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A Father’s Cherished Son, the Lusitania and a Graphophone for Mourning:
The Story of Lieutenant James Dunsmuir, Junior

This is the story of the wealthiest, most powerful economic family in British Columbia, the catastrophic event that ended a dynasty and the role that a Columbia Graphophone played in mourning the loss of an heir.

Photograph of seven girls and two boys (Laura and James Dunsmuir's children) taken circa 1897. Of all different ages, seated for a family portrait in front of a studio backdrop, from left to right, Marion, Elinor, Robin, Maye, Boy (James), Marie, Kathleen, Byrdie and Bessie

The Dunsmuir Family and Their New Castle

As a child growing up in Victoria, I was always interested in the Dunsmuir family history. My great grandfather Benjamin Ira Westwood, who pioneered Nanaimo, used to go hunting and fishing with Robert Dunsmuir, who was a poor Scottish mineral prospector for the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was Robert who would discover the Wellington coal seam – the richest source of coal on the west coast of North America. His mining ventures would eventually make him the wealthiest tycoon in B.C., later building Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria as a testament to his massive wealth. Robert had two sons and a number of daughters. This is the story of Robert’s second son James, who became the family member responsible for the management and care of the Dunsmuir investment interests and fortune after his father’s death.

James Dunsmuir with his son William James "Boy" Dunsmuir, circa 1898

James and Laura Dunsmuir’s 11th child, christened James, also known as Boy, was born in 1894. (1) Growing up, young James, Jr., had a great passion for horses and became a very skilled equestrian. James Senior would divest from his railway and mining interests and Boy was identified as the third Dunsmuir generation to oversee the capital as the family trustee, protecting the Dunsmuir fortune in safe investments.

Preparing to retire from public view, James Senior began to plan for his new retirement residence. Taking a page from his father Robert, in 1908, he hired the prominent architect Samuel Maclure to design and construct for the Dunsmuirs a new family retirement home, Hatley Castle. Maclure was tasked to design and construct a house that would serve both James' and Laura's needs. James wanted the exterior to look like a medieval castle to provide refuge from the business world where he could spend time fishing, hunting and playing the role of a gentleman farmer. Laura wanted living spaces inside to provide sufficient room for lavishly entertaining, like the design of Government House. Dunsmuir instructed Maclure to have the project completed in 18 months and he was to spare no ex- pense in its construction.

The result was a 200’x86’x82’ masterpiece featuring a Norman tower with two Tudor-revival wings on either side. On May 1st, 1910, the Dunsmuirs officially moved in to Hatley Castle, then the largest private residence on the west coast. With the house now completed, James had resigned from his position as Lieutenant Governor in December of 1909 and he was ready to move into his new residence in 1910. He was to live there until his death in 1920. His wife, Laura, died in 1937.

By the time the family moved into Hatley, only six of ten children were still living at home with the family; the four older children were already married. There were four east-wing bedrooms for childrens’ rooms, as was one of the west-wing rooms; the four remaining west-wing rooms were three guest rooms and a dressing room. All of the childrens’ bedrooms boasted sculptured ceilings and lovely views of the gardens and the lagoon. (2)

James Junior’s preparation for war

James "Boy" Dunsmuir on a horse named Kismet, circa 1914

James Junior, had become an accomplished equestrian. He moved to eastern Canada to work in the offices of Sir Thomas Shaughnessy and the Bank of Montreal. He was back on holidays at Hatley when war broke out. Boy volunteered, joining the B.C. Horse, a crack-shot unit made up of mounted militia formed in Vernon out of former cavalry officers who had settled as ranchers in the B.C. interior. (3)

James, Junior, was a member of the second Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMRs), located in Victoria, B.C. and in training for action at the front. He underwent officer training in Saskatchewan and returned to the second CMR as a full lieutenant. Like many young men, Boy was very anxious to see action at the front sooner than later. He realized that he might not ever see action in his current position, providing mounted escort for infantry units as they were paraded through the main streets of Victoria to the CPR docks seeing the various CMRs off on the steamships. Among the groups departing during this time was the 11th CMR (to which my grandfather Edmond Jorre de St. Jorre belonged), which was the first unit to train for 2 years as the CMRs were transitioned to foot infantry which further contributed to delays in deployment by one year. Transitioning became necessary as horses were being annihilated in the modern theatre of war.

