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Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site of Canada


Three-quarter front view of the pianoforte with the lid open, from the right side. Pianofortes were among the most expensive and challenging instruments to ship to Rupert’s Land. They had to be transported by York boat and carried by the tripmen during portages. The Colviles had a pianoforte shipped to Lower Fort Garry from England in 1851. Their instrument would have been similar to this 19th-century pianoforte.
© Parks Canada

Mahogany, brass, wire, and other materials
Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site

Location: Big House, Parlour

Of the instruments brought over to Rupert’s Land from England and Eastern Canada, pianos – then called pianofortes – were among the most expensive, and certainly the most challenging to move. The instruments had to be transported by York boat and carried by the tripmen during portages. Having a piano in a rural Rupert’s Land HBC post was a sign of social class and wealth, as well as a nostalgic reminder of the cultured upper class urban lifestyle to be found to the East and across the Atlantic. In the Red River Settlement, pianos could generally only be found in the parlours of successful HBC officers, clergy, and select wealthy individuals. Over the course of the 19th century, pianos – though still expensive – gradually became more accessible to the growing middle class.

Following in the footsteps of past Lower Fort Garry Governor George Simpson, and other HBC officials, Eden and Anne Colvile had their piano shipped from England in 1851. They bought their rosewood piano from the Royal Harmonium and Piano-Forte Saloon for £43 – expensive considering the average farmer only made about £5 a year. It was sent to the Fort in a protective zinc-lined case and came with 12 pieces of music, a tuning hammer, and tuning instructions. The pianoforte that is currently in the Big House parlour at Lower Fort Garry is not the Colvile’s original piano; however, it is an artefact that is appropriate to the time period and setting. This piano is a square grand made by John Broadwood and Sons, a popular manufacturer due to the affordability and quality of their instruments. The six-legged pianoforte is made of mahogany with a section of rosewood veneer, and also features decorative brass floral panels, and a row of beaded moulding in brass along the front and sides.

The piano has undergone several conservation treatments by Parks Canada conservators to ensure that it can still be played today. In 1984, conservators repaired a crack in the sound board; fixed the legs, which were missing some hardware and needed to be relocated to their original positions; made repairs to the veneer, which was splitting and lifting; and, cleaned the tarnishing brass ornaments. After this, the entire instrument was hand rubbed with rottenstone and cutting oil, then coated with paste wax to protect the beautiful finish.