Jenny Seeman

Collecting memories in Colwood

Royal Roads University expands its museum collection

Colwood looked a lot different a hundred years ago. Hatley Castle was new and one of the few buildings in the area that had electricity.

It was a different time, one that Royal Roads University wants to remember and share with its visitors.

While RRU already has a room in its museum dedicated to the Dunsmuir family and their creation of Hatley Castle and the surrounding grounds, staff are looking to expand the collection.

“We have some really great stuff,” said Jenny Seeman, the university’s museum and archives specialist. But, she added, “we realize there’s a story there that’s not really being told.”

As part of the expansion, the university is working on a historical video to highlight the Dunsmuir family and their time at Hatley Park as a way to make that history more accessible for visitors.

The film will complement previous documentaries RRU has done on its military history. Those films included firsthand accounts of life at the military college, which Seeman said give viewers a feel of what it was like.

“The challenge we have now is we’re going so much further back in time,” she said.

They’ve managed to track down a few people with a connection to the estate when the Dunsmuirs lived there. One man, she said, grew up on site and while his parents were working, he would explore the grounds the way nine-year-old boys do, getting into areas he wasn’t supposed to be in.

It’s stories like those, Seeman and fellow historians are looking for to offer local residents and visitors a fuller picture of what life was like between the early 1900s to the ‘30s and why the grounds look the way they do today.

They also hope descendants of families who lived on the estate may have old photographs and documents to share to help complement those anecdotes.

“If there are stories out there that we don’t know about, now is the time,” Seeman said with a smile, “anything to improve our interpretation of the Dunsmuirs.”

The family had a significant influence on the Hatley Park property at the turn of the 20th century, as well as the province.

The estate is Canada’s best example of an intact Edwardian country estate, said Seeman, noting that it also represents a period of abundance and prosperity unequalled in Canadian history.

With very few alterations, the essence of the gardens as envisioned by the Dunsmuirs and their landscape architects is still very much intact. Since the land is owned by the Department of National Defence, which leases it out, the university is charged with being stewards of Hatley Park National Historic Site. Besides maintaining the roughly 560-acre campus, part of that responsibility is to share its history.

The ultimate goal of this documentary project is to have it play in the university’s museum as a welcoming feature, so when visitors later walk around the grounds, they develop a personal connection with the land.

If you have stories or supporting documents to share, contact Seeman by phoning 250-391-2600 ext. 4122 or email

“We’re always grateful for anything we can get for the collection,” she said.

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