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From the Archives: An Edwardian butler

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018 - 08:26
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William Packe was the long serving Butler to the Dunsmuir family. He joined their service in 1907 when the family were living at Government House during James Dunsmuir’s tenure as Lieutenant Governor. A necessity in the grand homes of the Victorian era, and still very much de rigueur in the Edwardian era, a Butler’s role was one of household management. Packe would have been responsible for the hiring and firing of other household staff and would have managed the affairs of the household, including receiving visitors, coordinating appointments and deliveries, and minutiae such as ensuring appropriate wine pairings at dinner.

William Packe was brought over to work for the Dunsmuir family from England. He had previously been in the service of Edward Stanley Hope. Hope was a practising barrister and held the office of Charity Commissioner between 1879 and 1899. He also held the office of Registrar of the Privy Council between 1899 and 1909. Most notable is that Hope had two children, Elizabeth Caroline and John Alex Henry. Major John Hope married Elizabeth Dunsmuir on April 15, 1907, the same year that William Packe joined the Dunsmuir staff. It is a safe assumption that he came to the Dunsmuirs on the recommendation of their new son-in-law.

Born in 1869, William Packe had four sisters: Eleanor, Eliza and Emily, who were older and Frances, three years younger. His family were part of the estate of Abbots Ripton, in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, where his father was an agricultural labourer. In 1891, 22 year old Packe was footman to Joceline and Theodosia Bagot at Levens Hall in the Lake District. Levens Hall is another huge estate home, which would have had more than a hundred employees when Packe was employed there. It remains with the Bagot family today, although it is open to the public as a historic site. It was at Levens Hall that William Packe would have learned the skills necessary to become a butler. Today, it is possible to attend butler schools, and the profession is once again becoming more common as the number of millionaire and billionaire households increases, but in the late 19th century, the usual way to become a butler was to work your way through the ranks of household employment. Packe trained under a man named Alfred J. Galfune.

 

Levens Hall, Cumbria, UK

The census of 1891 gives an interesting hint at how Packe may have gone from Levens Hall to work for Edwin Stanley Hope. Listed among the residents of the house is a young Elizabeth Caroline Hope, who was a niece of the Bagots and would one day become Elizabeth Dunsmuir’s sister-in-law.

As with the other staff at Hatley Park, Packe would have had a different kind of relationship with his employers compared to his experiences in England. With more employment options open to people of the working class, employers like the Dunsmuirs knew they had to pay fairly and treat their staff well. Packe was well paid, earning $1000/year in 1911. Packe had a suite of rooms at Hatley Park on the main floor as part of the kitchen wing and was always on hand to deal with household matters. In fact, he worked 52 weeks of the year for 60 hours/week. Packe became not just a butler but a close and trusted friend to James and Laura Dunsmuir. His obituary states that he was a keen shot and always accompanied James on his hunting trips on the yacht Dolaura. He also travelled with the family on some of their European excursions acting as James’ personal valet.

William Packe also had a brief movie career. It is quite well known that Kathleen Dunsmuir aspired to a life of Hollywood glamour. To jumpstart her stardom, she helped finance the first talking picture to be filmed in BC. Unfortunately, no known copies of the ‘The Crimson Paradise’ exist today but by all accounts, the film, produced by Kenneth Bishop, was not very good. Kathleen used her influence to give many acting parts to her friends and family and the role of Butler was a natural fit for Packe.

The cast list for the Crimson Paradise, featuring Wm Packe as the Butler

The staff at Hatley Park were a close-knit community. As the supervisor to so many staff, Packe would have been both a revered and formidable figure in many lives. It is not surprising then, that he acted as a witness at several of the marriages of staff members and also as a pall bearer at funerals. He and several other staff members were also active pall bearers at James Dunsmuir’s funeral in 1920.

After making the voyage to Canada in 1907, Packe remained in the service of the Dunsmuirs, living at Hatley Park until Laura died in 1937. In her will, Packe was one of the few staff that Laura identified individually. She stipulated that he should receive an annuity of $600, which was dutifully paid to him from the estate at $50 per month until he died in 1950. He lived his retirement years in Colwood.

If you have stories to share, know someone who does, or would like to know more about the museum and archives, please contact Jenny Seeman at extension 4122, or by email.