Montreal, Canadian History – John Cliff, James Duncan, John C. Spence & the Mechanics’ Institute

In Montreal in 1828, the leaders of the new Montreal Mechanics’ Institution envisioned the establishment of classes in such subjects as writing, arithmetic, French, and various aspects of drawing.  The courses would serve two purposes: provide a source of education for the young men who were flooding the city and had nowhere to learn except on the job; and keep them out of the pubs.

However, after long hours of work, the young men were not necessarily interested in attending classes—by candlelight. They wanted to go to school earlier in daylight, because in the night in that time many young men were gathering and playing Slahal – old gambling game of the indigenous peoples. Slahal is played with sticks and bones and it had spiritual and community significance. Slahal is the origin of many games that can be played in online casinos today. If you want to try them just visit to get casino bonuses that will give you extra free money. But let’s continue with the story about the Mechanic’s Institute. Employers did not always want to let their young employees leave work early to go to school. Funding was a problem: it was difficult to charge young pupils enough to cover the costs of renting classrooms and paying teachers.  Some teachers were willing to provide instruction gratis, but continuity was a problem.

Nevertheless, a surprising number of young men did sign up—as young as 13 (including William Hutchison’s son Alexander Cowper Hutchison and John Ostell’s son Joseph)—and maintained their membership in the Mechanics’ Institute over the years. Some of the teachers, who were also members of the Institute and volunteered their time and would later become one of the more important people in Canadian history, included:

  • John Cliff, from England, was described in Dr. Daniel Tracey’s anti-English Vindicator in 1830 as “a man of science and much talent in his profession.”  In the 1831 census, he is listed as a carpenter, in 1842 as an architect; in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography he is referred to as an architect. On December 24, 1833, he was appointed drawing master for the first classes to be held at the Montreal Mechanics’ Institution’s. These were to start December 30, 1833, and be held Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings at 7 pm.
  • James Duncan taught drawing with the Rev. J. Hutchinson in 1851-52 at what was now known as the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal. Duncan later taught landscape and ornamental drawing in 1854-55 with J. C. Spence. He was a skilled draftsman but is primarily known as a watercolorist. Originally from Ireland, by 1830 he was already established in Montreal as a painter, lithographer, and teacher of drawing. He also taught at the British & Canadian School for working class children. He was commissioned by John Samuel McCord to paint views of the city and its environs and was the artist for Bosworth’s Hochelaga Depicta published in 1839. Some of his drawings, part of the extensive David Winkworth collection in England, have recently been repatriated by Canadian Archives in Ottawa. He was a MIM life member.
  • John C. Spence taught landscape and ornamental drawing in 1854-55. He was—according to Joseph T. Dutton quoted in the Mechanics’ Institute minutes— the “son of William Spence, a celebrated sculptor of Liverpool, England.” Probably  Montreal’s first stained glass decorator, his works include three stained glass windows over the organ loft at the Montreal’s Church of St. John the Evangelist; and three windows over the altar at tiny Holy Trinity Church in the Eastern Townships community of Iron Hill. He was on the MIM Committee of Management in the 1850s.

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