Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Tracking Montreal Ancestors: Images of the Past

Many genealogists are aware that the Montreal’s McCord Museum has a large collection of digitized photographs taken in the 19th century studios of William Notman (1826-1891). Although it is best known for its photographs of Montreal’s English-speaking elite, the collection goes far beyond the studio, including pictures of Montreal’s Victoria Bridge, the Canadian Pacific Railway, First Nations people across the country and ordinary Montrealers at work and at leisure. 

This view of Montreal was painted around 1830 near my ancestors' home. It is from the McCord's paintings, prints and drawings collection.
This is only one image collection of potential interest to genealogists researching Montreal. As you try to try to imagine the people and places that would have been familiar to your ancestors in what was once Canada’s largest city, here are some other resources that might inspire you.

The place to start exploring the McCord Museum’s images is This page links to the museum’s online collection of more than 122,000 images, including paintings, prints, drawings and photos. There are documents such as diaries, letters and theatre programs, as well as costumes and archaeological objects. While the museum’s collections focus on Montreal, they include images and objects from the Arctic to Western Canada and the United States. You can search the McCord’s online collection for an individual name, or you can browse time periods, geographic regions and artists. 

The McCord also has a flickr page, historically themed albums on the flickr page include old toys, Quebec’s Irish community and an homage to women. 

The Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) is another excellent source of digital images, including photographs, illustrations, posters (affiches) and post cards (cartes postales) from the past. To start exploring these collections, go to

There are two collections of special interest to people with Montreal roots. The first is a collection of 22,000 photos taken by Conrad Poirier (1912-1968), a freelance photojournalist who worked in Montreal from the 1930s to 1960. He covered news (nouvelles), celebrities, sports and theatre, and he did family portraits, weddings, Rotary Club meetings and Boy Scout groups. I even found a photo of myself at a 1957 birthday party (fêtes d’enfants). You can search (chercher) the collection by subject or by family name.

Here I am, bottom row, far left, in a birthday party photo taken by Conrad Poirier.
 The other collection of interest to people researching Montreal is the BAnQ’s Massicotte collection (*). Edouard-Zotique Massicotte (1867-1947) was a journalist, historian and archivist. The online collection mainly consists of photos and drawings of Montreal street scenes and buildings between 1870 and 1920. Some illustrations come from postcards, while others are clippings from periodicals. There are also a few blueprints and designs. The accompanying text is in French. You can search this collection by subject, by location, date of publication or type of image, or you can put in your own search term. 

St. Martin's Church, where my great-grandparents were married. I found this illustration in the BAnQ's Massicotte collection.
Philippe du Berger’s flickr page is a gold mine of Montreal images. He includes contemporary photos of the city, including neighbourhoods that have recently been changed by big construction projects such as the new CHUM hospital. There are old photos of neighbourhoods such as Griffintown, Côte des Neiges and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and he illustrates the transformation of the Hay Market area of the 1830s that eventually became today’s Victoria Square. Some albums include old maps to help the viewer put locations into geographic context. 

The City of Montreal Archives has uploaded thousands of photos to its flickr page, They are arranged in albums on various topics, ranging from city workers on the job to lost neighbourhoods, newspaper vendors, sporting activities and cultural events.

James Duncan. Montreal from the Mountain, 1830-31. M966.61, McCord Museum.

Conrad Poirier. Cathy Campbell’s Party, 1957, P48,S1,P22510, BAnQ.

This article is also posted on


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Mysterious Disappearance of Albert Edward Lewis

My great-grandparents were quiet, respectable people so when their brother-in-law landed on the front pages of Montreal newspapers for all the wrong reasons, they must have been horrified.

The newsmaker was real estate developer Albert Edward Lewis,1 husband of Helen Frances Bagg. On November 22, 1897, a headline in The Gazette ran, “A PECULIAR CASE. Mysterious Disappearance of A.E. Lewis. …. LARGE REWARD IS OFFERED. Suspicious Characters Seen Loitering Near his Residence on Saturday Evening Shortly Before His Disappearance.”  

 For several days, both English and French-language newspapers reported on the mystery. Evidence of a struggle was spotted near the last place he had been seen, and the police dragged nearby quarries for his body. His wife was afraid he had been murdered. Brother-in-law R. Stanley Bagg (my great-grandfather), who was also a business associate, described Lewis as a gentle man who had no enemies -- and an excellent fighter who could take care of himself. 

Two days later, the tone of the articles changed. La Minerve reported that Lewis had frequently been seen in the company of a pretty young woman. The newspapers now said he had left Montreal of his own accord and was in New York, en route for southern Africa. It became clear that Lewis had staged the mysterious circumstances surrounding his flight.

