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Early Music in Sharon: Highlighting Richard Coates, Musician & Artist

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

On the blog last week, we talked about David Willson as the leader of the Children of Peace. As such, we will highlight another prominent member of the Children of Peace, none other than the bandmaster and resident artist of the sect, Richard Coates (1778 – 1868).

He was born in a small town in Yorkshire, England, on November 30th, 1778. His mother was said to be related to the famous English portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. Not much is known about his youth. As a young man he was a member of the British Army, and reportedly was a bandmaster during the battle of Waterloo. In 1805 he married Isabella Smith and they had three children together. In 1817, he emigrated to Canada, going to Quebec City for a year, and then settling down in York.

He established himself as a painter, eventually becoming associated with the Children of Peace. He was so well known that he was commissioned to paint two of the pillars in the Sharon Temple, the allegories of “Peace” and “Plenty”. At some point he must have also gotten involved with the music scene at Sharon. One of the reasons why David Willson broke away from the Quakers which were active on Yonge Street in 1812 was the fact that they forbade the use of music of any kind during worship services. By contrast, Willson believed that music was essential for helping people to connect with the spiritual and the divine aspects of religion. As a result, he helped to create both a brass band and a choir within the Children of Peace.

In 1820, Coates was commissioned to make their first barrel organ. It was the first type of organ built in Ontario, which was a 2-barrel organ possessing 133 pipes and the ability to play ten separate tunes. He made two other organs for the Children of Peace. In 1829, William Lyon Mackenzie noted in his diary that he attended a meeting of the Children of Peace, in which that Coates played on a concert horn during performances of the Sharon band.

An illustrated image of David Wilson's study

Figure 1: An 1890's photomechanical print showing an interior view of David Willson's study, with a barrel organ made by Richard Coates c. 1820. Photo courtesy of the Toronto Public Library Virtual Reference Library.

He was also excited for the unveiling of the new barrel organ, which was reputed to be a “large full-toned and soft-set organ”; this is likely the organ he made as it was built like the first one, with three barrels and was also able to play ten different types of tunes on each barrel. The third and last organ was built in 1848, and was the largest of the three, which has a keyboard and approximately 200 pipes.

Eventually he moved away from Toronto; from 1831 to 1861, he became a businessman, operating a sawmill and threshing mill in Oakville, Ontario. He died in Aldborough Township, southwest of London, Ontario, on January 29th, 1868, at the age of 90.

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