Dundurn Castle: Lavish Life in the 19th Century You Need to See

The areas of Hamilton and the Niagara Region are home to some of the most significant events in Canada’s history. Monuments, battlefields, museums, and historic sites are dotted throughout the stretch of land from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Stoney Creek, Hamilton and beyond.

We’re lucky that these sites have been preserved and heritage programs are offered throughout the year.

Since I’ve been exploring within our own boundaries this year, Dana and I decided to check out Dundurn Castle National Historic Site in Hamilton, an impressive Italian-style mansion that will transport you back to the mid-1800s. 

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Embellished with plush sofas, an enormous dining hall, artwork, chandeliers and Murano glass ornaments, Dundurn Castle is a labyrinth of 40 rooms and gives you an idea of how wealthy Canadians lived during the 19th century, as well as their servants.

If you’re looking for fun things to do in Hamilton or the Niagara Region, you’re able to get an inside look at one of the region’s famous castles which is now open for tours!

It’s become one of my favourite historic sites to visit. I could’ve easily spent all afternoon here! I hope you enjoy this photo tour! ๐Ÿ™‚

About Dundurn Castle’s History

Sitting on 32 sprawling park-like acres in Hamilton in an area known as Burlington Heights, Dundurn Castle was finished in 1835. It’s the former site of British military post established during the War of 1812. 

Dundurn Castle front view

It has forty rooms (!!!) and was owned by Sir Allan Napier MacNab. 

MacNab purchased the property from Richard Beasley, one of Hamilton’s early settlers due to financial constraints. MacNab hired an architect and built Dundurn Castle over Beasley’s brick home, turning it into a huge 18,000 square foot mansion overlooking Burlington Bay that took three years to build at a cost of $175,000.

It even has modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and gas-lighting, something generally unheard of during this time!

It’s been nicknamed a castle by Hamilton residents – because it is something that wasn’t normally seen during the 1800s. 

Dundurn Castle in the fall

By the way, that $175,000 in 1835 equates to about $5.12 million today – crazy right?

Dundurn Castle became famous throughout the country for its entertainment. Even Sir John A. Macdonald and King Edward VII have been entertained here.

Who was Sir Allan MacNab?

Born in Niagara-on-the-Lake, MacNab served during the War of 1812 when he was 15. After his time during the war, MacNab studied law in Toronto and became a lawyer. In 1826, he moved to Hamilton and opened a law office, but it was mainly by buying and selling land by which he made his money.

He became the Premier of the Province of Canada between 1854 and 1856. MacNab also helped suppress the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, for which he was knighted in 1838 by Queen Victoria.

Sir Allan MacNab

MacNab was married twice. His first wife, Elizabeth died due to complications in childbirth. They had two children together but MacNab’s only son, Robert, died during his childhood.

He then married his second wife, Mary, and they had two daughters together, Minnie and Sophia. Mary later died from consumption (tuberculosis).

Sophia painting
Daughter Sophia (pronounced with a long “i”).

And here’s an interesting fact for you: Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, is a descendent. MacNab is her great-great-great grandfather.

Tours

Tours are open to the public! Access to Dundurn Castle is by guided tour only from Tuesday-Sunday from 12:00-4:00 pm. It’s advised you book your tickets online since tours are only offered in groups of 9.

The Dundurn Castle tour is around an hour in length and takes you through the castle’s 40 rooms which includes the basement, main floor, and upper floor.

Your guide will show you how the MacNab family lived upstairs and how the servants lived and worked in the basement!

Pathway to the front of the Coach House

I wish we had more time to explore. I could’ve easily spent an afternoon wandering around.

We had an amazing knowledgeable guide. It was so fascinating to get an inside look at what life was like in the mid 1800s. Guides are dressed in costumes akin to the time period.

Children are welcome since the guides are quite used to entertaining them. There are numerous children’s programs offered here at Dundurn, from cooking to costume-designing.

It’s important to note that there is no stroller or wheelchair access. 

Tickets

At a cost of $14 for adults, $12 for students and seniors, and $8 for children 6-12 and $37 for a family with unlimited children under 18, it is well worth the admission fee!

We purchased tickets online and completed a Covid screening test prior to arriving.

