Historical research – a wealthy 1800s estate

While I love doing research online for historical authenticity — let’s face it, I could get lost for hours — there’s nothing to beat actually visiting a historic site to give a writer all the fine nuances of life on a grand estate. To that end, hubby and I spend some time at the locally-famous Dundurn Castle, taking an organized tour with an excellent docent. Luckily, photography inside was allowed (barring the use of a flash or videos), so I can share a few tidbits with you. (Long Read)

To begin with, the house is currently lit to the same degree that it was when the castle was in it heyday with gas fixtures, i.e. the equivalent of 15 watts in electrical lighting. Dundurn has big windows that let in a fair bit of light, but it did make photography a little challenging. What you’ll be looking at is the lighting level the wealthy residents and staff would have spent their days with. I liked it, actually — I don’t like bright lights myself and keep our home illuminated gently.

One of the beautiful old fixtures in the house

The house covers 18,000 square feet but has an intimate feel to most of its forty rooms. There’s a lovely sweeping staircase in the foyer, but not nearly as elaborate as a similar fixture in some of the great houses in England, for example.

The flooring is made of pretty tiles from Minton pottery in England. We were told that they still produce these tiles, although Minton itself eventually became part of Royal Doulton, which was then taken over by Waterford-Wedgwood. The walls are all plaster painted to look like marble, which (from other mansions we’ve toured) was a common technique at the time.

Dundurn Castle was the home of Sir Allan Napier MacNab, who as a teenager fought in the War of 1812. He eventually became a lawyer, a railway magnate, and Premier of the United Canadas from 1854-1856. In an interesting modern connection, Sir Allan was the great, great, great grandfather of Queen Camilla — one of his daughters, Sophia, married an English Viscount, and linked her family to British aristocracy through the ensuing generations.

The two ‘grandest’ rooms of the manor they lived in are the parlour and the formal dining room. They’re meant to be impressive, but still have a nice feel to them.

The very pink parlour, right down to the elaborate and expensive chandelier, still looks like a comfortable place to gather before dinner
The formal dining room — picture an elegant dinner with a cozy feel to it from the mellow colours and candle light

But these large rooms were expensive to heat, and when the family was alone they used much more intimate rooms. They spent their days in the Small Parlour, about the same size as our modern living rooms..

Their personal dining room could be mistaken for one the servants would have used, very simple and unprepossessing.

Nevertheless, meals were sent up from the kitchen to the large Butler’s Pantry, where the food was carved and prepped for serving. The huge cabinet in the photo below is actually the dumb-waiter, which at least saved the servants from lugging all the food up the stairs from the basement.

Also on the ground floor of the house were a small library and what looks to be a small ‘smoking’ room just off it. All of the bedrooms, along with a couple of shared bathrooms, are on the second floor. We were shown a sampling of them. Most of them ranged off a large landing area.

This is a typical bedroom below.

There was a special children’s suite, with bedrooms, a play area, and a room for the governess (for some reason, (WordPress will not upload the photo of the governess’ room, but she must have had high status judging by the quality of her chamber.)

A daughter’s bedroom
The children’s play room

Dundurn was rather luxurious with a brace of nice bathtubs, for which the servants had to haul hot water up the stairs to fill.

The ‘privy’, aka flushing toilet, was housed in a different room to keep its ‘bad vapours’ (likely germs as well as smells) away from the sleeping areas. In most other homes at the time the privy was in a separate building outside (very chilly in winter)

Another room included on the tour was a guest chamber that could also double as a sick room for isolating the ill person from the rest of the household.

Although people didn’t know exactly what caused common illnesses like cholera, they recognized that proximity spread the germs. Unfortunately, the less well-off had no way to isolate their sick members, and diseases could spread quickly through the household — one of those fascinating differences between the classes that you wouldn’t even consider unless a docent explains it to you.

One feature of our tour through the basement level of the big house really struck us: the entire level was devoted to making the lives of the family pleasant. Having said that, the servant areas, apart from their sleeping quarters, were surprisingly roomy and agreeable. Look at the big, light-filled kitchen:

The Cook and her helpers prepared seven meals a day: four for the family (breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner), and a separate three for the servants (no time for tea). It sounds like they were run off their feet from sun-up to sun-down. Food was originally cooked, when the house was first built, on a wood-burning open hearth (not shown off to the left), but eventually a luxurious wood-burning stove was added. I was certainly envying those gorgeous copper pans!

Another delightful feature was a large sink with drain, accompanied by a small water pump right in the house. While that may seem primitive to our modern eyes, it allowed the Cook to have running water at her fingertips without having to haul it in from an outside well. (You can see the pump on the right of the sink below)

There was a fair-sized creamery room (you’ll notice the butter-churn on the left)…

… right next to a massive ice chamber that held seven tons of ice brought up from Lake Ontario once the waters froze with approaching winter. What an enormous and back-breaking task that must have been.

The house had its own brewery; beer often replaced possibly tainted water during cholera outbreaks, and no doubt made a refreshing summer beverage.

There was a roomy scullery (where the youngest servant washed up all the pots and dishes), and several storage rooms for comestibles and equipment.

A rather romantic-looking laundry room was added to the mansion a few years after the War (of 1812), enclosing a courtyard where munitions had been prepared for battles. While all the undergarments and linens look pretty in their vintage white entities, no doubt it was tiring work keeping the family properly outfitted and the linens pressed for social gatherings.

Abutting onto the laundry is the original munitions storage room, left as is for visitors to marvel at as a relic from a war that no one really won, but that put the finishing touches on American independence from Britain. You can find out a lot more about the War of 1812 at the Military Museum on the site (included in the tour fee).

While the sleeping quarters for the servants were tiny (about the size of a small modern bathroom with mainly just a bed in them), they had a generous eating and sitting area for what little free time they had.

You can see a big difference in architectural refinements between the tiled and carpeted floors of the two family levels and the brick-floored hallways in the basement. Nevertheless, we had the distinct impression that being in service in this house, where you had a warm roof over your head, three meals a day and decent living/working spaces might not have been the worst way to earn a living.

Exploring the grounds of the large estate, I found them a little puzzling. They didn’t seem to have been set up for entertaining, as you’d expect for such a prominent and wealthy political figure. Below you can see the rear of the house, with only a small columned terrace to step out on.

The lawns are sweeping (seen in the lead photo for this post), but there’s just a small allee of trees leading strollers along a rough path to the cliff overlooking the water.

Looking out from the top of the hill, you can see the rail line that MacKay had installed, bringing trains to Hamilton.

There are no formal gardens for the family and guests to have enjoyed, interestingly. However, there’s a large kitchen garden that still yields quite a bit of produce and that can be strolled at your leisure.

Plantings include everything from flowers to vegetables, including some that aren’t very popular in today’s cuisine, like the gigantic cardoon plant below.

Appropriately-costumed gardeners use their skills to grow the wide variety of plants, which are either used for special events like historical cooking demonstrations or donated to the Emergency Food Department of Hamilton’s Neighbour to Neighbour Centre.

All in all, the tour was a fun and fascinating look into life at the time, both for a leading family of the era as well as their servants. If I was of a mind to incorporate such a family into one of my novels, I now have a pretty good feel for their daily lives.

Dundurn National Historic Site is open Tuesday to Sunday from noon to four p.m. only. The interiors can only be seen through a guided tour, which takes about an hour (during which there’s plenty of time to both explore and take photos), so do leave yourself enough time to take one. Some time slots fill up quickly, but tickets can be arranged in advance online.

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