Boy realized that his current assigned ceremonial role as an escort and his rank was a factor in delaying his deployment to Shorncliffe, England and then on to action. He decided to resign his commission as lieutenant with the 3rd CMR on April 19, 1915, and not wait any longer for the 3rd CMRs to be called for departure. He subsequently joined a recently formed regiment of the British cavalry called the Royal Scots Greys, in order get to the front sooner. (4)

The marine disaster bringing the US into the arena of war

Lieutenant James Dunsmuir, Junior, circa 1914

To expedite his arrival in England, he bought passage on the RMS Lusitania, the Jewel of the Cunard Line. Cunard flew the Union Jack, which provided a less safe option of travelling than on a liner flying the flag of a neutral country such as the United States. Boy sailed for England from New York and was lost at sea when a German U-boat torpedoed the steamer off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. 1,193 passengers lost their lives in the sinking, including other Victorians.

Despite a formal warning published by the German Embassy on the front page of The New York Tribune, on May 1, 1915, outlining the risk to civilians travelling the English Channel under an Allied flag, Boy and other prospective passengers bought passage despite warnings, only to meet their doom. Cunard officials had convinced worried passengers that there was nothing to be concerned about because, with the Lusitania’s capability of running at 24 knots, they would be able to outrun a submarine. (5)

The sinking of the Lusitania would be the incident that brought the United States into World War I. Ironically, it was thanks to the Americans' patented designs sold to the Germans, when the U.S. was still a neutral country, that enabled them to construct the German U-Boat which sank the Lusitania, with a majority of American civilians aboard. (6) Had Boy Dunsmuir decided to wait longer to see action with his former BC Regiment, he may have survived the war.

Aftermath with loss of Boy and fallout for the Dynasty

The RMS Lusitania, Jewel of the Cunard Line

James Dunsmuir Senior’s hope for a committed heir capable of continuing the Dunsmuir Empire and dynasty was now dashed.

Devastated at the loss of Boy, the family members poured themselves into the war relief efforts, investing a fortune to assist in the support of an Allied victory such as: a) fully equipping an operating theatre in a Paris hospital; b) making substantial donations to the YMCA and the Red Cross; and c) investing half a million dollars in Victory Bonds. (7)

Father James, overcome with sorrow, shut himself into his study each night playing his gramophone. He played a disc of "Where is My Wandering Boy To- night?" until the 78 RPM grooves were practically worn out. (8) People close to James, Senior, stated that he never really recovered from the shock of his beloved Boy’s loss and remained a changed man until his death in 1920. Laura, his wife, would have recurring nightmares about Boy being trapped in the Lusitania wreck below, until her death in 1937.

The Link of a Columbia Machine with the Dunsmuir Family of Hatley Park – Story and Evidence

As a young phonograph and gramophone collector, I admired a Columbia Graphophone Model BNW with an oak horn in great original condition that my friend and collector Peter Stratford purchased back in 1980. At that time, he responded to an ad in the Victoria-Times Colonist and paid a visit to an elderly woman residing in Collwood. As he recalls, the woman lived very close to, likely within walking distance of Hatley Park. She indicated that the Columbia Graphophone came into her family via the Dunsmuirs of Hatley Park fame. This would have likely occurred during the 9-year period between 1929 to 1937. The census of population of 1911 lists over 100 people resident on the Dunsmuir estate. It is likely that one of the employees was gifted the Columbia machine.

Then in 1986, I acquired the machine from Peter Stratford. When visiting Peter back a few years ago, the Columbia machine came up in conversation and with it the linkage to the Dunsmuir family, reminding me of its provenance. I then decided to look more closely at its history and sought the involvement and kind assistance of Bruce Davies, eminent Curator of Craigdarroch Castle.

