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The Montreal Council of Social Agencies developed as an English-speaking Protestant and non-sectarian instrument to encourage and coordinate private charities for its own community. Charity for Roman Catholics in the city and indeed throughout the province of Quebec remained until at least the middle of the 20th century predominantly, for long before that almost exclusively, the domain of the Catholic Church. Government at all levels, meantime, tried to avoid direct involvement in the social welfare field everywhere in Quebec, for the most part leaving Protestants to fashion their own devices and Catholics to look to the parochial clergy and regular orders of the church, supplemented to some extent by lay professionals and volunteers.
The Protestant civilian community which began to settle in Montreal after the arrival of the British regime in 1760, being outside the purview of the Catholic Church, developed its own private, voluntary charitable agencies and services. At first these were largely sporadic ad hoc responses to a particular situation, perhaps most notably by the Ladies Benevolent Society (founded 1815), which served the needs of destitute or sick immigrants who arrived in numbers after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. Ethnic organizations like the St. George's, St. Andrew's, St. Patrick's, and German societies complemented these social welfare efforts by the mid-1830s. The Ladies Benevolent Society and the Anglican-controlled National Schools of the trans-Atlantic Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge were pioneers in the education of the children of Montreal's Protestant poor, while the Montreal General Hospital (whose records are in McGill University Archives RG 96), founded in 1819, represented a permanent institution which made some provision for the health care of those of little or no means.
Montreal's population, commerce, and industry increased rapidly throughout the course of the 19th century, and new private charitable bodies arose to meet growing demands. Prominent amongst these were the Montreal Maternity hospital (established 1843), Sheltering Home (1858), Protestant Industrial Rooms (1861), Protestant Infants' Home (1869), Murray Bay Convalescent Home (1874), Montreal Diet Dispensary (1878), Society for the Protection of Women and Children (1880), Montreal Day Nursery (1887), University Settlement (1893), and the Victorian Order of Nurses (1897). Most of these, sometimes with a change in name, survived to become constituents of the Montreal Council of Social Agencies.