Spring Luncheon, May, 2004
At this meeting we had lunch in the restaurant on the grounds of Dundurn Castle in Hamilton, followed by a tour.
Sir Allan Napier MacNab built Dundurn Castle on land he acquired in 1832. He hired Robert Charles Wetherell as his architect and told him to model the mansion after the MacNab family home at the head of Loch Hearn, in Perthshire, Scotland. The name Dundurn Castle means fort on the water. Built at a cost of $175,000, it featured every modern convenience of its time, including such things as the first flush toilet in Ontario, a dumb waiter to carry the food and dishes back and forth between the kitchen and the butler's pantry, and an ablutions room which was equipped with both running water and gas lighting.
The house has 72 rooms, forty of which have been restored back to the way they would have appeared in Sir Allan MacNab's day. As we walked around the house we couldn't help noticing, for all its gas lighting and elaborate chandeliers, how dark the house was, compared to what we are used to. It was even darker downstairs in the servants' quarters. Knowing what we were thinking, the guide pointed at the window in the servants' hall and said that the very fact that there was a window there demonstrates a certain concern on the part of the MacNab family for the well being of their servants. Apparently many house owners were not nearly as generous when it came to the concept of installing windows for the benefit of their servants.
We needed to realize, our guide said, that Dundurn Castle belongs to a time when class distinctions ruled. This was an era where the master bedroom was raised three steps higher than anyone else's, in deference to his position in the household, and where ladies sat behind screens to protect themselves from the glow of the fire in order to maintain that alabaster complexion the upper classes prized so highly. On the other side of the coin, it was also a time when servants were cued by bells to drop whatever they were doing and go immediately to who ever summoned them. It is doubtful the guide commented, if any of the MacNab servants ever went up or down a staircase without carrying something.
The MacNabs paid their butler $12.00 a month in wages and provided him with a room on the first floor right next to the dining room. Among other things, he was responsible for the security of the house. They paid their scullery maid the grand salary of $1.26 a month for her labours. Although both amounts seem like a mere pittance by our standards, even for those days, we had to understand, the guide said, that even that paltry sum of $1.26 the scullery maid received was enough to be of financial benefit to the girl's family.
The MacNabs did not employ any married servants nor did they encourage fraternization between the sexes. They provided their cook with a room beside her kitchen then housed their female servants under her watchful eye. The remaining male servants had to make do in the barn.
Only underclothes were laundered, everything else, all thoes elaborate gowns and coats we picture people back then wearing, were simply spot cleaned and brushed. They must have smelled but then again, the guide reminded us, so did everyone else. Smoking jackets were just that, coats which the gentlemen donned when they retired to the smoking room and library for their evening cigar and glass of port and which they removed when they came out. That way they made sure that none of the ladies of the household ever had to endure the smell of stale cigar smoke.
Gentlemen submerged themselves in cold baths in the ablutions room in order to benefit their health, they thought. However, since a lady's constitution was far too delicate to undergo the rigours of this cold water treatment, the ladies of Dundurn Castle took warm baths in a chair like tub placed in front of the fireplace in their own quarters.
And as for that flush toilet, well, it was hidden away in a cupboard all by itself. The guide said it is very unlikely any of the ladies of the household ever used it. Heaven forbid they should ever be seen coming and going from that room. Why, people would have known what they had been doing.
By Recording Secretary,
Last Updated: January 25th, 2005
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