R.S. Williams & Sons

R.S. Williams & Sons. Instrument building and sales firm established by Richard Sugden Williams (b London 12 Apr 1834, d Toronto 24 Feb 1906).

R.S. Williams & Sons

R.S. Williams & Sons. Instrument building and sales firm established by Richard Sugden Williams (b London 12 Apr 1834, d Toronto 24 Feb 1906). Taken to Hamilton, Upper Canada (Ontario), at four, Williams in the late 1840s was apprenticed to the melodeon maker William Townsend in Toronto, following him to Hamilton in 1853. When Townsend's business failed about 1855, Williams returned to Toronto. He established an enterprise in there making mandolins, banjos, and, soon afterwards, melodeons. Williams also sold pianos and other instruments and expanded into the manufacturing of pianos and larger reed organs. In 1873 the manufacturing was assumed by the subsidiary Canada Organ and Piano Co (after 1902 Williams Piano Co), and in 1889 the factory was moved to Oshawa, Ont, supervised by Williams' son Robert, b 1854, who became the company's president after his father's death. The Toronto business, in 1879 or 1880 renamed R.S. Williams & Son (later Sons), remained the headquarters for retailing (first on Queen St, later at several successive locations on Yonge St) and also for wholesaling. In the early years there was a sales outlet in London, Ont. By 1905 a branch had been established in Winnipeg and a depot in London (England), and by 1919 there were branches in Montreal and Calgary.

Expansion was rapid. By the end of the century the firm claimed to have the largest instrument factory in Canada. In the 1880s some 150 workers produced about 20 pianos and 6 reed organs each week; in the second decade of the 20th century some 250 men produced about 60 pianos a week. Two Williams pianos were placed in Windsor Castle at the request of Queen Victoria, thus entitling the company to use the warrant 'Piano Makers to the Queen.' By the turn of the century grand pianos, uprights, and player pianos were manufactured. Brand names (then or later) included Beethoven, Canada, Ennis, Everson, Krydner, Schubert, and Williams. In 1929 serial numbers had reached 67,000. Williams also built a few pipe organs. One of the first was installed in Calgary ca 1889. Another (from a church whose identity cannot be ascertained) was reinstalled in 1898 at St Paul's Roman Catholic Church in Toronto and was restored in the 1970s, since it was found still ideally suited for use in the liturgy.

Mandolins, banjos, and guitars continued to be built, but Williams' successor in the Toronto establishment, his son Richard Sugden Williams Jr (1873 or 1874-1945), was renowned as an expert in violins. A stock of valuable imported string instruments was maintained, and skilled craftsmen from France, Holland, Italy, and Canada were employed to make violins after Stradivarius and other patterns. One of these was the Paris violin builder August(e) Delivet, who worked for R.S. Williams in Toronto from 1920 until his death in 1927. The firm's illustrated instrument and merchandise catalogues, produced as early as 1860 (no. 31 dates from 1905, no. 36 from 1919), testify to the volume and variety of the business. The R.S. Williams 10-story building at 145 Yonge St, Toronto, was erected in 1912 and demolished in 1986.

By 1900 Williams had become the Canadian distributor for Edison phonographs and records. This association continued until 1926, but when radio for a while replaced recordings in popularity, Williams began to sell Westinghouse, and later Magnavox, radios. A small amount of music publishing was done, but the Williams Musical Library (only 8 numbers known; late 19th century) contained little of significance. Arrangements for band by John Slatter were advertised in 1919, and also at that time the firm published the Canadian Bandsman and Orchestra Journal, a monthly which had begun as the Canadian Bandsman and Musician in June 1913 and was absorbed by Musical Canada in 1924. Yet another venture of the company was an R.S. Williams School of Music, opened in Toronto in 1929 under the directorship of A.L. Evans.

The Oshawa factory, of which the last president was Frank W. Bull, did not survive the Depression years. The Toronto company was sold to B.A. and F.A. Trestrail in 1928 but continued in operation under the name R.S. Williams Co, Ltd. The Yonge St store eventually closed but the company continued as a warehouse-type operation until 1951 or 1952, thus making Williams one of the few Canadian music firms to have existed for nearly 100 years. The last president was Alexander B. Vasey.

The elder Williams was an avid collector of old musical instruments and autographs, exhibiting his collections as early as 1861 at the Toronto Mechanics' Institute. His son Richard S. Jr added to the collection but in 1913 began to present segments to the Royal Ontario Museum. At that time there were 166 instruments, 70 volumes of music, and about 160 letters and manuscript scores of famous musicians. In the late 1970s the R.S. Williams collection remained the largest and most valuable of its kind in Canada. In 1980 Ladislav Cselenyi was preparing a book on R.S. Williams, which had not appeared by 1990.

See also Archives; Instrument collections.

Further Reading

  • R.S. Williams musical merchandise catalogues. Representative issues at NL of C and Royal Ontario Museum

    '75th anniversary of R.S. Williams & Sons Co., Ltd., an important event this year,' CMTJ, vol 25, Sep 1924

    'Williams Piano Co., Ltd., Oshawa, celebrates its 75th anniversary,' CMTJ, vol 25, Nov 1924

    Also information in other issues of CMTJ, 1900-32

    Henley, William. Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers, vol 5 (Brighton 1960)

    Cselenyi, Ladislav, ed. Musical Instruments in the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto 1971)

    Cselenyi, Ladislav 'The mirror of music in the ROM,' Rotunda, vol.5, Summer 1972.

    Windeler, Janet. 'Williams' old junk became museum gem,' Fugue, vol 2, Nov 1977

    Kelly, Wayne. Downright Upright: A History of the Canadian Piano Industry (Toronto 1991)

    Cselenyi-Granch, Ladislav. Under the Sign of the Big Fiddle: The R.S. Williams Family, Manufacturers and Collectors of Musical Instruments (Toronto 1996)