Origins of a Collection: A look at R.S. Williams' Historic Musical Instruments

Posted: July 7, 2014 - 12:42 , by Jaime Clifton-Ross
European Music Book. Detail. 1835.

19th Century German Hooked Harp in an 18th century English Parlour

I Have a House and Land in Kent. Compsed by Thomas Ravenscroft (arranged by Richard M S Irwin for Flute, Violin, Bassoon and Harp), 1611.

*Please Note: This composition is not from the exact period as the ROM's Hooked Harp. 

The ROM’s Collection

The ROM holds a wonderful collection of historic musical instruments that, at one time, were owned by the R.S. Williams family. They were best known as manufacturers, distributors, and collectors of contemporary and historic musical instruments. Predominantly acquired through trade, the Williams collected numerous instruments and sheet music of European, British, and Canadian origin; many of which were made during the Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical periods (14th-19th centuries). Tracing over 400 years of European cultural development, these highly decorative instruments provide a glimpse into the fascinating social history of European life. While many remain in the care of our collections and research staff in the European Department, several instruments are on display in the Samuel European Galleries on the third floor. 

Early 19th Century French Lyra leaning on blue silk background

The Origins of R.S. Williams

Richard Sugden Williams Sr. (1834-1906) was born in London, and immigrated to Canada with his parents in the late 1830’s. Upon settling in Hamilton, the young Williams apprenticed with the musical instrument manufacturer and repairman, William Townsend—who specialized in melodeons. He learned a range of manufacturing techniques and developed his skill in repairing instruments. This formative experience also fostered his appreciation for the craftmanship and design of instruments. He also became increasingly fascinated with antique violins, thus inspiring his connoisseurship for music and instruments.

For a longer biography, visit the Canadian Encyclopedia

16th Century Italian Harpsichord with Puti painting

Italian Concerto in F Major, 1st movement. BWV 971. Composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. 1735. 

*Please Note: This composition is not from the exact period as the ROM's Harpsichord. 

The Family Business

Williams eventually founded R.S. Williams & Sons, a company that specialized in the manufacturing, selling, wholesaling, and trading of musical instruments. This prolific family business established Canada as a major manufacturer and distributor of musical instruments in the 19th and 20th centuries. Williams and his son, R.S. Williams Jr. (1873-1945)—who later became the President of R.S. Williams & Sons Co. Limited after his father’s death—retained numerous antique instruments acquired through sales. It was common practice during the 19th and early 20th century to trade-in old instruments when purchasing a new one. 

Treble Viol Dessus on display in gallery and instrument detail

Viola Bastarda Diminutions on Susanne ung jour (after Orlando di Lassus). Composed by Francesco Rognoni. 1600s.

*Please Note: This composition is not from the exact period as the ROM's Treble Viol Dessus. 

Connoisseurship & Collection

Both father and son shared a passion for music history and the art of crafting instruments. They also recognized the educational potential of the collection and were determined to use it as a pedagogical resource. Their belief that young musicians would benefit from exposure to such artefacts inspired the curation of a comprehensive exhibition located in their monumental Toronto store coined the “music house”. They displayed priceless lyres, viols, and harpsichords—to name a few—that traced the evolution and development of such instruments. They also offered rare books and sheet music in their library for the public to enjoy. Their desire to “unravel the mysteries” of early European music history, as stated by Ladislaw Cselenyi-Granch, and popularize it in the 20th century is deeply embedded within their prized collection. 

To this day, this treasured collection remains one of the most generous gifts ever made to the ROM—gradually donated to the Museum by R.S. Williams Jr. throughout the early 20th century. Ladislaw Cselenyi-Granch, a musician, art historian, and former Curator of Musical Instruments at the ROM, dedicated his research efforts to the history of the R.S. Williams family. His research, publications, and interpretative efforts wonderfully preserve and perpetuate the legacy of this remarkable family.

Late 17th century Italian Theorbo on display in gallery

Suite para Violoncello No 3, BWV 1009. Prélude (Theorbo transcription). Compsed by Johann Sebastian Bach. Circa 1717-1723.

