Famine Archive - History of Family Project



Most Montrealers of Irish descent are quite familiar with “Black Rock” that sits on the Montreal side of the Victoria Bridge.  They know that the rock is a memorial to the 6000, or so, Irish immigrants that died at this spot during the hot “Calcutta Summer” of 1847. These Irish men, women and children, after enduring the terrible conditions in crossing an ocean from Ireland, never had an opportunity to build a new life in Canada, but rather were buried in foreign soil. (Unfortunately many Montrealers using the Victoria Bridge never realize that they are driving over the graves of these individuals on their daily commute). These Irish immigrants died from “ship’s fever” (typhus). The rock was installed by the workmen on the Victoria Bridge, many of them were Irish, and since the stone was installed in 1859, only a decade, or so, after the event, many of these workers must have known about the site and the history. Perhaps some of the workers on the Bridge were even survivors of the sheds.

But I think a less well known part of the story, are the people that I like to call the “Heroes of the Rock”. These people were native Montrealers, some well known, and some ordinary citizens, who felt a need to go to the fever sheds and provide whatever assistance & compassion that they could offer. They all knew that this disease was very contagious and that they were literally risking their lives in visiting with the victims.

Perhaps the best known of these heroes was John Easton Mills – at the time, the Mayor of Montreal.  He was an American born in Massachusetts in 1796. Mr. Mills was elected in March of 1846 but because of some voting irregularities, he actually assumed office in December. In Montreal, he first became a fur merchant and then a banker, eventually setting up his own bank which financed a number of construction projects including St. Patrick’s Basilica. As Mayor, after seeing a number of Irish dying in the Port of Montreal, and becoming aware of how contagious the disease was, Mr. Mills ordered the fever sheds to be built, in the area, then part Point St. Charles, in an effort to protect the population & contain the victims. Originally only 3 sheds were built (each about 150 ft. long to 40 or 50 ft. wide) - but by the end there were 11sheds (some reports say there were as many as 20 or more sheds). He also had to fight against a number of citizens that demanded that ships with the Irish not be allowed to land; and there was even a rumour that a mob had planned to “push the sheds into the river”. But in addition to trying to protect the dying Irish immigrants, he also volunteered as a nurse in the sheds. He spent many hours with the victims: caught the disease, and died on November 12th 1847. (Occasionally, John Easton Mills is referred to as The Martyr Mayor of Montreal).

Another group were the Grey Nuns. The Superior of the Order, Mother McMullen, after visiting the shed asked if some of her nuns would volunteer to go to the shed and provide what comfort they could. She said “In sending you there I am signing your death warrant, but you are free to accept or refuse.” All of her nuns agreed to go, many caught the fever and 7 died. Other orders like the Sisters of Providence also came to help with a total of 17 nuns from various orders (including the Grey Nuns) giving their life. William Weir, a visitor to Montreal reported that to him, “the saddest sight was to see the nuns, at the risk of their own lives, carrying the sick women and children in their arms from the ships to the ambulances to be taken to the sheds”.

The Roman Catholic priests, in particular, faced a grave risk as they bent over close to the victim’s mouths in order to hear confession. So many of them came down with the illness that a call went out for additional support. (Hotel Dieu recorded the death of 8 of their priests alone) Some Jesuits arrived from as far away as Fordham, New York. There does not seem to be an exact record but many priests, particularly the ones that spoke English and/or Irish and had an easier time understanding the Irish victims, also perished.

Although most of the immigrants were Catholic, Reverend Mark Willoughby, an Anglican, also organized a group to do what they could. For example, in the group was a Lt, Lloyd of the British Rifle Brigade. It was said that Lt. Lloyd never stopped in his efforts at the sheds until; he too, caught the fever and died. And, as well, Rev. Willoughby became ill with the fever and died at 51 years old.

Unfortunately the disease moved so quickly that it appears there were no proper records kept of either the victims, or the many people, that came to their aid. Individuals arriving with the fever in the evening were often dead and “trenched” (buried) by the following morning. For example, the Montreal Executive Council record notes that 3759 individuals died of the fever in 1847 (not noting if they were all direct victims or include others that came to help). The Black Rock puts the number at 6000. My opinion is that the exact number does not really matter – it was a tragedy of epic proportions, and although we note the victims in Montreal, there were many, many more victims & heroes, from St. John’s to Toronto, not to mention Groose Isle.

My feeling is that, of course, the actual victims had no choice in becoming victims – but the heroes who paid with their life, including the well known like John Mills; the Grey Nuns; the Catholic Priests; the Anglican Clergy, as well as, the many individuals that were not recorded did have a choice. They knew that there was a strong possibility of death when visiting and helping in the sheds – but they went anyway. They seemed to feel that they had a duty regardless of the grave risks to help their fellow human beings - and that is why I call them the “Heroes of the Rock”

Firsthand accounts of the events in Black 47 in Montreal and particular notes about the Grey Nuns and their efforts to provide help and comfort to the victims:


You can also download the Typhus documents by clicking on the links below:

More “Great Hunger Famine” information….


Another interesting article about the Great Hunger that notes how it also affected the Northern Ireland community.


A Blog called “The Wild Geese” is highlighting the “Great Hunger” on their site this week. 
If you would like additional information about this tragedy, please visit their site at:


Worth watching when you have a chance....



Famine and Shipwreck: An Irish Odyssey - Doc Zone

The epic story of starving Irish immigrants and their perilous sea voyage to Canada told through the eyes of their descendants.


Bones found on Canadian beach likely from ‘coffin ship’ from Ireland’s Great Famine

“You can’t have a more tangible witness to tragedy than human remains," a researcher said.


And here is another article about the tragedy of Black 47. This particular note outlines the deaths of young children in Kilkenny, Ireland as a direct result of the Great Hunger.

Although there are an abundance of these very sad stories of this tragedy, our wish to build a great big beautiful inclusive cultural park around the Black Rock is a very positive effort. Yes, our intention is to honour the 6000+ victims buried there; and all the Montrealers that went to aid and comf...

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Workhouse graves give up famine horror secrets

Almost two thirds of the 545 youngsters buried in the mass grave were under six while workhouse records show the mortality rate for babies under the age of two was four times higher than older children