You’ve driven by it countless times. And, you’ve promised yourself that a house this grand, you must visit. Hamilton’s historic Dundurn Castle, set well-back from the hubbub of traffic and noise basks in a green oasis of towering trees and well-tended gardens. It’s Ontario history at its finest.
A step into the former home of nation-builder Alan Napier MacNab is a compelling journey too. It tells of power and political intrigue, untold wealth and privilege. Along the way TOO, you’ll gain glimpses into the lives of the nameless servants who served the rich and powerful of 19th century Canada. So put your New Year’s Day football “bowls” on hold. Tune into Hamilton, Ontario’s answer to Downton Abbey.
Alan Napier MacNab, born in 1798 at Niagara-on-the Lake had earned his stripes in the War of 1812. Called the “Boy Hero,” for his war-time exploits, MacNab went on to become a rich and respected lawyer in the booming pre-Confederation lake town of Hamilton in Canada West.
In 1835, MacNab purchased a large parcel of land overlooking Burlington Bay. He then began construction of a fine manor home for his wife and four children. It would be called “Dundurn,” Gaelic for “strong fort.”
Designed in the elegant Regency architectural style, Dundurn boasted the requisite white stucco over brick exterior, a grand front entrance, flanked by stately columns and wrought-iron upper balconies. But, in a curious nod to practicality, a “dovecote” would be integral to Dundurn’s exterior architecture too. This rooftop structure would house pigeons or doves, providing a readily-obtainable food delicacy.
Dundurn gives a nod as well to the “Picturesque” style of fine manor building– all the rage in England at the time. As such, MacNab’s estate would meld indoors living, with the natural world out-of-doors. Tall windows would invite the natural light in. Multiple French doors would beckon the inside dweller to commune with nature. A sweeping carriageway, passing through imposing stone gates, various footpaths, and a park-like setting of mature trees and formal gardens would complete the “Picturesque” ambiance.
Now let’s see what treasures we find inside Dundurn Castle. We’ll tag along with one of their knowledgeable tour guides, Bridget, as she leads us through the 43 rooms. We won’t forget the servant’s quarters downstairs. As Downton Abbey fans will know, this is where the best stories are found!
Our tour begins in Dundurn’s magnificent drawing room, lavishly-decorated for Christmas. Bridget draws our attention to the Christmas tree sitting on a table. “Christmas trees weren’t a tradition in England until Queen Victoria married her German Prince Albert. He brought the tradition with him when he came to England.”
Gaily-wrapped presents peek from the tree’s branches and Bridget reveals the MacNab tradition of gift-giving.
“On Christmas morning, the family would gather around the tree. The butler would pass to each of the children a silver tray with folded pieces of paper on it. On each paper was a number. It corresponded to the number on one of the presents. And that was theirs.”
A number of portraits grace the walls of Dundurn’s formal drawing room. Bridget points out the likeness of Sophia, one of MacNab’s three daughters. “MacNab’s daughters were desirable catches, even from the “wilds” of Canada and Sophia MacNab caught the eye of a visiting British Earl.”
The couple married at Dundurn, but lived in England. In time, Sophia produced ten children. “One of her descendants is Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, wife of Prince Charles.” Bridget notes that the circle came full several years ago when Camilla and Charles visited Dundurn Castle.
Scenes of playing children were also popular subjects for wall art. “It’s hard for modern folk to know who is a boy and who is a girl in the paintings,’ says Bridget. “Because until the age of 5, Victorian boys wore dresses.” She notes the fashion statement had a functional basis. “Boys were kept in dresses until they were toilet-trained. Dresses were easier to manage than pants.”
Still, the secret to unlock the gender mystery is a simple one, reveals our guide. “Boys had their hair parted on the side; girls’ parts were in the middle.”
Now Up the Grand Staircase
We now pass through Dundurn’s magnificent formal dining room, laid out in sparking crystal and bone china. Next on view is the butler’s cozy bedroom. Unlike Downton Abbey’s Carson, the MacNab’s butler slept on the main floor of the house, apart from the rest of the servants. This was real status.