*Please Note: This composition is not from the exact period as the ROM's Theorbo. 

During your next visit to the Samuel European Galleries I hope you enjoy the many musical recordings, featured in the exhibition, that animate these historic instruments.

Further Readings

Ladislav Cselenyi-Granch. 1971. Musical Instruments in the Royal Ontario Museum (Exhibition Catalogue). North York, Ontario: Thorn Press.ML 462 T67 R68 1971

Ladislav Cselenyi-Granch. 1996. Under The sign of the Big Fiddle Musical Instruments.Toronto, Ontario: Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc.ML 424 R27 C84 1996


Comment by Bert Vanderdonk

This message is for Jaime Clifton-Ross
Love your above article. Is most of the Williams's collection available to view?
I have Ladislav Cselenyi-Granch book from 1996 coming in the mail from a book store in B.C.
Can't wait to read it.
Do you have an email I can send you a couple pictures of an organ I have.
Thank you for your time.

Comment by Arthur Craig

I too enjoyed the text, photos and music tracks on this webpage, after finding it with the search term "violin." I have a wonderful memory of an afternoon 20 yrs ago spent examining the many beautiful examples of early violins and assorted instruments in this magnificent collection at the ROM. And I too just ordered a copy of the 1996 Cselenyi-Granch book! Thank you very much.

Comment by theresa

Hello just purchased a mandolin, R. S. Williams Co. Defiance Bowl Back Mandoline, made in Toronto Serial no 4949, made in the 1920's. Would like some more information on this is there is any. Thank you.

I will learn to play it.
T. hoffman

Comment by steve millar

Very interesting. R.S. Williams and sons also had violins made for them in the late 19th century and early 20th century in France. Do you have any ideas on who these violin makers were?

Comment by Chris Johnson

Hi there folks: A model A Edison Fireside Phonogragh which has been in my possession for some time has a small label nailed to the cabinet indicating "MADE FOR THE R.S. WILLIAMS & SONS CO. TORONTO, ONTARIO BY NATIONAL PHONOGRAPH CO. So they must have sold music boxes as well. Is there any information regarding this?

If so thank you in advance CJ

Comment by Douglas Yardley

I recall seeing some of the RS Williams collection on display years ago in the ROM, and found them fascinating. I hope it will be possible to display them again someday.

Comment by Roger

I am trying to find information regarding the authenticity of a 300 year old musical instrument called Hurdy Gurdy. Beyond online search, is there anyone at the ROM that is able to help?

Comment by Lead Concierge

There is no one at the Royal Ontario Museum with the expertise to authenticate or give information on musical instruments. We can suggest contacting someone associated with the Royal Conservatory of Music, the Toronto Symphony or an instrument restorer.

Comment by A. John Mead

It would be wonderful if there was an opus list for the pipe organs built by RS Williams &Sons....

Comment by Lead Concierge

Hello John,

Unfortunately we do not have any pipe organs in European's musical collection. Almost all the instruments donated to the ROM by R.S. Williams are historical and date from the late 15th to the early 19th century. The ROM's library and Archives does however contain part of the R.S. Williams archive. Perhaps they might have an inventory detailing how many pipe organs were built by R.S. Williams and Sons. There is also a wonderful book specifically about the firm:

We also have a catalogue of the musical instrument collection housed here at the ROM: Ladislav Cselenyi. "Musical instruments in the Royal Ontario Museum" Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, c1971


Comment by Dawn Pretty

Someone from the ROM kindly sent me a list of the music selections playing in the European furniture galleries. I lost that email. Is it possible for it to be resent?

Comment by Bert Vanderdonk

How does one see this collection from R.S. Williams?
My partner and I are very interested as we own R.S. Williams harmonium which dates approx 1865
Please get back to us.
Many thanks,
Bert & Nikki

Comment by Lead Concierge

Hello Bert and Nikki,
Several of the instruments are on display in our Samuel European Galleries on the Third Floor. This gallery is included with our General Admission.