Although providing some very helpful information for writing this article, we were unable to unearth a definitive piece of documentation or photographic evidence confirming the Dunsmuir origins of the Model BNW.

Columbia BNW sold by Fletcher Brothers, Victoria, B.C. with dealer’s plate

Evidence

In considering the likelihood that the Columbia machine was originally owned by the Dunsmuirs, we know that the woman, from whom the Graphophone was purchased, stated emphatically that her family obtained the machine from the Dunsmuirs. Bruce Davies, Curator of Craigdarroch Castle, was able to confirm that prior to the Maynard and Sons Public Auction of 1939, when the entire contents of Hatley Park were sold upon the passing of Laura Dunsmuir in 1937, some items were known to have been given to former employees. We also know that the elderly woman selling the machine lived within walking distance of Hatley Park and a parent in the Dunsmuir’s employ would have been somewhere in the vicinity of 25 to 30 years old in 1915.

Original Ad for the Columbia "Premier" Type Model BNW – Mahogany Version

The year 1915 marked the last officially documented occasion of a Graphophone in James Dunsmuir’s library/study. The person could have received it as a gift from the family any time from 1929 to 1938, the period between the advent of the electric pick-up gramophones being introduced by the recording industry, to the year prior to the Hatley Estate sale. By the time of the sale, the Columbia Graphophone was no longer listed as part of the house contents for auction, indicating that it had already been given away.

Between 1915 to 1928/29, it can reasonably be assumed that the Columbia machine remained in the library/study since acoustic recordings remained the industry standard until 1928-1929, when audio shifted to electrically-recorded discs. Prior to 1928/29, the Dunsmuirs would have had no incentive to upgrade their gramophone at Hatley. The machine was probably upgraded with the acquisition of the Brunswick Electric gramophone and records located in the drawing room, as listed in the 1939 Maynard and Sons Auction listing of the Hatley contents. There was also a GE radio located in the library/study by this time. (9)

We know that when James Dunsmuir commissioned the construction of Hatley Castle, it was completed by 1908 and it was only in 1910 that the Dunsmuir family moved into the castle. Also during this time, one would expect that they acquired any additional items and furnishings to round out the contents for their new home. It so happens that the Columbia Graphophone Model BNW was manufactured by the Columbia Phonograph Company of Chicago, Illinois in 1908 and, as a new model would have first been available for sale to Columbia jobbers that year. It is also known that the Dunsmuirs had a Steinway grand piano in their drawing room and purchased their sheet music from Fletcher Brothers on Government Street in Victoria, B.C. on a regular basis. The Columbia machine in question was also sold at Fletcher Brothers' Victoria store and sold for the princely retail price of $50, so that machine was considered a deluxe high-end model. Only a client of significant means would have been able to afford to purchase this model, given that $50 was equivalent to an entire average monthly salary in 1908.

The memory of Boy’s loss plays on 105 years later

Recently acquiring a copy of the 78-RPM recording of the hymn entitled “Where is My Wandering Boy To-night?”, I was able to commemorate the loss of Boy Dunsmuir on May 7, 2020, on the 105th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. James, Senior’s, Columbia machine yet again was able to mourn the loss of Boy Dunsmuir these many years later.

REFERENCES:

  1. The Dunsmuir Saga, Terry Reksten, Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver, Toronto, 1991, page 232, par 3.
  2. http://hatleypark.ca/our-rich-history/hatley-castle
  3. The Dunsmuir Saga, page 233 par 3.
  4. The Dunsmuir Saga, page 233 par 3.
  5. The Dunsmuir Saga, Page 234, par 2.
  6. War is a Racket, Smedley Darlington Butler, Stellar Classics, U.S.A, 2013, page 23.
  7. The Dunsmuir Saga, Page 235, par 2.
  8. Ibid, par 3.
  9. Dunsmuir Archive Collection. Contact: Bruce Davies, Curator of Craigdaroch Castle, Victoria, B.C: Brochure of the Unreserved Public Auction Sale of the Luxurious House Furnishings of Hatley Park by Maynard and Sons Auctioneers, June 1, 1939.