A restored Victorian mansion in Victoria, British Columbia
portrays upper-class life at the time
and showcases the role the house played in the history of the city
Craigdarroch Castle, a Designated National Historic Site, was built as a stately home for the wealthy Dunsmuir family in the late 1880s. From 1919 to 1979, the house served a variety of purposes, including a hospital, college and music school. Today the house is a museum restored to what it would have looked like in 1890. The museum provides a glimpse into the life of the house at that time. That is fascinating in itself, but what makes this museum even more interesting is that it isn’t just a frozen snapshot of time. Information on how the house was used over the years and the important role it played in the history of Victoria, British Columbia is showcased. It makes the experience of touring the museum feel like a living walk through history.
Robert Dunsmuir was a Scottish immigrant who made a fortune in Vancouver Island coal. Craigdarroch Castle was built between 1887 and 1890. Craigdarroch means “rocky oak place” in Gaelic. The Castle is 25, 572 square feet, including the basement. It had 17 fireplaces and was equipped with gas lighting as well as electric lighting, hot and cold running water, central heating, telephones and a burglar alarm system. The main walls are brick construction faced with sandstone from Dunsmuir’s own quarry.
Robert died in 1889 before the house was completed. He left his entire estate to his wife Joan, who moved into the house in 1890. She and her family lived in the house until her death in 1908.
Panelling in the Main Hall and stairwell is white oak. Other woods used throughout the house include Spanish mahogany, western red cedar and Hawaiian koa. One side of the house served as the family’s home, the other side housed the servants. As I toured the house and imagined life at the time, the television series Downton Abbey kept coming to mind.
A servant’s workday would have been long, up to fifteen hours. No specific records about the life of the Dunsmuir servants have been found, but a sample maid’s day in a similar household in London is displayed. It started at 7 a.m. and was constantly busy until 9:00 p.m. when the maid got her supper before retiring to bed at ten.
Floor stands in the rooms titled Dunsmuirs at Home identify what the rooms would have been used for and describe aspects of the family’s life. In the drawing room, they received guests, pursued the arts and entertained. Drawing rooms were sometimes divided with one side used by the family and the other for family and their guests.
Other floor stands throughout the house entitled Snapshots in History talk about how the house was used after the time of the Dunsmuir residence. From 1919 to 1921, the Castle was used as a military hospital for World War I veterans. It was one of three hospitals in Canada to house “long treatment cases and incurables.” During that time period, the drawing room was a recreation room for patients.
In 1921, Victoria College, an affiliate of Montreal’s McGill College, moved into Craigdarroch Castle with an enrollment of 160 students. During that time, the drawing room was a classroom and dance hall. In 1946, enrollment in the college rose to 600 with returning World War II veterans and the college needed more space. It moved to what is now the Lansdowne Campus of Camosun College. In the 1960s, the College transitioned to become University of Victoria and moved to the new Gordon Head campus.
The Victoria School Board occupied Craigdarroch from 1946 until 1968. The drawing room was used as office space during that time period. The Victoria Conservatory of Music used space within the Castle after the School Board vacated. At the same time, the Society for the Preservation & Maintenance of Craigdarroch Castle (Castle Society) began tracking down original house artefacts and planning for restoration. From 1969 to 1979, the drawing room was used as both a recital and lesson room by the Conservatory and a museum room by the Castle Society. In 1979, restoration began to use the Castle solely as a museum.
Mannequins dressed in period costume, such as the one shown in the Billiars Room above, are placed in rooms throughout the house and help create the atmosphere of the time. During the Castle’s hospital area the Billiards Room was one of the larger patient wards. It was later a classroom and assembly hall for Victoria College.
Displays in one room chronicle the lives of the Dunsmuirs and their eight daughters and two sons. The stories are fascinating and include a theatre career, gambling at Monte Carlo, life in London’s West End and family strife caused when Dunsmuir left his estate to his wife instead of his two sons as he’d once promised.
Craigdarroch Castle has one of North America’s finest collections of Victorian residential stained and leaded glass windows. All but one of the stained glass windows in the building are original. (A window in the drawing room depicting a woman and a swan is a reproduction.)
Craigdarroch Castle was originally a twenty-eight acre estate with numerous paths through gardens and quiet ponds. Today’s grounds are approximately 1.75 acres.
Craigdarroch Castle self-guided tour takes about an hour. Staff are on hand to answer questions. You’ll go through twenty-nine rooms in the Castle.