Carriage house
The Coach House

Once you arrive (parking is free!), you head around to the Coach House and present (or buy) your tickets. You’ll be escorted into a waiting room and since we had a small group of 9, we were quickly on our way. 

Basement

We started our tour by going through the servant’s entrance into the basement, where 20 of the 40 rooms are located at Dundurn.

For being the servant’s quarters, it was remarkably comfortable! An impressive array of rooms ranged from an original gunpowder magazine from the War of 1812, a refrigerator (not like the ones we know today!), pantry, dining room, laundry room, bedrooms and more!

basement hallway
Hallway to gunpowder magazine and laundry room.

MacNab was often criticized by the way he treated his servants. Their living conditions were incredibly comfortable and their lives were pretty awesome compared to others. 

Cozy living conditions, endless supply of beer, and meals? Their pay wasn’t more than $3-$7 a month, but they were able to live here for free.

Kitchen

We started with a tour of the kitchen, which was a massive space just for one cook! This cook was responsible for cooking seven meals a day for all of the servants and the family living here. 

kitchen in the basement with cooking items

What was really interesting was the wall of bells. Eleven bells for eleven rooms – each with their own tune. I wonder how long it took the cook to differentiate between the rooms? 

eleven bells

I was fascinated by the gasolier light – it was literally a gas pipe with a spigot attached with a  lever to ignite a flame – and that was their lamp. Because it was so expensive, it would only be turned on in the evening.

gasolier lighting in the kitchen
Two small flames emitting from the gasolier.

There were a few windows in the kitchen but it was still dimly lit (I thought). We were told that if you couldn’t read the recipe, you’d just have to go over to the window for more light and hope it was a sunny day. ๐Ÿ˜‚

A costumed cook was in the kitchen baking a lemon cake while we were there, using simple ingredients and a 19th century cast iron wood-fired range.

Dining Room

This cozy room is where the servants would dine. I can imagine the camaraderie happening during this time.

Ice Cellar

This was fascinating! A 13 foot deep pit was tucked away down the hall and acted as their ice storage. Layers of it would be packed between straw and essentially would last up to a year. Pretty impressive!

ice storage

Wine Cellar

Because who wouldn’t want a room dedicated to storing wine in their house?

wine cellar

Brewery

Did you know beer was considered a health drink back in the 1800s? This was because you had to boil the water to get rid of bacteria. Hence, healthy.๐Ÿ˜‚

brewery room

Did you know servants also had an endless supply of beer to drink? Talk about job perks!

Scullery

Historically, a scullery-maid would essentially clean dishes and chamber pots all day. Not a glamorous job by any means, but still better off than most during this time.

Scullery with fireplace

We were told that a surefire way to lose your job was to break dishes. I laughed when we were told that when they lifted the floorboards later on, they found a bunch of broken dishes. ๐Ÿ˜‚

Luggage Storage

Ok, this is a room I can identify with! How awesome would it be to have an entire room dedicated to storing your suitcases?

luggage storage

Main Floor

Original tile work lines the front hallway at an impressive front entrance. You could tell the substantial differences between the basement (servant’s quarters) and the main floor, where the family lived.

Staircase

This impressive staircase was once just floating without any support under it. What?! How could that be safe, and wouldn’t it wobble?

floating staircase

It’s since had a support beam installed under it, but I’ve never seen one like it.

Dana joked about sliding down the railing and our guide said a servant’s child rolled a cannonball down the railing and cracked the tile. It’s since been restored but I wonder if the servant had a job long after that?๐Ÿ˜จ

Sitting Room

One look at this room and you’ll be in awe. Pink hues with high vaulted ceilings and ornate plasterwork are incredible.

I would love to have afternoon tea in here!

sitting room with vaulted ceiling

This is the room where Sophia was married with 150 guests – standing room only!

fireplace and mantle in sitting room

Once Sophia married, she moved to England and never returned. MacNab was able to visit a few times, but eventually the journey became too difficult for him. 

Library

I want this room at home! It looked like the perfect room to unwind and relax in.

library with scottish influence

I would love to know what collection of books line those shelves!

Bookcase

Dining Room

Ok – wow – this chandelier! This huge dining room was rarely used since it would cost a fair amount to heat the room and would be used for special occasions.

