Collecting oral history

Jenny Seeman
Chauffeur Charles Sherwin in Packard Sedan

As part of the Dunsmuir film project, I had the opportunity recently to spend the day on campus with a fascinating man who spent the first nine years of his life at Hatley Park. Moving here in 1929, his father was hired to be the chauffeur to Mrs. Dunsmuir. While the doyenne of Victoria society was not as active in her final years, the chauffeur, Charles Sherwin, was kept busy running errands, driving Mrs. Dunsmuir around the estate, and tinkering with the cars in the excellently equipped machine shop that was in the south-west corner of the Mews. As a young boy, Ian Sherwin, along with his brother and other children who lived on the estate, could roam wherever they pleased, play in the endless acres of forest and float toy boats along the shoreline. At the mouth of Colwood Creek, Ian described in detail how a concrete dam stemmed the flow of water from the creek and created a sandbar on the lagoon. Here, as a toddler, Ian taught himself to swim by wading just a little too far out into the water and then paddling himself frantically back to shore. He also described how his toy boats frequently found themselves in trouble on the rocky beach adjacent to the Dunsmuir boathouse. Boats were kept raised out of the water and locked in there by means of a wooden portcullis, he said, just in case of theft.

With a twinkle in his eye as he revisited the dairy and farm buildings, now CEDAR Building, he remembered driving the heifers up the hill and past the great orange tiled silo. Knowing the individual personalities of all the cows, he knew which ones he could grab the tail of to get a ride up the hill. His brother and the farmer’s son, Dickie Cockburn, even rode on the cows’ backs once or twice, but Ian was still too little (or too wise) to try that! The dairy was designed with every modern convenience and the consideration for the animals’ wellbeing was obvious, even to a small boy. Comfort of the animals was always a priority, he said, and it was the type of farm every farmer wished he could have, if only he had the money. The stalls for the cows were laid with oiled Douglas fir blocks covered in straw for the comfort of the cows. When the cows were ready to be milked, yokes would lock into place keeping the cows steady. At the pull of a lever, all the cows could be released at once – a safety feature in case of fire. While machinery existed at that time to milk cows, the milking at Hatley Park was always done by hand, as it was considered less stressful for the animals. A conveyor belt, or monorail system, carried the filled milk containers to the dairy, where refrigeration and separating machines would create skimmed milk and cream. Some of the milk would be sold locally, but residents on the estate, including the chauffeur’s family, could enjoy a limitless supply of fresh cold milk. An abattoir existed under the dairy, which was in frequent use and fascinating to a child’s eyes.

The dairy building

Two large Clydesdale horses did the bulk of the farm work and they lived in the barn or else roamed free in the cleared land to the north. Later, when Ian attended school in Colwood, during his morning walk up the Dogwood Road (now West Campus Road), he would be constantly alert to the sound of thundering hooves heading down to the farm where the horses were to begin their day’s work. You would not want to get in their way, he chuckled.

Describing the comforts of his home next to the garage, Ian pointed to his parents’ bedroom window and the maid’s room next door. He and his brother had rooms facing onto the quadrangle and across to the stables. I was surprised to hear that even the staff at Hatley Park had their own servants, and although this was somewhat unusual, as Ian’s mother was not well, residents of the estate did enjoy a comfortable life, largely sheltered from the troubles of the depression years. The estate may not have brought in much money but the people that lived there were well cared for and lacked nothing.

Ian has fond memories of Laura Dunsmuir. She was always pleased to see him and he was allowed into the castle to chat with her on occasions. She was very regal, he said, but had a warm and motherly nature and genuinely enjoyed having children around. He had very little contact with other Dunsmuir family members, although he does remember standing under the porte cochere and hearing the sound of Elinor playing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” on the piano in the drawing room.

Laura Dunsmuir

These stories are immensely valuable to the archives. Oral histories are a wonderful way to learn about the perspectives of individuals who might not otherwise appear in the historical record. Personal reflections help us to gather details about daily life and record different kinds of information to that which appears in documentary evidence. Through oral history, you can learn about the hopes, feelings, aspirations, disappointments, family histories, and personal experiences of the people interviewed.

I learned a lot about Hatley Park from Ian Sherwin, and about the perspective of a child being brought up in what he described as the most elaborate kindergarten in the world!

The Dunsmuir film project is ongoing, and will tell the story of Hatley Park and the family that occupied and developed the estate from 1908-1939. The archives is working with Asterisk Productions to have a finished product available in late spring.

If you have any questions or comments, or know of people whose stories should be captured for the archives, contact Jenny Seeman by email or at ext. 4122.