On November 27, a brief item in The Gazette reported that R. Stanley Bagg had taken out a seizure before judgement against Lewis for $10,000. In 1895, Bagg had sold property to Lewis for $10,000, and Lewis was due to pay $300 in interest a few days after his disappearance. In the intervening two years, the property Lewis had purchased with the intention of selling as building lots had lost value, partly because the privately owned tramway that provided transportation to the area was in serious financial trouble and unable to offer reliable service. Eventually, Bagg recovered some of the money that Lewis owed when 50 building lots that Lewis owned were seized and sold at a sheriff’s auction.

Six years earlier, Lewis’s Montreal real estate business had promised to be very successful, partly because of his links to the Bagg family. They had inherited several adjoining farm properties along what is now St. Laurent Boulevard. R. Stanley Bagg was selling the lots nearest the city center and, a little further afield, the Montreal Freehold Company had purchased a large piece of land from the Baggs with the intention of developing it. Lewis was the sole real estate agent for both parties for the best lots: those facing St. Lawrence Street.3
R. Stanley Bagg must have trusted his brother-in-law to give him this advantage, so what was Albert Edward Lewis’s background? 

The Lewis family had deep roots in Flintshire, Wales. John Lewis (1820-1891) immigrated to Montreal in the mid-1800s and worked as a bureaucrat at the city’s busy port. He married Matilda Snowdon (1827-1902) and the couple had four children: Lansing, Eleanor Ida, Albert Edward and Lily.4

Lewis’s business promotional material5 says he left home at age 17 and “spent four years trading in the South Sea Islands. The cattle boom of 1880 found him on the Texas Trail with cattle bound for northern pastures. Locating in Oregon, he engaged in ranching most successfully and returned to Montreal a few years since.” He went into the general real estate and loan business and married Helen in 1891.6
His disappearance six years later must have devastated her, and she set out to look for him, eventually tracking him down in the Orient. They returned to Canada together, but not to Montreal. Instead, they settled in Vancouver where nobody knew about the scandal.7 There, he became one of Vancouver’s largest property owners, owning some of the best locations in the city’s business district, and the couple also had a busy social life.

Around 1907, Lewis developed health problems and, when he improved, the couple travelled to France. He was never able to return to Canada. 

Lewis died in Paris on 28 June, 1908,8 his wife at his side. He is buried in Caerwys, Flintshire, Wales.9 Helen had a crucifixion window installed in his memory at St. Michael’s Church in Caerwys, and she had a similar window placed in Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.10

See also Helen Frances Bagg’s story: 

Photo credits:
The Gazette, Montreal, 22 November, 1897, 1.
Albert E. Lewis [image fixe], 1894, 0002733571, Albums Massicotte, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec,
Gravesite in Caerwys, Flintshire, Wales courtesy Nelson Oliver; photo by Sylvia Harris.

Thank you to Nelson Oliver and Yves Desjardins for their assistance with this article.


1. According to a descendant of the extended Lewis family, family members called him Albert and other people called him Edward. In various documents he appeared as A.E. Lewis, Albert E. Lewis and Edward Lewis. 

2. Several notices appeared in the Gazette officielle du Québec (the official publication of the government of Quebec) announcing that a sheriff’s sale would be held to sell off Lewis’s properties. See   Type Albert E. Lewis and click on chercher (search). Two different notices appeared: page 31 on 12 February 1898, and page 29 on 23 April 1898.

3. To learn more about the development of Mile End, the Montreal neighbourhood in which Lewis was selling property, see Mile End Memories,

4. According to the Quebec, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967 online database on, Albert Edward Lewis, son of John Lewis Esquire Controller of Her Majesty’s Customs at the Port of Montreal and of Matilda Caroline Snowdon, was born 27 May, 1860.  

5. Lewis took out a half-page ad for his Real Estate and Insurance business in a book that promoted Montreal commercial, manufacturing and financial businesses. His ad was on page 120 of Montreal Illustrated 1894, published by The Consolidated Illustrating Co. Montreal.

6. Albert Edward Lewis wed Helen Frances Mitcheson Bagg at Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal on 16 April, 1891. The source can be viewed in the Quebec, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967 database on The signatures of witnesses make we wonder whether members of Helen’s family were pleased with the match. The only signature from the Bagg family was her mother’s. 

7. There was an article about Lewis’s 1897 disappearance in a Victoria B.C. newspaper a few days after his death, and a similar story appeared in the Vancouver World. “Recalls Old Mystery: Late A.E. Lewis, of Vancouver, was Central Figure of a Montreal Drama Several Years Ago”, Victoria Daily Colonist, July 1, 1908, 1,
8. “Lewis, Albert Edward (1860-1908)”, WestEndVancouver,  This article describes Lewis's life and quotes his death notice in the Vancouver World, June 30, 1908, 16. 

9. The record of Lewis’s burial in Wales can be found on

10. Stained glass window dedicated to Albert Edward Lewis at Christ Church Cathedral, CVA 371-2818, City of Vancouver Archives,