Family portraits line the walls and on either end of the room is an area to place the dishes for the next course. There was even a hidden area to store bottles built into the wooden structure. ๐Ÿ˜‰

formal dining room
candleabra

The Butler’s pantry was just off of the dining room. There was also a dumbwaiter, a mini food elevator that would come up from the kitchen in the basement.

Front Facade

These pillars were installed in 1855 for MacNab’s daughter Sophia.

She was getting married to British royalty and thought the iconic pillars would zhuzh up the already impressive front of the building. No expense spared! (Hey dad, are you reading this?๐Ÿ˜‚).

Front columns

Upper Floor

Upstairs contained bedrooms, a large bathroom with bathtub, an ornate water closet with an ornate porcelain bowl (because why not?๐Ÿ˜‚), sick room, nursery, and MacNab’s bedroom. 

Children’s Nursery

This is the area where Sophia and Minnie were raised. It’s been updated to the year 1855 so not quite a nursey in the sense we know, but it was an area that had the two girls rooms and a sitting area.

1855 paper

What I found interesting is each room had a lever on one of the walls, which if turned, would ring the bell in the kitchen in the basement.

Sophia's room with dress

Sick Room

Dundurn had its own sick room! Not a bad place to spend your time resting and (hopefully) recovering.

sick room with bathtub
medicine

Bedroom and Sitting Room

Each room was decorated different and were so intricate.

bedroom

Loved this writing table. There was a family photo sitting on the corner of it.

study

Bathroom

This bathroom was huge! It contained a bathtub, sink, and dressing table, but no toilet. That was kept in a separate closet with a intricately designed, and dare I say beautiful blue and white porcelain toilet bowl.

Weird. I know. It felt odd to take a photo so I avoided that part.๐Ÿ˜‚

bathtub

MacNab’s Bedroom

Unfortunately there was some damage to the ceiling in MacNab’s bedroom so it’s currently empty and undergoing restoration, but was easily the best room in the mansion, with its own fireplace and large windows on all of the walls.

I loved the wallpaper in his room. 

cathedral wallpaper

Grounds

Coach House

The Coach House was originally used as the stables and sleeping quarters for the male servants. It’s been converted into a rental space and gift shop now, but still maintains its original character that reminded us very much of England.

Coach house and dove cote

Dovecote 

There’s an unusual structure right by the Coach House. We looked up and thought, are those bird houses? Yes, yes they were. We thought it was so cute, until we found out what it was actually used for. ๐Ÿ˜จ

Called a dovecote, our guide told us that doves would fly in but they would never leave (cue ominous music!). Doves were considered free food, and thus a source of meals for the family and servants living on the property.

Dove Cote

The Cockpit

We saw this beautiful structure surrounded by trees and wondered what it was.

cockpit

As it turns out, this two-storey building was built for cockfighting. Who would’ve guessed?๐Ÿ˜

Cockpit surrounded by fall trees

Garden

There is a large 2 acre garden on the property growing over 200 heirloom varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers!

Typically the produce grown here is used in the castle’s kitchens for demonstrations and tastings, but this year it was all donated to a local food bank. That was really heartwarming to read!

Historic Garden

During July and August, you can visit for free garden tours!

We were surprised to see so many flowers still in bloom. There were notices posted the garden wasn’t as tended-to as other years (understandably) but there were rows of green onions, huge cabbages, tomatoes and more.

garden during the fall

Military Museum

Your ticket also grants you access to the Hamilton Military Museum, on site! It’s a small museum featuring artifacts from the War of 1812, as well as information about shipwrecks off the coast of Port Dalhousie, the only ones intact from the War of 1812.

Dundurn Castle gate

Is Dundurn Castle Haunted?

There have been many people who have speculated that Dundurn Castle is haunted. Allan MacNab and his wife Mary did pass away here, but no, it isn’t haunted. Apparently. Nothing that we noticed anyway!๐Ÿ˜‚

There are many haunted tours that go through Dundurn, stating that cold air is felt outside of the room where Mary, MacNab’s second wife, passed away from tuberculosis. It’s been reported that candles keep blowing out along with mysterious drafts and objects moving around.

lounge

If you are interested in reading more about the ghosts of Dundurn, grab a copy of Haunted Hamilton to learn more about some spooky places in the area.

I’ll let you experience it for yourself!

