My late aunt, Jeanne Garneau Wilkins, with her younger brother, Paul. The photo was taken in St. David’s Lane, circa. 1919.

First published in the Montreal Gazette on October 9, 2010.

St. David’s Lane was, at least by Montreal standards, almost an ancient street. It was so narrow that the Montreal Standard reported in 1908 that a “horse and cart can barely pass”. It was initially known as St. Edward’s Lane until the name was changed by municipal decree on September 14, 1863.

A tiny north-south artery found immediately west of what is today the downtown entrance to the Bonaventure Expressway, most of the little that remained of it in the early 1960’s was expropriated in order to build that autoroute for Expo’67. Originally, however, this diminutive urban road ran the full two blocks between Notre Dame and St. Antoine, where was found just around the corner in Edwardian times the Gazette Publishing Building. The centre of St. David’s Lane was intersected by St. James Street, as it was known then.

As it happens, in the early twentieth century, a late aunt of mine lived the first twenty years of her life on that very road, and the anecdotes she often recounted about the daily drudge within its confines made for fascinating tale.

As she told it, her family’s flat, like most on the street, was of two-storey construction. The parlour, dining room and kitchen were on the main floor while three bedrooms and a water closet were found on the second. A rather large portable basin was periodically used in which to bathe. For a more thorough washing, the nearby public bath was visited. In winter, a Quebec-style coal stove was used to heat.

During the spring and summer, her mother kept a flower and vegetable garden in the tiny yard behind their home. There, to her delight, a swing was also to be found. Children in those pre-computer and pre-Internet days amused themselves as much as possible by playing around the home, and in the street. The girls in particular ran, skipped, sang and played tag around their flats. The boys, on the other hand, habitually played more roughly.

Her memories were for the most part favourable. The street itself was described by her as being narrow and gravel covered. The neighbourhood, which for all intents and purposes amounted exclusively to that road, was further depicted as being safe – one where residents kept their doors unlocked at all times of the day.

While my late aunt’s reminisces are interesting, there are other accounts from the same time period which are somewhat less flattering with regard to daily life in St. David’s Lane.

A report in April of 1902 recounts the story of how one individual living at 17 St. David’s Lane was the victim of smallpox, a contagious disease relatively common at the time. The poor misfortunate refused to be removed to the Civic Contagious Disease Hospital until finally the municipal authority threatened to demolish the ramshackle in which he was living from over his head. He stepped out into the street thirty minutes before the wreckage was to begin.

Another bizarre tale, this one with far more tragic consequences, occurred a little over a month later around moving day, which in those days took place on May 1. It seems that when, on the second of May, a family by the name of Hershfield went to take possession of their modest flat at 16 St. David’s Lane, they found more than they had   bargained for. The front rooms were bare but in the back in a small area about ten by eight in size, they made a macabre discovery. Unconscious and prostrate was a man whose eight-month old son lay dead on a nearby straw tick. The requisite enquiry revealed that both parents were acute alcoholics and had failed to care for the infant’s needs.

In September of 1909, when my aunt was a mere child of one and a half years, a local newspaper described the dimly-lit street as “the most unsavory spot in the city” with over a dozen murders in the twenty year period 1889 -1909. In late Victorian times, St. David’s Lane was renowned “as the centre of the lowest disorderly houses” to be found in Montreal.

Today, over a century later, tucked in tightly behind Quebec Transport ventilation tower number ten at 550 University Street, there remains a tiny and totally abandoned segment of St. David’s Lane. Unidentified by any street sign, it nevertheless survives as a now silent witness to the many human dramas which unfolded within its narrow and historic confines.

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