Dunsmuir Wills and the Lusitania

Jenny Seeman
James Boy Dunsmuir at Willows Fairgrounds

For the genealogists among us, it might not be news that many wills and probates are available for research at the provincial archives. What might not be so commonly known is that they are also freely available online through

A search for the Dunsmuirs will reveal Robert Dunsmuir’s will written in 1887 in which he designates his wife Joan to be his sole heir. This will was strongly contested by his sons James and Alex, who believed they were entitled to inherit the family business for which they had worked all their lives. Perhaps oddly, given the notorious family squabbles, James’ own will written in 1917 also hands the entire family fortune over to his wife, Laura, leaving her to manage the vast Hatley Park Estate and to ultimately decide the division of assets upon her death. Laura’s will is very detailed, running to 15 pages, and dictates not only how monies should be divided among family and designated charities, but also how staff would continue to be compensated. She also foresaw the eventual need to auction off furniture and other household items, giving John Graham, the long-time family friend and property manager, permission to do so as necessary. While her daughters were to receive her personal items such as jewels and clothing, any furniture they wished to retain had to be purchased from the estate.

The most poignant will I came across from the Dunsmuir family was that of James “Boy” Dunsmuir. Boy was a keen horseman and had won several show jumping awards. It came as surprise to no-one when the war began that James signed up to join the 2nd Canadian Mounted Regiment, which was based in Victoria. However, he quickly grew frustrated with the lack of military action on the Pacific west coast.

Lieutenant James "Boy" Dunsmuir on his horse, Kismet, shortly before he left Victoria in April, 1915.

As is known to many people, May 7 marks the 101st anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. Anxious to join the war effort, Lieutenant Dunsmuir had booked passage on the ill-fated liner, which left New York on May 1, 1915. He had resigned his commission with the 2nd CMRs and had joined the Royal Scots Greys, an experienced cavalry regiment which was bound to see action at the front. A hastily written will, dated April 23rd, 1915 shows the passion Boy felt for his horses and the people at Hatley Park who looked after them.

In the will, he bequeaths $2,000 to Frederick Mann, coachman at Hatley Park, and a further $2,000 to John Jamieson, the footman. He appoints his father as executor of his will and leaves it to him to disperse the remainder of his assets. James Dunsmuir Sr. was heartbroken at the loss of his son, and for a long time could not accept that he was really gone. He had intended for Boy to take on the responsibilities of the family estate and the devastating loss he felt explains in part why he was unable to make any other plan for the future of Hatley Park. It is said that Laura also refused to believe Boy had died when the Lusitania sank (his body was never recovered) and forever more expected him to walk through the doors to the Hatley Park home. Hope that he would return is evidenced by the fact that the will was not dealt with until December of 1916. 

The will written by Boy Dunsmuir in 1915

James Dunsmuir's will, on file at BC archives and available online.

If you would like help finding family history online, or if you want more information about the Dunsmuirs, please contact Jenny Seeman in the archives by email or on extension 4122.