An Archival Moment: The Mews

Jenny Seeman
An Archival Moment: The Mews

The word ‘mews’ is defined as a building that has stables below and living quarters above, usually built around a courtyard, although the term can also apply to the street or alley onto which the stables would have opened. Naturally, the need for such accommodation dwindled with the rise of the motor car and many such buildings were converted to multi-unit houses. The example of a mews here at Royal Roads wonderfully straddles the transitional time period between horse powered transport and the popularity of the motor car, with stables on one side of the building and an extensive garage on the other. 

The garage in use.

The landscape architects Brett and Hall were hired by the Dunsmuirs after they had moved to Hatley to make some improvements to the overall landscaping and layout of the estate. The stables and garage were designed for Brett and Hall in 1913 by an associate architect, Howland S. Chandler. The construction of the stables and garage is of hollow tile block and the gables are finished in half timber, in keeping with the main house. The stable, garage and quarters for the head coachman and chauffeur were all under one roof, the building forming three sides of a quadrangle. On the left side of the quadrangle were stables with generously sized stalls for eight horses. The floors were concrete overlaid with cork brick for the comfort of the horses. At the far end of the stables, doors provided convenient access to a manure pit below. At the front of the building, the coachman’s home was well laid out with central heating, birch hardwood floors, and four bedrooms and bathroom upstairs. A doorway from the kitchen led directly into a washroom for the horses. 

The coachman's home is on the left.

On the right side of the quadrangle, a machine shop and large garage opened out onto the west side of the building. The chauffeur’s home was a mirror copy of the coachman’s home on the other end of the building and above the garage was additional accommodation for male help, consisting of four large bedrooms connected by a long hallway. The central portion of the building consisted of a carriage room decorated in maple and birch, a saddle and harness room decorated with Douglas fir, a room for harnessing, a separate area for hitching horses and carriages, as well as space for cloakrooms and storage of personal items. A grass and gravel courtyard formed the centre of the quadrangle with a gated entrance opening onto the road.

When the estate was purchased in 1940 by the federal government, it was quickly converted to a naval training establishment. By 1941, the stables had been converted into classrooms and a gunnery school. Some accommodation was also still provided here for single male staff.

The gunnery school and second floor accommodation for Able Seamen.

For a short period up to 1953, the garage was used to house a two vehicle fire hall, providing service to the new naval accommodations in Belmont Park until a purpose built fire hall could be constructed. In the basement there were civilian workshops for use by the college, and staff from the Esquimalt naval base.

In 1964, the stable building, now known as Building 4, or the Mess Decks, was changed again into a new recreational facility with a bar, games room and lounge areas. In 1977, a development plan was submitted to enlarge the college facilities. Improvements took place across the Royal Roads site and as part of the plan, Building 4 was converted to a social centre for cadets and non-commissioned officers. The building included a ballroom at the site of the former stables, a solarium, games rooms, lounges and a television room.

In 1995, Royal Roads Military College was closed and Royal Roads University opened. The former recreation space became a conference centre known as The Mews.

Can you identify these objects?

They are riding saddle and bridle brackets recently donated to the museum here at Royal Roads University. The brackets were originally mounted in the stables at Hatley Park and would have been used by the Dunsmuir family. The brackets were made by the famous J. L. Mott Iron Works in New York and were of the highest quality available. The 1892 stable fittings catalogue from the company shows this exact set and provides the following description of the product: “English Ventilating Harness Brackets. Frame works of Japanned iron, or polished brass or bronze, with polished mahogany or solid rubber cappings… These are the most improved Harness and Saddle Brackets now made. In addition to their handsome appearance, they combine the strength of iron with the advantage of wood or rubber, and soon save their cost by the preservation of the harness, etc.” The cost for these two items? In 1892, the mahogany saddle bracket was $5.25 and the bridle bracket was $1.25!

If you would like further information about the historical use of buildings at Royal Roads University, contact Jenny Seeman in the archives, or call ext. 4122.