Published in the Montreal Gazette on August 8, 2015
Montreal has always been an important lieu for international congresses. In recent times, one needs only think back to the Fifth International Aids Conference that was held in this city in June of 1989. There were over 12,000 participants at that historic event. Then, some sixteen years later, in the autumn of 2005, Montreal hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference to which some 10,000 delegates attended. Just two of many very important meetings held in our town at our relatively new, state-of-the-art, Palais des congrès.
However, one of the very first truly significant symposiums held in Montreal took place many, many years ago. In fact, this summer will mark the 131st anniversary of the get-together in this city of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a distinguished UK society, today simply known as the British Science Association.
The learned academy was founded in 1831 as a reaction to the perceived elitist and conservative nature of the Royal Society. The British Association for the Advancement of Science (at the time, commonly called BA, for short) held its first convention that same year in the English city of York, and it continued to hold its annual get-togethers within the British Isles until 1884. It was that year that the academic association came all the way to Montreal for their once a year reunion.
Given the lengthy and expensive nature of a trek across the ocean to Canada’s educational and financial centre, the very idea was initially a difficult sell. Nevertheless, some extremely generous monetary incentives helped get virtually everyone ‘on board’ with the proposal. These enticements included discounts on travel, entertainment, and accommodation costs incurred during a delegate’s stay in Victorian Montreal. While in Canada, many representatives also took advantage of free train transportation to the Canada Rockies, which was as far as the railway went in the summer of 1884.
The BA President of the Montreal gathering was Lord John William Strutt Rayleigh, “one of the most solid exponents of British science.” He was, at the time, a renowned professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University. There were twelve eminent vice-presidents as well, including both the governor-general and the prime minister of Canada serving in that honoury capacity.
Several of the more celebrated individuals attending the convention in this city were even afforded lodging by equally prominent Montrealers. One of the latter was Richard Bladworth Angus (after whom the CPR’s Angus Yards are named) who opened up his palatial residence on Drummond Street to members of the Rayleigh family.
Below, the Drummond Street home of Richard Angus, just north of Sherbrooke…….
Most of the happenings associated with the illustrious meeting took place in Queen’s Hall, an 1159 seat chamber that was used for both concerts and theatrical productions. It was located at the corner of Ste – Catherine and University Streets, where today is found Les Ailes de la Mode store (the old Eaton Building). The elegant edifice, which partially collapsed in 1899 and later demolished, was often said to be Montreal’s first true theatre and concert chamber.
It was in the 1880’s home to the Montreal Philharmonic Society and the Mendelssohn Choir of Montreal. It had the additional good fortune of being situated within a short distance of McGill University where most of the British academics understandably were expected to venture between seminars.
Below, Queen’s Hall circa. 1885
Many of the 1691 delegates who attended (only 1000 were originally anticipated) the acclaimed symposium arrived on steamers from Quebec City on the morning of August 27, the very day the conference was set to begin. According to The Gazette the conditions were ideal with “bright skies overhead, and weather not too warm, and tempered by a cooling breeze,” and with the city showing “an extra amount of life and bustle.” Indeed, that very afternoon an impressive welcoming reception was held in the William Molson Hall at McGill University.
The gathering opened officially that very evening with an address by Lord John Rayleigh, who was obviously front and centre at the conference. Only moments before, Mayor Jean – Louis Beaudry, speaking in French and wearing his chain of office, welcomed the influential and diverse group of scientists to Montreal. Later, ‘God Save the Queen’ was sung with Mr. W. R. Spence of the Church of St. John the Evangelist playing the Queen’s Hall organ.
There were eight sections within the BA conference, each taking its turn meeting in the large assembly room: mathematical and physical science, chemical science, geology, biology, geography, economic science and statistics, mechanical science, and anthropology.
While for the most part the numerous presentations were of a serious nature, there was still time for some relaxing. In that regard, two colourful soirées were also held, one at McGill University and the other at the old Victoria Skating Rink on Drummond Street. On both occasions, a grand time was had by all.
Altogether, the historic happening was a great success and put Montreal on the map for future international conventions. It even paved the way for Toronto to host that same association on two occasions (1897 and 1924) and Winnipeg once (1909).