A history of bad behaviour

Tour guide Melannie Eldridge stands across the street from the NationalWar Memorial and flashes a cheeky smile at the group around her. <br />

Tour guide Melannie Eldridge stands across the street from the National War Memorial and flashes a cheeky smile at the group around her.

The 26-year-old has been sharing tidbits about Ottawa’s darker past with tourists for three years and loves shaking up those who call the city a sleepy government town.

Raging alcoholics, rogue firemen and women of pleasure dominated the capital in its early days, and even the gentlemen on the Hill exhibited their fair share of boisterous behaviour, she tells her audience.

Eldridge works for the Naughty Ottawa tour, an excursion which offers a walk on the wild side. Its tales of sex, scandal and the occasional seance provide a racy take on the city’s beginnings.

“It really shows you that the people that our country is made up of, the people that have woven the quilt that has made up our history, are not all as innocent or as normal as you may think,” says Eldridge.

The two-hour walking tour takes its patrons on a journey across the downtown core with 10 stops and a visit to a local watering hole.

On Parliament Hill, Eldridge stops beneath the statues of politicians whose secrets she is about to spill.

From Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s impeccable fashion sense to Sir John A. Macdonald’s witty responses when intoxicated, her audience gets a variety of tales peppered with quirky facts about the men who led the nation.

A crowd favourite is a story about William Lyon Mackenzie King’s efforts to convert young prostitutes to Christianity. Unfortunately for the long-serving prime minister, he often succumbed to temptation, says Eldridge with a smirk.

Adding to the drama of the tales is the location of the narration. Audiences stand on the cobblestone street where the Stony Monday riot broke out between rivalling factions of old-town Ottawa. Later, the group walks the lanes which housed brothels packed with “ladies of the night.”

Visitors who boil down Ottawa’s attractions to Parliament Hill and the National Arts Centre are frequently surprised to learn of the capital’s harsh past, said Mike Steinhauer, director of the Bytown museum which sits by the Rideau locks.

“Ottawa was this rough and tumble city at the end of the woods,” he says. “There wasn’t all that much in terms of establishments. Those that were here were taverns and brothels,” says Steinhauer.

As Eldridge’s group walks through the Byward Market, which was at the heart of Ottawa’s rowdy past, many people on the tour stop to take in their surroundings.

“I love it, I love everything to do with Ottawa,” says Kathleen Smith who has lived in the capital all her life. Despite being an Ottawa native, Smith says the tour freshened her view of the city.

“I think it’s just fabulous. I think our guide is quite knowledgeable and up to date on her scandals,” agrees Betty-Ann Granger, a history teacher who picked King’s seances with his dead mother as her favourite story. Jane Bamber, on the other hand, was itching to tell a friend about King’s adventures in the bedroom. “It gives me some new insight,” she says with a giggle.

The tour, which has been running since 2002, grew out of information uncovered by those researching tours given by the Haunted Walk company. “We kept coming across bits that were absolutely hilarious or just bizarre, that a modern person would be very shocked to find out,” says tour founder and director Glen Shackleton.

Each tour takes its stories from archives, old newspapers and interviews with historians. Employees sift through reams of material searching for juicy tidbits in the city’s past which are later compiled into what is heard en route.

Shackleton says he’s just trying to combat Ottawa’s “unfair reputation” as a sleepy city with a staid past. “Many of our greatest leaders were some pretty oddball characters,” he says with a chuckle.

 
 
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