Our tour has taken us up the sweeping main staircase to the upper-floor family room. Here sits a magnificent rosewood piano, one of several in Dundurn. “This one cost $300, at a time when the cost of a working man’s house was $250,” says Bridget.
It was in this room where the MacNab children would play. One of their favourites was called “The Button Game.” Bridget draws our attention to a plate of flour sitting on a sideboard. “A button was placed on the top of a pile of flour. Each child had to use a spoon to remove a small bit of flour without moving the button. The one who finally made the button fall had to stick their face into the flour and pick up the button with their teeth—no hands.”
The family’s bedrooms are found on Dundurn’s upper floors. Richly-decorated and airy, thanks to the large windows, these rooms must have been frosty when the gales of January blew off Lake Ontario. Much of the heat provided by the home’s 24 stoves and draughty fireplaces surely rose out the roof and through the glass.
A curious bedroom fixture in the master bedroom is the “hip tub.” “Victorians didn’t like to expose their bodies to washing much,” chuckles Bridget. “And the hip tub just got the middle part of their body wet, keeping the upper torso and legs dry.”
The Servants’ Quarters
Ironically, the low, odoriferous and dark basement where the MacNab’s complement of servants worked was surely cozier than the cavernous rooms above. It was no doubt tempting for the MacNab children to go below. “But they were forbidden to enter the servants’ quarters” Bridget says.
In an effort to keep staff “hanky-panky” at bay, females slept in the servants’ quarters; males bunked down in one of the outbuildings. Woolen sox were advised between November and April!
At least 10 staff kept Dundurn humming: the omnipotent butler, a cook and her kitchen staff, footmen, maids, carriage drivers, and grounds-keeping staff. “They worked 7 days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day with little pay,” says Bridget. Most were Irish immigrants, fleeing famine and starvation in “the Old Country.”
Treating the Servants “Too Well”
“But in most cases Dundurn’s servants were better off, working in much better living conditions than most of the working class in other domestic positions,” our excellent tour guide offers. “People criticized Alan MacNab for treating his servants too well.” She points out the painted wooden floors, windows and wallpaper throughout the servants’ quarters as testament to his enlightenment.
In addition to 3 meals a day, and a roof over their heads, each of Dundurn’s servants got 3 glasses of ale daily. “But the cook, especially if she was valued, had unlimited ale. They wanted to keep her happy!” suggests Bridget.
The large kitchen is the centre of Dundurn’s servant’s quarters. A massive wood-burning stove, with various doors and cubbies covers most of the kitchen wall. “The word ‘range’ comes from the notion that a whole range of foods, cooked at different temperatures, and for different lengths of time could be handled by these cook stoves,” says Bridget.
She now points to a row of bells on the wall of the kitchen. “Each of them rings in a different tone. One tone was for the cook; another for the butler; another for the footmen. Staff soon learned what ring was for them.” A series of smaller rooms give clues to the never-ending chores of a 19th century servant. Bridget’s tour takes us past the candle-making room, the laundry, the brewery, the wine cellar, the root cellar, the food storage room and one devoted solely to luggage.
“After all, when the MacNabs went to visit, it was by carriage and took a long time. So they needed to pack many clothes for at least a week or more.” Ladies’ maids handled all clothes preparation and packing.
The dish-washing room was the domain of the scullery maid. She rested at the lowest rung of the servant pecking order. “The word ‘scullery’ refers to sculling, the movement of water,” informs Bridget. “Scullery maids washed, dried and put away dishes 12 hours a day. And if a late formal diner was held, she didn’t go to bed until the last dish was done.”
Fortune continued to shine on Alan Napier MacNab. In later recognition of his role defeating the threat of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion, he was knighted by Queen Victoria. And prior to Confederation he was named Prime Minister of the United Canada East and Canada West. MacNab was integral to the economic development of Hamilton, helping to establish the railway and the first banks.
Dundurn Castle was named a National Historic Site in 1984 and remains open year-round as one of Ontario’s premier tourist attractions.