The Dunsmuir Family

When James Dunsmuir purchased Hatley Park from Roland Stuart in 1907, he was British Columbia’s Lieutenant-Governor, and had also been Premier of the province. Son of the wealthy coal baron, Robert Dunsmuir, James is said to have demanded of the architect Samuel Maclure: “It doesn’t matter what it costs, just build me what I want.” What Dunsmuir envisioned was a working farm with a dairy, piggery, stables, grazing and hunting lands, and at the centre of it all, a grand home for his wife to entertain Victoria’s high society and for James to enjoy the life of a country gentleman. The house was built in an unimaginably quick 18 months, and James resigned from his position as Lieutenant-Governor in December of 1909 ready to take up residence in his retirement home in 1910. He lived there until his death in 1920. His wife, Laura, lived there until her death in 1937.

With the home built, the Dunsmuirs gave more detailed attention to the formal gardens and other buildings on the property. Designed by Brett and Hall, Landscape Architects, the Italian Gardens to the west of the house were completed in 1913 and the stables and mews were completed in 1914. The gradient of the lawn at the front of the house was altered to improve the transition between buildings and forest fringes, and the Neptune Stairs led up from the porte cochère at the front of the house to the “Fountain Court” with Neptune’s statue as the centrepiece. Construction of the farm and service buildings around Hatley Park continued well into the mid-1910s.

The census of 1911 lists over 100 people resident on site. James and Laura were considered fair employers, although James was known to be a rigid timekeeper and insisted on dinner being served at exactly the same time every day. Their cook, known as Ah Hoy, stayed in their service for 50 years. Some maids and staff, such as the butler, William Packe and the governess, Fanny Easom, would have lived in the castle with the family while many others lived in the various buildings around the estate. The head coachman and chauffeur had homes at the stables and garage and the head gardener, Philip Hayward, had a home near the conservatory. Estate manager, John Graham lived in the gatehouse now situated in Belmont Park. The many Chinese labourers employed on the estate lived in a self-contained community within the property and some distance from the main residences.

Not all of James and Laura’s ten children lived at Hatley Park as several were married by the time the house was completed. With more than 20 bedrooms in the home, there was no shortage of space when family came to visit and for those that lived there, glorious sea views were available from every room. Dola, the youngest daughter, was 7 when they took up residence and had the bedroom nearest the nurse’s room at the south east corner of the second floor. Beautiful pink Rookwood tiles surrounded the hob-grated fireplace in her room. The next youngest daughters, Kathleen, Muriel and Marion, along with their brother, James, or Boy as he was affectionately known, also lived for a time at Hatley Park. Tragedy struck the family in 1915 when Boy, anxious to join the war effort, booked passage on the ill-fated ship, the Lusitania. His body was lost at sea, and the hopes for a competent male heir to maintain the family estate along with him.

Laura was a gracious and popular hostess and continued to hold many functions and tea parties even after James’ death. She was active with the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire and also with the local Colwood branch of the Women’s Institute. Through garden parties and other events held at Hatley Park, funds were raised for many worthwhile projects. When her children came to visit, they were encouraged to do their entertaining at one of the other nearby Dunsmuir properties as Laura found them too raucous in her later years. Despite the Depression and Prohibition of the 1930s, Hatley Park was still a must on the social scene.