The Dunsmuirs were the most famous and notorious family in B.C. history. Due to greed and mean-spirited squabbling amongst themselves, they went "from shirtsleeves to shirtleeves" after Scottish-born coal baron Robert Dunsmuir amassed one of the largest fortunes in Western Canada.

As the great-grandson of Robert Dunsmuir, and the eldest grandson of former Lieutenant Governor James Dunsmuir, James Audain upset the family by writing a fairly mild family history--compared to what might have been written--called Coal Mine to Castle: The Story of the Dunsmuirs of Vancouver Island (New York: Pageant Press, 1955).

Audain continued in a somewhat revelatory mode with his book about 'problem drinkers' entitled Courage to Change (New York: 1960). Audain's My Borrowed Life (Gray's Publishing, 1962) is an autobiography dealing with his alcoholism, supplemented with material on both the author's parents' families. He also self-published Alex Dunsmuir's Dilemma (Victoria: Sunnylane Publishing, 1964), about his great-uncle Alexander.

Printed by Mitchell Press in Vancouver, Alex Dunsmuir's Dilemma recounts Alex Dunsmuir's upbringing in Nanaimo, his scandalous life in San Francisco and some of the secrets of Dunsmuir House in Oakland, California--a mansion built as a gift for the love of his life, Josephine Wallace, a divorced woman and the mother of the Hollywood actress Edna Wallace Hopper. His California castle was also built to rival his father's Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, designed by Portland architect Warren Heywood Williams and valued at $15-$20 million U.S. dollars in 1888. Craigdarroch in Gaelic means "rocky, oak place." A central character in the family saga is the dowager widow Joan Dunsmuir "whose wrath and disapproval her son so feared" that Alex Dunsmuir only found the courage to marry Josephine Wallace 40 days prior to his own death.

After Robert Dunsmuir died in 1889--never having lived in the castle on his 28-acre property overlooking Victoria--his sons James and Alex were stunned to learn they had inherited nothing. They had worked for their father for two decades on the promise that one day the business would be theirs. It took seven years of wrangling with their mother before they could gain separate control of the family's California operations; then another three years before they could purchase the Wellington colliery. With that purchase, Alex Dunsmuir was finally ready to defy his mother's wishes and marry his live-in companion for 20 years, Josephine Wallace. He died on their honeymoon in New York in 1900. More dissension arose. With Alex Dunsmuir's brother James in control of his estate, at a time when James Dunsmuir was also Premier of British Columbia, Alex Dunsmuir's mother and Edna Hopper, daughter of John Wallace, became legalistic allies when they filed a lawsuit to gain shares of the Alex Dunsmuir estate. The rift between James Dunsmuir and his mother lasted until he relented and made an unexpected appearance at her burial in 1908, at which time he broke down and wept.

Joan Dunsmuir left her Estate, including Craigdarroch Castle, to her five surviving daughters, one son-in-law and three of her grandchildren. The contents of the Castle were sold during a three-day auction. It briefly served as a military hospital after World War One, then became home for Victoria College from 1921 to 1946 by which time enrollment reached 600. Purchasers of the property back in 1929, the Victoria School Board took over use of the over-crowded facilities until 1968. Formed by James K. Nesbitt in the late 1959s, the Society for the Preservation & Maintenance of Craigdarroch Castle joined with the Victoria Conservatory of Music, formed in 1964, co-lease the Castle until 1979. The City of Victoria and the renamed Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society have since converted the facility in a museum to appear the way it was when Joan Dunsmuir took up residence in 1890. Its a designated National Heritage Site.

James Audain was born in Bournemouth, England in 1903. Educated at Wellington and R.M.C. Sandhurst, he became a cavalry officer. He lived on Vancouver Island for much of his life, serving as president of the Craigdarroch Castle Society and the Victoria and Islands branch of the Canadian Authors Association. He was also a breeder of thoroughbred racehorses.

From Coalmine to Castle: the Story of the Dunsmuirs of Vancouver Island (New York: Pageant Press, 1955)

Alex Dunsmuir's dilemma (Victoria: Sunnylane, 1964)

My Borrowed Life (Sydney: Gray's Publishing, 1962)

Courage to Change the Things We Can (New York: Pageant Press, 1960)

[BCBW 2010] "Industry"