Dundurn Castle

Saturday, February 23, 2019

This post is technically GTHA (Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area) as it takes us to Hamilton.  For those who live in the west end of the GTA, Hamilton is only a short drive and it shares some of our War of 1812 and Rebellion of 1837 history.  Dundurn Castle is linked to both.  The property originally belonged to Richard Beasley who owned it from the early 1800’s.  It then belonged to Allan MacNab from 1833 until 1862 when he died.  The 1877 map below shows it as Donald McInnes who bought it in 1872.  When he was finished with it in 1899 it was given to the City of Hamilton.

Dundurn Map

When Richard Beasley’s farm was commandeered during the war of 1812 the military built earthworks to hide their canon behind.  Burlington Heights gave a great view out over the bay and was a strategic point at the western end of Lake Ontario.  Since the war, maple trees have been planted down both sides of the berm and the area has become known as maple walk.

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In 1833 Allan MacNab bought the Beasley property and started to build his own estate home on the site.  He believed the future should be built on the foundations of the past and so he had the new house constructed to share the basement of the former house.  The house ended up being narrow as a result but is spread over three floors.  The servants lived and worked in the basement except the male servants who were housed separately.  The house was designed so as to impress those who would see it from the bay.  When MacNab brought the railway to Hamilton in the 1850’s he sold the strip of property along the waterfront, cutting himself off from it.

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One interesting building facing the lake is the cockkpit.  It was likely built to give the gentlemen of Hamilton a place to engage in the “sport” of cock fighting.  There is no record that it was ever used for that and may have just provided a conversation piece or a place to escape for awhile.  There was a fashion in the early 1800’s of adding fake Romanesque ruins in the gardens of great houses to make them look more historic.  This building really was abandoned and had fallen into ruin.  A great restoration has been done to return it to a more original state.

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Dundurn had always been intended to be seen from the bay and the rear faced York Boulevard.  Allan MacNab became the Premier of the Canadas between 1854 and 1856, during which time he led a coalition government of moderates.  In 1855 his daughter Sophie was to be wed and so he decided to spice up the home and added a colonnade facing York Boulevard.  MacNab hadn’t referred to his home as a castle until this addition was made.

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MacNab built a dovecove at the castle to raise doves.  These were kept for their eggs and meat and the droppings were collected and used for fertilizer.  It may have been used for doves but it was undoubtedly built to show MacNab’s status as Laird of Dundurn.  The dovecove features a severed head over the doorway, which is the family crest.  It is a reflection on the historic feud with the clan MacNeish.

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The coach house and stables were built of wood and housed the male servants, with the exception of the butler.  He was the only male servant to live in the main house.  The coach house was destroyed by fire and in 1873 the new owner,  Donald, McInnes, built new ones of cut stone.

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Battery Lodge was built on top of earthworks left from the war of 1812 and was in place prior to the Rebellion of 1837.  William Lyon MacKenzie led the rebellion which came to an open battle on Yonge Street at Montgomery’s Tavern.  MacNab was supportive of the Family Compact and gathered men to cross the lake in support of Sir Francis Bond Head.  MacNab led the loyal forces up Yonge Street to engage in the successful battle.  Battery Lodge was later used as a guest house and a home for the live in teacher.  Today it houses the Hamilton Military Museum.

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In preparation for Sophie’s marriage in 1855 the house was upgraded and new gates were erected at the entrance off York Boulevard.  The gates were built for George Rolph who was a prominent reformer and political opponent of MacNab.  It was alleged that MacNab was one of the Tory faithful who tarred and feathered Rolph in 1826.  If so, MacNab likely felt some sense of irony when he passed through the gates.

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The castle gardens were instrumental in helping the house be self sufficient.  Milk was collected and dairy products produced by the servants.  Gardens were laid out to grow food and herbs for use in the kitchen. Plants with medicinal properties were also grown, especially those that would help ease Mary MacNab when she was suffering from what was likely tuberculosis.  Both Sophia and Minnie had their own garden plots to help keep them occupied during their mother’s illness.  The gardens are still operative and a small garden shed stands at the west end of the garden.

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The grounds of Dundurn Castle also feature several historic plaques as well as cannon placements.  Admission to the house is $12 for adults but you can wander the grounds and visit the gift shop for free.

Google Maps link: Dundurn Castle

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