A university is born

Black and white historical photograph from 1860 featuring the Arts Building at McGill University, photographed by William Notman.
The Arts Building in 1860 photographed by William Notman.
James McGill bequeathed in trust £10,000 and his forty-six acre Burnside Place estate on the side of Mount Royal, to the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning upon his death in 1813. There were two conditions: The resources were to be used to create a college in McGill’s name, and the school must be established within ten years of his passing.

The genesis of the college bearing his name was a difficult, drawn-out affair. One of his heirs, a nephew named Francis Desrivières, was eager to claim Burnside Place as his own; he stalled all progress, in the hope that the McGill fortune would default to him.  The Royal Institution, meanwhile, was a fledgling operation ill-equipped to deal with its own day-to-day operations, let alone do battle with the uncooperative Desrivières. It was thanks to the rallying efforts of McGill’s former friend, John Strachan, that the Royal Institution pulled itself together and obtained a charter from King George IV in the spring of 1821. Three years later saw the appointment of a principal, Reverend George Jehosaphat Mountain (later Anglican Bishop of Quebec), and the hiring of four professors. Now all the Royal Institution needed was the school itself.

On June 24, 1829, Burnside Place was formally opened as McGill College. The college immediately struck a deal to have the Montreal Medical Institution act as its faculty of medicine. James McGill’s dream was picking up steam, although it would take another six years to settle the case with Francis Desrivières, and internal bickering would cause even further delays. Finally, on September 6, 1843, twenty students filed into the new Arts Building. It was McGill College’s first day of classes, an historic moment thirty years in the making.

Back to top