This is the latest for our series The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries.
I won’t bury the lede: Quebec City’s Morrin Centre might be the only library you’ll ever visit that also has a dungeon. Okay, technically it’s a cell—a vestige of a time back in the early 1800s when the building served as the first municipal jail in the city. But its barred windows, iron floor rings, and graffiti from former inmates give the dark room a decidedly medieval vibe, one that makes most visitors extremely uncomfortable. Upstairs, books line the dark-wood walls, make it an aesthetically obvious pick for The Daily Beast. But down here, the building’s former life is on full display.
Located in Old Quebec, Morrin Centre sits adjacent to the city’s ramparts. The now ornamental walls were built in the 1690s, during the endless battles for the city between the French and British. (Spoiler alert: the French won.) The location was intentional, as before the Centre’s modern-day iteration, the site housed the Royal Redoubt, or military barracks. As the city was further colonized, it also served as the city’s main prison until 1787, when the original building was finally demolished.
But hey, why not more dark history? As the city’s popular ghost tours love to mention, the modern neoclassical building, completed in 1813 by architect François Baillairgé, wasn’t just a jail—it was also the location of many gruesome hangings. That includes William Suitor who—uniquely— was executed for murder in 1834 by being hanged above the main entrance. However, even though hangings were common, the prison was rumored to be easy to escape. Inmates would reportedly bribe guards or just straight up make a run for it—and most were successful.
The building would tiptoe closer to its final form in 1862, when after closing for a year for renovations, it would reopen as Morrin College, just a creaky flight of stairs (still original!) up from the former dungeons. The decision to teach in English was made thanks to Dr. Joseph Morrin, a Scottish doctor and generous donor.
What they created was an educational mixed bag. Some rooms were used by the local Masonic Temple. Pastors for the Presbyterian Church were also educated onsite. And in a shocking first, in affiliation with McGill University Montreal, it was a place where women could receive a degree in chemistry. When there weren’t enough students, the classes were made co-ed, also mildly scandalous for the era.
Ultimately, Quebec’s first English-language college was short-lived, closing in 1902. However, a schoolroom in the centre remains in tribute, complete with original blackboards, photos of the first graduating class, a periodic table featuring two non-existent elements (shout-out to Norium and Pelopium), and a small, vintage darkroom.
But it was also during this educational era that the Morrin Centre began to fully crystallize. A tenant of the building’s northern wing in 1868, the Earl of Dalhousie used the footage to house the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec. While his original archives, free to students and available at a small fee to outsiders, have since been moved to Laval University, the library and the Literary and Historical Society remained.
Today, the Morrin Centre is the oldest English learning society in Canada, and the only English library in the city. Impressive, given that according to Canadian census data updated in 2022, only 1.5 percent of the population refer to themselves as English speakers. So even now, a whole English library in the middle of region referred to as La Nouvelle France is a rare gem, especially since ordering a coffee outside the tourist areas without busting out Google Translate is unlikely.
Walking through the main room that houses 27,000 books is intimidating at first. Keeping with the Palladian architectural style, the two-story library features white gilded railings, dark wood bookshelves, a spiral staircase, and even historical swords and busts. (Yes, that’s the good doctor himself, at the window, overseeing his empire.) There’s even a hefty children’s section, albeit alongside an exhibition called “Elites & Orphans,” displaying toys from the early 20th century. (Morrin is, after all, a historical institute.)
On the upper floor, tilted slightly to overlook the room, there’s also a small statue of Major General James Wolfe, a local oddity given that he was a British military officer. His station might explain why he didn’t last long in his original position in the Old Port of Quebec, before being stolen by sailors. In a path only bested by Amelie’s traveling gnome, Wolfe sailed onto Bermuda and then to England, where he served as a pub sign for several years before being mysteriously mailed back to the mayor of Quebec. However, his strife didn’t end even after being enshrined in Morrin. In 1966 Wolfe drew the ire of Alberto Oscar Pipino, a college student and self-proclaimed separatist. Ultimately, he was sentenced to two years in prison and deportation after firebombing the statue with a homemade Molotov Cocktail, doing $2,650 in damage in the process. Quick thinking librarians and firefighters threw books out of a window in an effort to protect rare volumes. Even stranger, from his declarations in trial, it remains unclear if Pipino understood that the roots of modern-day Quebec City were formed by the French, not the British.
But it’s that kind of complicated history that Morrin seeks to embrace with an egalitarian spirit. Memberships start at $20 per year. (The centre doesn’t pay rent but is responsible for upkeep and maintenance costs. Tours and donations make up the difference.) That fee allows members access to the non-historical books, events like writers’ festivals, and visits from Anglophone authors from around the world.
And in a touch of irony given Quebec’s historical linguistic resistance, the community at large has responded positively. Almost 40 percent of members consider themselves Francophone, meaning that many come to the centre not out of necessity, but rather curiosity. Imagine coming to a former prison for the pleasure of reading and speaking in English. Morrin’s former inhabitants would be shocked.