The Haves and Have-Nots, Past and Present
(see Part 1 of our Victoria Ramble posted on Feb. 20)
On the second day of our very rainy and blustery Valentine’s getaway to Victoria, Thor and I again borrowed hotel umbrellas and ventured out on foot. Our guidebook listed a couple of sites within walking distance from the harbor, so we first headed uphill toward Craigdarroch Castle, actually an elaborate Victorian-style mansion built by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir in the 1880s. In our recent trip to England, we’d enjoyed touring some of the fabulous mansions such as Blenheim Palace that featured rooms maintained with antique furnishings, paintings, and costumes of the Edwardian era, so looked forward to this colonial version. And Thor had become very interested in the “Downstairs” inhabitants of these extravagant dwellings, reading up on the lives of the servant class. (Recommended reading: Servants, a Downstairs History of Britain, by Lucy Lethbridge.)
Along the way, we stopped to see the Gothic-style Christ Church Cathedral.
A park across the street, however, was what caught our attention. A hodgepodge collection of tarps, tents, and crates filled the park with improvised shelters.
Then we saw these signs posted:
We asked two locals walking by to explain what was happening, and they filled us in on the recent history of homeless-rights movements in the area. Apparently a new ruling allowed people to camp in public parks, and this camp had sprung up to champion more rights for the homeless. It also seemed to promote a new social order and economic reforms, in some ways similar to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. In our town of Bellingham, WA, a similar camp in our downtown had recently promoted education and change, but had been dismantled due to nuisance and hygiene issues and damage to the park. We, like so many towns and cities, face a growing crisis of homelessness, and so far don’t have many solutions. And, of course, the growing inequality of wealth is again a hot topic with the election cycle spinning madly along.
Walking on past many large, showy mansions toward Craigdarroch Castle, we pondered the truism: The more things change, the more they stay the same. It seems the rich will always rise on the backs of the struggling workers, despite the ideals of our “new world” democracies. Walking past the camp, I had felt a little uncomfortable with our splurge weekend staying at a luxury hotel, not our usual lifestyle. In the past, I’ve been close to homelessness at various junctures (such as living in a tent for 6 months with no electricity or running water), but always felt I had possibilities. I hope that we as a society can find more possibilities for people in need.
So, on to the “castle”:
Robert Dunsmuir, born in Scotland, built his fortune by developing coal mines and went on to become the wealthiest man in British Columbia. He started construction on his showpiece mansion in the 1880s, but died before its completion. His widow, children, and some orphaned grandchildren lived there before the mansion went through various reincarnations as a hospital, college, and now museum open to the public.
Crammed with expensive furnishings, paintings, vases, custom woodwork, seventeen fireplaces, and inlaid tables holding knickknacks, the mansion felt oppressive to me, rather dark and stifling.
It was situated on a hilltop with supposedly amazing views of surrounding sea and mountains (obscured that day by gray clouds), but seemed to pull in on itself with small, stained-glass windows shrouded by heavy draperies. Perhaps the contrast with the homeless camp was coloring my perception of the extravagance.
A preserved newspaper editorial agreed with me, decrying Dunsmuir’s price-gouging on coal, observing that he would be toasty warm in his new mansion while the poor workers struggled to pay for coal to heat their homes. One of his workers during a strike at his coal mine in 1876 wrote:
“Dunsmuir has carried on a species of autocratic tyranny. He thinks that miners should be slaves to a person who happens to own a small piece of coal land…. If any man dared to insinuate that the company robbed these men [the scales weighing their work were found to be inaccurate], they were told to leave the place…. What right had Dunsmuir to put a gate on a public road to that people could not buy of whom they wished; or to refuse to allow the doctor to visit the sick? He tried to starve the people out and leave them to rot, so that he could ride in his carriage.”
We also read with interest the handwritten page listing the duties of a lady’s maid at the time (one of the Dunsmuirs’ wealthy friends wrote the list). The maid was to rise at 7:00 am to bring hot water and to empty slops, then bring up breakfast and wait on the lady of the house all day, with any brief breaks used to go through her clothing and do mending, then finally go off duty at 10:00 pm. A maid would have tended to this bathroom for the Dunsmuir family.
I did marvel at the elaborate displays, such as this recreation of high tea (my readers are familiar with my obsession with tea and scones with clotted cream).
And I enjoyed the opportunity to play a few bars of Beethoven on this antique Steinway.
But I confess to a sigh of relief as we left the mansion and strode off through the open air. Hopefully we’re all edging toward equal opportunity.
Sara’s newest from Book View Cafe was recently released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction.