James McGill died on December 19, 1813.
In his will, he left £10,000 and his forty-six acre Burnside Place estate to the Royal Institute for the advancement of Learning.
During his lifetime, James McGill was a merchant, office holder, politician, landowner, militia officer, and a philanthropist. He was born on October 6, 1744 in Glasgow, Scotland. Not much is known about when he and his family immigrated to Canada, but he did make Montreal his home.
McGill, like so many during those early years, worked as a trader, eventually simultaneously with a number of enterprises with different partners. As early as 1767 he began trading on his own account, obtained licenses for two canoes and cargoes worth £400. He posted bonds totalling £2,400 for four traders. He became quite successful.
In his will, McGill put in two conditions before the money and estate could come to fruition. One, that the resources were to be used to create a college in McGill’s name, and two, that the school must be established within ten years of his death.
Award-winning novelist, and McGill English professor, Hugh MacLennan wrote of his accomplishments, “The most important act of his life, James McGill wrote his will.”
McGill died less than two years after writing his will.
Approximately 1787, he drafted a petition for improving education. “We hardly know of a single school in any part of the district for teaching boys. Only one boy in five can read and write,” he wrote.
But the now famous McGill College almost did not happen.
One of McGill’s nephew, Francis Desrivieres, was eager to claim Burnside Place as his own. He did everything he could to stall progress, in the hope that the Royal Institution would miss the ten-year was line and that he would win by default.
Meanwhile, the Royal Institution was struggling with its ill-equipped day-to-day operations, not to mention simultaneously battling Desrivieres. It was thanks to the rallying efforts of McGill’s former fellow fur trader, John Strachan, that the Royal Institution pulled itself together and received a charter from King William IV in the spring of 1821.
Three years later saw the appointment of a principal, Reverend George Jehosophat Mountain (later Anglican Bishop of Quebec) and the hiring of four professors. The only thing the Royal Institution needed was the building itself.
On June 24, 1829, Burnside Place was formally opened as McGill College.
The college immediately struck a deal to have Montreal Medical Institution act as its faculty of medicine. And so it was that McGill’s dream was picking up steam, although it would take another six years to settle the case with Francis Desrivieres.
Finally, on September 6, 1843, twenty students filed into the new Arts Building. It was the first full day of classes, an historic moment that took 30 years to happen!
For more on McGill, I suggest Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, and McGill University‘s website.
- Digital Resource Highlight: McGill Remembers (foto-phix.com)