Epilogue: Childhood memories of Old McGill

Epilogue: Childhood memories of Old McGill McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 1999 > Winter 1999-2000 > Epilogue: Childhood memories of Old McGill


No one of today's generation realizes the joy and the beauty of the fresh and green College grounds of 60 and more years ago. On the east side of the Avenue from Sherbrooke Street there was a wealth of beautiful trees -- lovely maples, sturdy oaks and several grand elms. Then in the hollow below the Arts Building there was a magnificent butternut, and in Dr. Dawson's wee garden, a hickory.

In the 1860s and '70s we lived at 200 and 198 University Street, two greystone houses on the west side immediately south of what is now Milton Street. My father had given Dr. Dawson some geological specimens and had contributed towards the Porter's Lodge, where Herbert and his red-cheeked family lived, and we had a permit to use the College grounds.

In the spring, besides the soft green foliage, the hawthorn bushes, from opposite the great butternut tree right down to Sherbrooke Street, were a mass of lovely blossoms, white and cream, which "wafted around their rich perfume."

A small burn came out from under the sidewalk in front of the first Medical Building, running all the way to the south side of the grounds and disappearing under Sherbrooke Street. Almost behind our house there was a five-plank bridge to cross the burn and the water which rippled on the pebbles below was clear as crystal.

About where the Macdonald Engineering Building now stands there was a waveless pond roughly 40 yards by 20, nearly hidden by the towering banks, and on its edges buttercups and some blue flowers flourished daintily. A sand path wended its way through the east side of the grounds and beyond it, on the University Street side, there was an abundance of clover, violets and an occasional wild strawberry plant. Several cows were pastured below Dr. Dawson's garden. Oftentimes in the spring when I pushed open my blinds I could see Dr. Dawson weeding his garden long before breakfast time, his bald head appearing and disappearing as he bent down to tend his beloved plants.

In winter we children used to draw up our sleighs on the east side of the Arts Building, and if we met Dr. Dawson (who lived there with his family), he patted our heads and gave us one of those beautiful gentle smiles, while old Herbert of the red-cheeked brood, would grab our sleighs and tell us that if ever again he caught us sliding in the College grounds he would give our sleighs to the police. We returned and were caught again and again, and again he would threaten but never punish.

My father used to dine the medical graduating class and long before they graduated, I got to know several of them and used to run across University Street to take the hand of Osler or Roddick or some other jolly medico. Yet I never went inside the gates with them for fear they might take me down to the dissecting room.

In winter we were terrified when we saw the dim gas lighting up the basement of the Medical Building. When we were naughty our nurses used to tell us grim stories of body snatching and what might happen to disobedient boys. In those days obituary notices ended with "Friends and acquaintances will kindly accept this intimation" and it was hinted that on more than one occasion some medical student accepted "the kind intimation," received a pair of black kid gloves and a crepe at the entrance of deceased's late residence (such was the custom), and accompanied the cortege to the cemetery and the same night transported the "stiff" to the basement of the Medical Building. Little wonder we children were terrified of the gas-lighted basement!

I remember the early rugby games against Harvard. About 1876 the Harvard team came on the campus, coated in canvas jackets, which we schoolboys felt was most unfair as the wearers proved slippery to catch. The campus was not flat, but had a surface of rolling waves of ankle-spraining turf for those of us who played English rugby with its permissible hacking in these grand, good-tempered scrimmages.

At sixteen I entered the Arts and Law Faculties. Professor Moyse's course in English was stimulating. He taught us to read and time and again advised us to be "men of few books." The Law lectures were held on the top floor of Molson's Bank, on St. James Street, between four and six p.m. The course covered about a third of the civil law and procedure codes and much English law. Several of the outstanding men at the Bar lectured. As a student I was indentured to Joseph Doutre, QC, and when he was retained by the Free Thought Club to defend it against a seizure by Customs authorities of volumes of Voltaire and Paine's Age of Reason, I was able to enter the witness box and testify before the court that such reprehensible books, replete with religious criticisms, could be read any day in the McGill Library.

I graduated in 1885 and am glad to say that two of my classmates are still "going strong" in their sweet memories of the good old days.

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