.