Still, it would be exciting to wander around in the evening on a windy night and see what happens.

Final Thoughts

It was really interesting to see how the MacNab family lived, and all of the creature comforts they were able to afford.

If you’re looking for things to do in Hamilton or near Hamilton and the surrounding area, a guided tour of Dundurn Castle should be on your list and can be done all year round!

Map

Address: 610 York Blvd, Hamilton, ON L8R 3E7

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22 Comments

  1. Tom Wills
    October 27, 2020 / 3:24 pm

    Another great article on a local gem. It’s been a favourite family site for our overseas relatives to visit for years. And yes “(Hey dad, are you reading this?๐Ÿ˜‚)”, yes I did!

    • Sarah
      Author
      October 27, 2020 / 4:57 pm

      Haha!! Very sweet he loved his daughter so much he put those pillars up! Or, just wanted to show off. Either way! I would recommend this place to anyone!

  2. Ally
    October 28, 2020 / 1:40 pm

    Dundurn Castle looks so cool! Adding it to my Canadian bucket list asap ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Sarah
      Author
      October 28, 2020 / 2:50 pm

      It is an awesome place to visit! We take all of our overseas visitors here! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. October 28, 2020 / 1:50 pm

    WOw! Such an amazing place. As an archaeologist I love places like this. Always wondering and trying to imagine how it would’ve looked like at certain times. If only the walls could talk…. Beautiful photos! Saving it for later ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Sarah
      Author
      October 28, 2020 / 2:52 pm

      Thank you Nidia! It is incredible! I’m sure you would love it too – I could’ve easily spent all day in there. You’re absolutely right – oh the stories that are here!

  4. October 28, 2020 / 2:32 pm

    I love chateaus and castles! We try to find and visit them wherever we go in the world. It is a piece of history and I love how much care most people put into taking care of these homes. I love to imagine the families that lived there.

    • Sarah
      Author
      October 28, 2020 / 2:54 pm

      Me too!!! We do this every time we visit our family in the UK, so I’m glad to have a spot like this here at home too. I’m so glad places like this are looked after ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. October 29, 2020 / 4:17 am

    Dundurn Castle looks so fascinating!! Specially the ice storage, how interesting is that. I would love to explore it one day. Thanks for sharing it!!

    • Sarah
      Author
      October 29, 2020 / 6:07 am

      I know! The photo doesn’t really do it justice but what an interesting concept for that time. Surprising it would last almost a year! Thanks!

  6. October 30, 2020 / 6:05 pm

    Wow, these photos are stunning! Iโ€™d love to visit this castle one day.. itโ€™s always funny to see how royalty lived.

    • Sarah
      Author
      November 9, 2020 / 8:39 am

      Thanks Lisa! Isn’t it? It’s fascinating!

  7. October 30, 2020 / 6:08 pm

    Wow, great photos! I had no idea there was a castle in Canada! The ice cellar looks perfect for Halloween!

    • Sarah
      Author
      October 31, 2020 / 5:41 am

      Thanks Shannon! They’ve done Halloween tours in the past, I’d love to do one of those in the future!!

  8. October 31, 2020 / 10:48 am

    I LOVE castles and feel like this post took me back in time to experience it!

    • Sarah
      Author
      October 31, 2020 / 1:51 pm

      Thanks Megan ๐Ÿ™‚ !

  9. October 31, 2020 / 11:55 am

    What a beautiful castle! It’s crazy how wealthy people live/lived!! I’d be happy just living in that sitting room…it’s gorgeous!! Thanks for the fantastic guide, I hope I’m able to visit in person one day!

    • Sarah
      Author
      October 31, 2020 / 1:51 pm

      Thanks Hannah! It reminds me a lot of some of the National Trust sites we’ve visited in the UK! ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. October 31, 2020 / 12:37 pm

    What an interesting place to visit! Love that they let all the furniture as it was before. And the garden looks beautiful too!

    • Sarah
      Author
      October 31, 2020 / 1:51 pm

      They’ve done an amazing job with preservation!!

  11. November 1, 2020 / 5:06 am

    Woah! I had no idea this was in Hamilton. I always drive through the city and never stop to look at the attractions.

    • Sarah
      Author
      November 1, 2020 / 6:51 am

      I never did either until this year haha! It’s been a great year for exploring close to home!