Michael Williams, by Godfrey Stephens (pen and ink on paper, 1994). Image: courtesy of UVic Legacy Art Galleries.

Michael Williams, by Godfrey Stephens (pen and ink on paper, 1994). Image: courtesy of UVic Legacy Art Galleries.

Michael Collard Williams (1930-2000) came to Canada in 1950 from the farming region of Shropshire, England. After several years in the Okanagan Valley, he arrived in Victoria in 1958. By the 1970s, Williams had purchased waterfront land and a bungalow at Ten Mile Point. It would serve as collateral for his real estate ventures, when he began in the late 1970s to dedicate himself to the heritage restoration of Victoria’s downtown commercial and residential buildings.

Although Williams dropped out of school at 14, he believed in the importance of universities, teaching and research, as well as support and belief in all citizens. An honorary degree was granted to him by UVic in 1990 in recognition of his leadership in preserving and renewing Victoria’s Old Town district; the citation noted that he was “at once a businessman, developer and heritage conservationist…a publican and a public man, a visionary and a Victorian.”

Williams lovingly revived old buildings in downtown Victoria and his restoration projects have been credited with the rebirth of a once run-down part of the city, as a lively neighbourhood of restaurants and shops.

Swan's Hotel

Swan’s Hotel

Maynard Court (700-block of Johnson Street) was his first initiative in urban renewal. The restoration of the 1890s era Grand Central Hotel and Victoria Box and Paper Complex (500-block of Johnson Street) in 1988 earned him a prestigious award of merit from the New York-based Downtown Research & Development Center. His Swans Hotel & Brew Pub was given its name because of the “ugly duckling” nature of the building’s former purpose: a seed and fertilizer warehouse.

The 1,000-piece fine art and antique collection features contemporary BC artists and, in sheer volume, met or exceeded any other such collection at the time. It includes major works by Jack Shadbolt, James Gordaneer, Myfanwy Pavelic, Robert Davidson, Roy Vickers and Susan Point.

Williams was a one-of-a-kind visionary. He was a businessman, with an outspoken sense of social justice. Williams was also a quiet philanthropist. Every month, he donated $1,000 to the Open Door ministry and he often gave sandwiches from his restaurant to people living on the street, who knew him by name.

Cultural and community organizations also found a friend in Williams, including: the Maritime Museum, Royal BC Museum, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Victoria Symphony, Pacific Opera Victoria, Knowledge Network, and the Boys and Girls Club of Victoria; the Open Door and Our Place, the Upper Room, Amnesty International, the Carmanah Forestry Society, and the Efforts for Clayoquot Sound Fund.

He was a millionaire who shopped at Value Village for $4 ties. A bachelor until the end, he lived in a glass house surrounded by the sea.

Article courtesy of the University of Victoria