Life below stairs. It has been represented on the big and small screen alike for decades. Upstairs, Downstairs; Gosford Park; You Rang, M’Lord?. And now, the most recent television series to represents life in domestic service has turned into an international sensation: Downton Abbey. The life of a servant in a grand house seems a thing of some other faraway time and place. Well… time, maybe. But place? Not at all far away. Parkwood Estate in Oshawa is our very own Downton Abbey, except far more exciting because it was real! The home of General Motors Canada founder Robert S. McLaughlin is a National Historic Site which has always welcomed visitors on tours of the family’s spaces. Now, a brand-new tour has been developed for those keen to see what life was like behind the scenes. We give you: The Parkwood Estate Servants’ Experience.
The core tours of the McLaughlin residence, which is famous around the world as the filming location for many television shows and movies (Billy Madison, anyone?), focuses on two areas of the house: the main floor which was for entertaining, and the second floor which was the family’s private spaces. But until Laura Mountjoy arrived at Parkwood as the new executive director four years ago, the servants’ spaces on the third floor and in the unseen passages and corridors behind the main areas of the house remained hidden from modern-day visitors. “The first thing I wondered was why these spaces were not open to the public as well,” she recalls. “Those are the spaces that I relate to. I can’t relate to being a multi-millionaire and owning a home like this, but I can relate to what it might have been like in service.”
With the encouragement and enthusiasm of her staff, Laura and the Parkwood team dove in to create an experience that would focus on domestic life. The servants’ spaces, combined with the oral histories that have been collected since the 1980s from people who worked, or knew people who worked at Parkwood, were used to create this new and exciting tour. Because so much of Parkwood is original to the McLaughlin family, it was relatively simple to recreate these spaces as they were in their heyday. The stove, for example, that was used in Parkwood’s kitchens is still here, as are all the dishes that the servants used for their meals. “The Sovereign china that the servants ate from, it was made in Hamilton and there was enough for 40 of them,” Laura says. “We have the cabinets that they kept their games in. We have the tables and chairs they used. We have the doilies and old linens. When Mr. McLaughlin died at 101 years old, everything was left in the home. Other than the few key pieces that his three remaining daughters selected to keep after his death, everything was left in the home. We are so fortunate that our collection is original to our family’s legacy.”
Of course, “relatively” is the key word here when we talk about the simplicity of creating this tour. That is not at all to diminish the hard work of Laura and her staff in opening up the servants’ spaces and creating an interpretation of life in the McLaughlin home from the stories they had. The end result is a wonderful and insightful experience that has been well received by eager visitors.
“On this tour you will see and hear the stories of the kitchen staff,” Laura says. “You see the dining room where the servants would spend their day together. You will see the butler’s pantry and hear about the men’s kitchen versus the women’s kitchen. You will visit the head housekeeper’s bedroom and get a sense of what her roles and responsibilities were like. You go up to the third-floor dormitory washroom and living spaces, and see what a servant’s room would have looked like in the 1930s at the height of the family’s time at Parkwood. Then there is another bedroom as it would have been in the 40s, and then another as it would have been in the 60s when there were less staff.” All this and more is brought to life in loving detail while staff guide you on a journey of Parkwood as seen through the eyes of those who worked there.
With the worldwide success of the television series Downton Abbey, fans of the show who come to Parkwood can actually connect the dots between the fictional life of the Crawley family and the actual life of the McLaughlins and their servants. “People are like, ‘Wow, that actually happened here!’” Laura states. “I’ve worked at Parkwood for four-and-a-half years, and I just recently watched the Downton Abbey series. I remember asking our curator if there was someone that dressed Adelaide like O’Brien dressed Lady Grantham. Indeed, there was. Our ‘Mr. Carson’ was Lindsay the butler who was at Parkwood for about 50 years.” Lindsay’s duties, it turns out, would have been similar to his Downton Abbey counterpart, and the exciting thing is that all this happened in our own community of Oshawa.
There was a time 30 and 40 years ago when the relevance of the McLaughlin family to the people of Oshawa was far greater. These were the people who went to school with the McLaughlin daughters. They were the servants who worked in the house. They were the employees of General Motors Canada. Today, however, the demographic in Oshawa is becoming more and more removed from that time, and the younger generations are not as aware of how much the McLaughlins shaped their community. “We have Camp Samac and Camp Adamac because of the McLaughlins,” Laura explains. “We have Girl Guides because of them and the YMCA. Windfield Farms was once part of Parkwood Stables. Even the hospital is because of Adelaide McLaughlin. The kids especially don’t know that because they are so far removed from the McLaughlin family and how instrumental they were in shaping the community.”
This is part of Parkwood’s strategic plan going forward: to reintroduce the McLaughlins’ contributions to the city of Oshawa as a way to honour their legacy. It’s an effort to help the people of Oshawa return to their roots—especially now that GM is gone. “It is more important than ever that we create that tie-back for residents to this family and how beneficial they were,” Laura states. “We have all the information here, and now the goal is to march out and tell the story, to make those connections, and make sure that people are proud of that legacy.”
For more information, visit Parkwood online at www.parkwoodestate.com. Parkwood Estate is located at 270 Simcoe St. N., Oshawa. Before visiting, be sure to check Parkwood’s website for its specific COVID-19 guidelines.
Story by Katherine Ryalen