A Riddell in Time

William Renwick Riddell

If you have been following our blog recently, you might have noticed a few posts concerning our rare book collection. What you might not be aware of is that our rare book collection is actually divided into two main sections: the Riddell Canadian Collection and our general rare book collection.

The Riddell Collection consists of approximately 9,000 books that were bequeathed to the Great Library by William Renwick Riddell. (The original bequest was made in 1916 but Riddell continued to add to his gift in subsequent years.) He specified that his books should be kept together – hence the Riddell Room.

Who was William Renwick Riddell?

William Renwick Riddell, Q.C. (1852-1945) was, among other things, a scholar, historian, lawyer and judge. He was a Law Society Bencher from 1891-1906, was appointed to the Court of King’s Bench in 1906 and to the Court of Appeal in 1925. In his spare time he authored numerous books on Ontario legal history, as well as over 1,000 essays, lectures and book reviews on various topics and served as editor-in-chief of the first edition of the Canadian Abridgment. He has been described as a “compulsive polymath” [i] and “a great collector of books, his own and other peoples”[ii].

The Riddell Canadian Collection

Riddell collected surprisingly few substantive law books. His collection is of significant research value to legal historians and researchers for its early Canadiana and local history titles.

Beyond legal history, the contents of Riddell’s book collection can best be described as eclectic. He seemed to be interested in everything: fiction, grammar, poetry, international relations, astronomy, medicine (including medieval dentistry), religion and the occult. Here’s a sampling of titles:

  • A Manual of the Principles of Surgery by William Canniff (1866)
  • The Magic of the Stars by Maurice Maeterlinck (1930)
  • A Romance of Toronto by Annie G. Savigny (1888)
  • Handbook of Psychology, Senses and Intellect by James Baldwin (1890)
  • The Philosophy of Witchcraft by Ian Ferguson (1924)
  • A Manual of Elementary Chemistry, edited by Robert Bridges (1871)
  • The History of Emily Montague by Francis Brooke (Moore) (1769), which is considered the first Canadian novel
  • Epigrammi Toscani di fra Girolamo Pensa di Cigliaro, cavalier di Malta by Girolamo Pensa (1570), the oldest book in Riddell’s collection

Many of the books that Riddell had in his collection have ephemera and ownership marks. Riddell himself often included letters and notes in the books he donated. Some examples include: letters to and from Riddell, notes about the book itself, newspaper clippings, dried plants, as well as many different signatures, inscriptions, and bookplates.

If you would like to know more about the Riddell collection at the Great Library, we have a catalogue in our collection from an exhibition in 1992 titled A lasting legacy: the Riddell collection in the Great Library at Osgoode Hall, which has witty section titles such as “From Writs to Witches”.


[i] Christopher Moore, The Court of Appeal for Ontario: Defining the Right of Appeal, 1792-2013, (Osgoode Society, 2014) at 269.

[ii] A. Rosemary McCormick, “The Libraries of the Law Society”, Law Society of Upper Canada Gazette Commemorative Issue 6, December 1972 at 64.

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