A life of privilege

James Dunsmuir (1851 to 1920) was a coal baron, industrialist and former premier and lieutenant governor of British Columbia. He's also a controversial figure: he both inherited money and generated enormous wealth in large part on the backs of the marginalized and less powerful.

While his legacy is contentious, Hatley Castle stands today because of James Dunsmuir.

The coal baron's wife

Born Laura Surles in North Carolina in 1858, Laura likely met James Dunsmuir in Virginia, where he was studying mining engineering at the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, the same school where Laura's brother, Hannibal, was enrolled.

There's also the possibility they met in Dundas, Ontario, where Laura attended the Wesleyan Female College and James attended the nearby Wesleyan Boys Institute with Hannibal.

She married Dunsmuir in 1876 at age 18.

Laura was a gracious and popular hostess. She enjoyed welcoming guests to functions and tea parties at Hatley Castle, even through the constraints of Prohibition from 1917 to 1921 and the Great Depression of the '30s.

Community minded, Laura was active with the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire and the Colwood branch of the Women’s Institute. She raised money for charitable projects at garden parties and events.

Thanks to Laura's events, Hatley Castle remained a must on the social scene until her death in 1937.

The children

The Dunsmuirs had 10 children, eight girls and two boys.

Only five of the children lived at Hatley Castle; four were married by the time the house was completed. With more than 20 bedrooms, there was no shortage of space when family came to visit.

Daughters, Kathleen, Muriel, Marion and Dola, along with their brother, James, or Boy as he was affectionately known, lived for a time at Hatley Park.

Tragedy struck the family in 1915 when Boy, anxious to serve in World War I, booked passage on the ill-fated Lusitania. Hopes for a competent male heir to maintain the family estate were lost along with him. The oldest boy, Robin, was technically the heir, but James disowned him after a series of irresponsible actions in business and private life. Where Robin was reckless and wild, Boy was quiet and reliable.

Daily life

The Dunsmuirs had privileged lives. They insisted dinner be served at exactly the same time every day.

Dunsmuir played the role of gentleman farmer while Laura was known as an elegant hostess.

The family enjoyed horseback riding, as well as playing tennis and croquet. The tennis courts and croquet lawn were part of the original Hatley Park design.

Archival photo of Dunsmuirs

Documentary about the Dunsmuirs at Hatley Park

View and download this thirty-minute documentary created by Royal Roads University in 2016.

Watch the documentary
Archival photo of the Dunsmuir family

The Dunsmuir archives

See how the family lived in this collection of more than two thousand photographs and ephemera.

View the online archive