Industrial Architecture of Montreal

"The City of
Wealth and Death"

Living Conditions in Montreal’s Industrial Neighborhoods

In the 1800s Montreal registered higher mortality rates than any other British North American city. Poor and unsanitary housing was identified by doctors and health officials as the root cause of the high rates of illness and mortality. Rapid settlement and population growth, poor construction, and profiteering contributed to these poor living conditions. In the 1850s, a doctor named Philip Carpenter argued that City Council should take more responsibility for the poor state of Montreal housing:

"It is the duty of this council to see that wages of death are no longer wrung from the hard won earnings of the poor, but that all who undertake to let homes shall be compelled to put them and their surroundings into a condition favourable to health." (Bradbury, 1993, 73)

Despite the appointment of a health officer in the 1870s and the creation of a Health Department in the 1880s, citizens of Montreal retained "their unenviable distinction as the dwellers in the city of wealth and death" throughout the nineteenth century. (Bradbury, 1993, 73) When the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital examined Montreal in 1888, its descriptions of working-class housing focused on the worst cases, the "nests of contagion," the "rows of houses, rickety, propped up facing dirty sheds and germ-breeding closets," and domestic settings where illness "reigned supreme." (Bradbury, 1993, 74)  Working and living conditions were often difficult for those living in Montreal:

"The typical Montreal family of 1897 was made up of a husband, wife and three children who lived in a five-room, cold water flat located on a narrow, densely populated side street in what is now the inner core of the city. The husband, who hoped to be able to work sixty hours a week, fifty-two weeks a year, was more likely to find himself faced with ‘short time’ if not a layoff, especially during the winter months. Even if regular work was available, the average wage earner could not provide his family with more than a bare subsistence." (Copp, 29)

One in every five adult workers was a woman and women predominately worked in textile mills, tobacco factories, food processing, retail and domestic service. Her wages, substantially lower than those of men, often made the difference between bare subsistence and modest ‘prosperity.’ Large numbers of children were involved in part-time work even though official statistics vastly underestimated the extent of paid child labour and did not account for the unpaid labour of hundreds of young girls who worked as full-time babysitters. (Copp, 29)

In most working-class neighborhoods, there were no facilities for bathing and toilets consisted of community privy pits in the backyards. A journalist named Arthur Short described a rear yard on Ottawa Street in Sainte-Anne Ward where eight families were paying $4 per month in the lower apartments and slightly more in those above. In front of the houses, in the yard, were twelve outhouses, serving both these occupants and the families on the cross-street, McCord. Some fifteen cases of diptheria had recently spread among these families (Bradbury, 1993, 74). Shortly after the Commission’s visit, the city began a "vigorous campaign" against privy pits and encouraged the use of waterclosets. When Herbert Ames examined parts of Sainte-Anne Ward a few years later, 70-80% of the dwellings in the southern part of the ward around the Lachine Canal and more that half the homes in the entire area still relied on "that relic of rural conditions, that insanitary abomination, the out-of-door-pit-in-the-ground privy" (Ames, 45). For his part, Ames maintained a campaign against the pit privy in Montreal for eight years, earning the title, "Water Closet Ames" (Copp, 15).

Other than the Montreal Street Railway Co., the carter’s wagon and the horse and carriage were the only means of transportation (Copp, 17).  In 1899 there were 3,000 horse stables and 500 cow stable within city limits. The Municipal Board of Health recommended that the cow stables, at least, be banned within city’s boudaries (Copp, 17).  In 1898, only twenty-seven of the one hundred and seventy-eight miles of streets were paved and both dust and mud were constant problems. Elzéar Pelletier, Secretary of the Provincial Board of Health, complained that the streets "were in an intolerable state though tolerated" and that the lanes were constantly used as "refuse dumps" (Copp, 18).

The city-owned water supply was generally available but was of poor quality. It was unfiltered and untreated and while it was described, in the 1897 Annual Report of the Superintendent of the Montreal Water Works, as being "pure during ordinary times," the supply of water became "dangerous during spring and fall" (Copp, 18).

In the study published by Herbert Ames, the average family income was $11 per week. The range of incomes was over $20 for the top 15 1/3 percentile (the "well-to-do") and under $5 per week for the bottom 11% ("the submerged tenth"). These figures were based on some combination of earnings from more than one wage earner and the estimate that average weekly wages of $8.25 for a man, $4.50 for a woman, and $3.00 for a boy were "not too wide off the mark" (Copp, 21).  Steady work, however, was a constant concern for the working-class of Montreal as many experienced temporary layoffs or reduced hours during some period of the year.


                       Annual Wages of Employees in Manufacturing (Montreal, 1886)

No. of Establishments

Type of Manufacturing

Employees (Men)

Employees (Women)

Average Annual Wage


Flour Mills





Auto. and Locomotive Parts





Cotton Manufacture










Silk Manufacturing





Sugar Refinery




                              Source: From Steam, 28. (originally from Industries of Canada, City of Montreal)


The average family lived in a flat of five rooms and the average rental costs worked out to $8.75 per month (18% of monthly income). Griffintown was an exception where 45% of the population had three rooms or less to share among a family of five. Overall, housing was not overcrowded by contemporary standards and rent as a percentage of income was not out of the ordinary (Copp, 25).  Montreal’s mortality rate, however, had been steadily declining but, in the 1890s, it was still among the highest in the civilized world:

1895, (deaths per thousand)
Brussells 18.10
London 20.00
Paris 20.00
Rome 19.40
New York 23.52
Boston 24.02
Montreal 24.81

Source: Copp, p. 25.

1898, (deaths per thousand)
Toronto 15.20
New York 19.00
Montreal 22.90

Source: Copp, p. 25.

Infant mortality, was yet another problem as Montreal was one of the most dangerous cities in the civilized world in which to be born. Between 1899-1901, 26.76% of all newborn children died before they were one year old. This was largely the result of unsafe water, impure milk, and limited use of vaccination against smallpox and diphtheria.

Ames encouraged business and industrial leaders in the city to furnish Montreal workers with better and more sanitary accommodations. Ames, for his part, believed that this could be done while still providing entrepreneurs with the "hope of a fair return upon capital thus invested." (Ames, 112) In 1895, Ames purchased land upon the south-east side of William street (between Ann and Shannon Streets) in the heart of Griffintown. Upon this land, Ames built "four blocks of buildings, containing homes of varying size and rental, for 39 families, with a grocery store upon the corner where no liquor is sold." (Ames, 112-3) This model housing complex was called Diamond Court and was designed to provide safe and sanitary living conditions combined with spaces providing privacy and areas to be used in common. Families in the same complex would share a single front door, gas-lit vestibule, and inside stairways to their respective apartments. Other innovations included solid brick construction, concrete kitchen floors with central drains, a furnished stove, sink, washtub and water closet. A janitor, whose services were given in lieu of rent, also resided on the premises. In 1897, the modest rental costs were as follows:


Residential Costs, Diamond Court  (Griffintown, Montreal, 1897)

No. of Rooms

Rental Cost


$1.50-$1.75 per week


$2.00 / week


$2.50 / week


$11.00-12.00 per month

Source: Ames, p. 113.

Almost a century later, Ames’ experiment in social housing would succumb to some of the same forces which Ames himself fought against at the end of the nineteenth century. Ironically, this limited-dividend model of social housing was eventually torn down in the 1970s as ‘slum housing.’


Saint-Henri   |  Griffintown  |  Pointe-Saint-Charles  |  Living Conditions  |  Sources


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