Across from the provincial government offices, just where the boardwalk begins at Victoria Park, a large, golden yellow Victorian home dominates the street scape. This elegant residence is Beaconsfield Historic House, one of the most interesting homes in Charlottetown.
by Treva McNally
In 1877, when wealthy businessman James Peake wanted a prestigious home for his young family, he chose one of the most attractive locations in the city overlooking the harbour. William Critchlow Harris was commissioned to design the 25 room home which is decorated with elaborate gingerbread trim and topped with a mansard roof and a belvedere. It had imported chandeliers and hand-made tiles, central heating, gas lighting, and eight fireplaces. At a time when the average annual salary was $300 and a comfortable middle-class home could be built for $1000, it cost $50,000. It was described as the most luxurious and expensive private residences on the Island.
The Peakes were from socially prominent families. James was the son of wealthy shipowner and his wife Edith was the daughter of a Father of Confederation, Lieutenant Governor T. H. Haviland. When Queen Victoria's daughter and her husband visited PEI in 1879, Fanningbank was undergoing renovations so the Peakes were asked to host a dinner party in their honour at Beaconsfield. It was the social event of the year.
Within five years, the economy crashed and with it the finances of the Peakes. Edith and James were forced to leave their home, and Henry Cundall, the mortgage holder, reluctantly moved in with his two unmarried sisters when he was unable to sell it. Cundall died in 1916 and willed the home “as a refuge and temporary home for friendless young women.” The Cundall Home was used as a residence for women working in Charlottetown or attending Prince of Wales College. From 1935 to 1970, the house was the residence for student nurses at the old P.E.I. Hospital. In 1972, the Heritage Foundation purchased the property and in 1973, it was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II as the foundation's headquarters.
Today, this beautiful house has been restored to the grandeur it had when it was James and Edith Peake's home. It is open to the public year round for tours. A highlight of the year is December when the home and carriage house are decorated for Christmas with Victorian themes. Beaconsfield is open for tours from 1 to 4 pm on December 13, 14, 20, 21, 27 and 28. Admission is by donation.