The House of Vulgar People
The following is an extract from my memoir All Aboard The Calaboose, of my days in the Merchant Navy 1959-1966. It deals with one of the most frequented seamen’s bars in the world, Joe Beef’s of Montreal. My first visit there was a real eye-opener. Now read on …
‘He cares not for the Pope, Priest, Parson or King William of the Boyne; All Joe wants is the Coin. He trusts in God in the summer time to keep him from all harm; when he sees the first frost and snow poor old Joe trusts the Almighty Dollar and good maple wood to keep his belly warm. For Churches, chapels, ranters, preachers, beechers and such stuff, Montreal has already got enough.’
Statement printed on a card given out in Montreal
by Charles McKiernan, a.k.a. Joe Beef (1835-1889)
The New York Times was not impressed, however, calling Joe Beef's Canteen "a den of filth" and writing that:
The proprietor is evidently an educated man, and speaks and writes well. But he is a little nearer a devil and his place near what the revised version calls Hades than anything I ever saw.
Beef was known for keeping a menagerie of animals in his tavern, including four black bears, ten monkeys, three wild cats, a porcupine and an alligator. The bears were usually kept in the tavern's cellar and viewed by customers through a trap door in the barroom floor. He sometimes brought a bear up from the basement to restore order in his tavern, to fight with his dogs or play a game of billiards with the proprietor. One of his bears, Tom, had a daily consumption of twenty pints of beer and would sit on his hindquarters and hold a glass between his paws without spilling a drop. On one occasion, McKiernan was mauled by a buffalo on exhibit and was sent to hospital for a number of days. Another time, a Deputy Clerk of the Peace was inspecting the tavern in order to renew the license and was bitten by one of McKiernan's dogs.
He ran his tavern from 1870 until his death from a heart attack in 1889, at the age of 54
Here’s me: Sailing Into Montreal: July 1960.
Montreal. At last the feeling I had anticipated about what lay at this side of the Atlantic was being borne out. This may not have been Manhattan or Brooklyn, but it all felt very, very American, despite the continuing insistence on dual languages. When we were given an early finish the crew all seemed very animated. It was a fine, mild day and everyone went to the Steward for a sub. I asked Bill Smith what was afoot.
“Joe Beef of Montreal, The friend of the working man.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means we’re all going for some good cheap beer to Joe Beef’s bar. It’s what a sailor does in Montreal.” And so we did. Yes, the beer was cheap, we drank plenty of it, and I was lucky to get into the busy establishment at all with my fresh-faced 17 year old looks. I just tagged along and found somewhere out of sight to sit and let others go to the bar. As I would subsequently discover, there were specialist, boozy destinations like this all around the coastlines of the world where sailors, dockers and working men would congregate, and we were the lucky ones because we were the travelling workers and could experience them all. That said, few if any establishments would possess as colourful a history as Joe Beef’s.
Later in life, I delved further into the story behind this popular watering hole, and the result was nothing if not inspiring.
Charles McKiernan, who became known as Joe Beef, was born in Ireland in 1835 but found his way to Montreal as a soldier in the British army. Apparently he was a quartermaster and always on the look-out for stores, and when meat rations were down, he always seemed to find some source of supply, becoming known to the squaddies thus earning the name ‘Joe Beef’. In 1868, he bought his way out of the army and became the champion of Montreal’s working class when he opened the Crown and Sceptre Tavern on St. Claude Street behind Marché Bonsecours. It soon became known as Joe Beef’s canteen where the labouring classes, as well as the unemployed, the destitute and the drifters could get a free lunch, cheap beds, and dubious entertainment between 1868 and 1889.
Beef had no time for the lofty, church-going powers-that-be who ran Montreal and Quebec province. It was a time before such luxuries as social security when the only charitable help available came from the church.
When St-Claude Street was widened in 1870, he moved to larger quarters, a three-storey building located on Common Street. Joe liked to ruffle the feathers of the upper classes and the law by calling his own establishment the ‘Great house of Vulgar People.’
Social services led by religious groups encouraged those who sought help to sign a pledge to abstain from ‘intoxicating drinks.’ But Joe knew what a down and out working man needed; a drink and a bit of fun. Therefore his booze-fuelled charity was very welcome.
His generosity was appreciated, and despite spreading around the wealth his bar earned to the less fortunate, his assets were still valued at $80,000 at his death, a vast sum in those days. Joe Beef’s canteen was also a kind of early job centre or labour exchange, and he was always agreeable to lend out the tools necessary to get a day’s work, such as shovelling snow. If you were down and out, with nowhere to rest your head, for 10 cents you could sleep in Joe’s dormitory, be given a meal, (even if you didn’t have the 10c). The only condition was that you would be given a bath, disinfected, and required to sleep naked to keep his sheets clean.
In Victorian Montreal, public drunkenness which could get you arrested and fined for disorderly conduct, or ‘vagabondism’. Those who were unable to pay a fine of about $1.50-$2.50 could be imprisoned for a period of around 10-15 days. Unable to work while they were imprisoned, their families would often be the ones to suffer most. Above his bar, Joe Beef hung a portrait of the town Recorder with a number of dollar bills tucked into the corner of the frame. With these, he paid the fines of his regular customers. He supported striking miners and canal labourers, sending them bread when they were locked out, yet at the same time, demonstrated his magnanimity by sending the same supplies to the militias who were controlling the situation.
But there was more to Joe Joe’s philanthropy than paying his customers’ fines and lending out tools to workers. He raised $500 a year for the Montreal General Hospital, and was prepared to support the hospital by providing a doctor to do house-calls in the working-class areas, but this was an offer turned down by the starchy, sanctimonious higher echelons running Montreal. They wanted nothing to do with a man who peddled alcohol and lewd entertainment.
50 years ago when our crew breezed in, Joe Beef’s was still, in some ways, the ‘House of Vulgar People’. Yet vulgar people can be fun, and our vulgarity was portable. But boy, did we have some good times in Joe Beef’s bar.
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