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Oh so beautiful, Donna! I can’t believe we have not seen the castle during our visits to Victoria. It is definitely on my list now.
Linda, I think you’d enjoy touring the castle.
Stunning place! I expected it to be in Scotland, so was somewhat surprised to find it in Canada. Would love to visit this heritage Craigdarroch Castle one day.
Bex, one doesn’t really expect to find castles in Canada. Although this isn’t a castle in the true definition of one, it looks a bit like one and is well worth visiting.
Craigdarroch Castle reminds me of Casa Loma here in Toronto. Truly a snapshot of history and the wealth of Canada’s early entrepreneurs. What an unusual colour of stone on its exterior…I’ve never seen anything like it!
Michele, I too thought of Casa Loma the first time I saw Craigdarroch. It’s been years since I visited Casa Loma, but I remember it as also being a great place to tour.
Oh too bad we cancelled our trip to Victoria. Somebody asked me how to get to this castle. I will share this post of yours. It has all the details she will ever need to know…and more. Thanks again, Donna!
Carol, I love visiting Victoria. I hope your friend gets to and enjoys Craigdarroch.
It occurs to me looking at these wonderful photographs that I could care less about touring the house of a contemporary rich person–like say Oprah invited a tour. Eh, not so much. But these vintage homes are entirely different and positively enticing. it looks like Craigdarroch is a very well done museum. Hope I get to see it some day!
Rose Mary, the way Craigdarroch has been restored and is exhibited to the public gives visitors a good sense for life at the time. I also appreciated finding out the history of the house over the years.
I remember hearing about Craigdarroch Castle when I was in Victorian a while back. I had no idea it has such a spectacular interior! It’s been moved to the top of my to-do list for next time I’m in town.
Carole, it is pretty spectacular inside – well worth being near the top of the list when visiting Victoria.
Thx for this interesting post on Craigdarroch Castle, Donna. I’ve not been there. The white oak is really impressive! Don’t think I’d like to live in a place with all this steep stairs, though.
Doreen, definitely lots of stairs. All the different woodwork was really impressive.
Visiting the Castle feels like walking back in time. What a beautiful house museum!
Irene, it is a bit of a step back in time. It was fun to imagine living there.
Craigdarroch Castle would be worth a visit if just for the lovely stained glass windows. They look quite beautiful.
Lyn, yes the windows were stunning.
I love touring old homes like this. At over 25,000 square feet, it definitely qualifies as a castle! I haven’t been to Vancouver so will keep it in mind whenever I make it there! There is so much to see in this area!
Debbra, Craigdarroch certainly felt like a castle to me. It is actually in Victoria on Vancouver Island, which is an hour and forty-five minute ferry ride from Vancouver on the mainland. Both cities (Vancouver and Victoria) are beautiful cities to visit if you ever get the chance.
Oh, I love learning about places like these and I really enjoyed your virtual tour, Donna. Craigdarroch Castle is magnificent and the fact that it’s furnished with its original and period pieces makes your pictures even more interesting. Although I can’t imagine how vast the house is, it’s easy to picture a family living there with the china on the table and the sheet music ready to play on the piano. I’d love to visit!
Anita, it was easy to picture the family living at Craigdarroch. The information on how they family used the room really added to that.
If I ever make it back to Victoria, Craigdarroch Castle will definitely be on my itinerary. I really enjoy house museums and imagining how people lived in them. As a Downton Abbey devotee, this particular house is even more of an attraction for me. The time the Castle was used as a rest home for World War I soldiers even parallels the same thing happening at Downton—except the family still lived there—in the Downton story.
Suzanne, I had just recently finished binge watching Downton Abbey (I still have the last season to go) and that was in my mind a lot as I toured Craigdarroch.
Love the Victorian style villas. If I were to choose a different era to live in it would probably be this one. Gorgeous interiors! Thanks for sharing this, Donna.
Thanks Anda. It does look like a great era to live in (providing I was on the family side of the house, not the servant side).
Wow! This castle looks incredible! At first, I thought it was a mansion but it’s a beautiful stunning castle in Canada!
By the way, this castle was also the film location for the 2016 mystery/thriller ‘The Boy’ where the Heelshire’s lived (in the film)
Lucy Ann, I think technically it is a mansion not a castle despite its name. Whatever it’s called, it’s pretty impressive. Apparently there have been a couple of other movies filmed there – the 1994 version of Little Women, Cats & Dogs, and The Doctor’s Case.