Todmorden Mills: History in Your Own Backyard

The Danforth neighbourhood is a fine exemplar of a bustling and modern Canadian city. But what did the area look like before the Don Valley Parkway? Before all the condos were built and the streets were paved? Even before Confederation? Well, friends, we are lucky enough to live alongside a rare example of Canadian antiquity. Todmorden Mills is a community of buildings on Pottery Road, just north of the Danforth, with an important history that has withstood the test of time, and persists as a living monument to our collective past.


Canada, as we all know, just celebrated its 150th birthday this past year. Todmorden Mills, as of 2018, is an impressive 225 years young. An awesome and rare age for a structure, in Canada. From 1793 to present Todmorden Mills, in some form, has watched out over the hills and valleys of the Don River in its ever industrializing landscape. The area has changed from Upper Canada to the country and city we know today, all under the steadfast gaze of Todmorden. Its story is one that includes many firsts, and is rife with intrigue and individuality. A true Canadian landmark with a resilient and industrious history.


The story begins with the Toronto Purchase, a controversial and long contested land agreement between two Indigenous nations and the British Crown that was first made in 1787. This agreement supposedly gave the British Crown ownership over the lands on the Toronto Peninsula, which extended rights to settlers wishing to make the area home. 


One such family seized this opportunity six years later. Aaron and Isaiah Skinner were granted the plot of land that is now Todmorden Mills from Lieutenant Governor Simcoe in 1793. In an effort to support the lumber industry, they established a sawmill along the rushing waters of the Don River, which was in quite a different state than it is today.


The river was significantly more winding (it was straightened out in the late 1880s), and the waters teeming with life. Wild salmon could be seen swimming underneath the surface of the unpolluted waters, the ecosystem still intact and flourishing. This supportive environment saw the mill succeed very quickly, and the Skinners soon built a second operation, that of a gristmill, in 1795 (gristmills grind wheat into flour).


By 1821, still decades away from Confederation, the Skinners sold off a section of the property to the Helliwell family, who settled in the valley and made their own very special mark. The Helliwells arrived from England and, like many early settlers, renamed the area from its original Indigenous name (Wonscoteonoch) to one more reminiscent of their British home. Todmorden was the name granted to the small community after the Helliwells’ hometown in West Yorkshire.


The family established a brewery and a mill, which produced things like paper and wheat, as well as a residence that is still standing today. The paper mill is especially significant as it was the first of its kind in Upper Canada. It used a mechanized system, allowing a much greater volume to be produced than before. The mill produced paper that was used to print many of Canada’s earliest publications, including William Lyon Mackenzie’s Colonial Advocate.

Thomas Helliwell kept a diary detailing the highs and lows of early settler life, an important historical record. Much of the diary, which can be viewed at the Todmorden Museum or in PDF by request, is surprisingly relatable and very interesting. For example, “Saterday Morning I drove the team to York an I found the roads in such as state that no language can discribe I took out some beer and went again in the afternoon [sic].”


The Helliwell House, the family residence, is itself significant and has become an architectural treasure of sorts. It is an extremely rare example of adobe bricks: bricks that are made from dried and compressed mud, a construction tool of the area that would soon become irrelevant. The Helliwells are remembered as important contributors to the early stages of Canadian industry, only equalled by the family who inherited the land, the Taylors.


The Taylors were an influential family that would captain the Don Valley settlement through its transition into Confederation and the 20th century. The land was purchased from the Helliwells in 1855, following a devastating fire that destroyed much of the brewery. The Taylors quickly established the Don Valley Paper Company, and built three mills on the shores of the river, adding to the already established community of buildings. These mills were a part of a paper boom of sorts in Toronto. An increasingly literate population was hungry for books and newspapers. These early paper producers were responsible for a large portion of the material used to print daily and weekly newspapers leading up to and following Confederation.


The Taylors dominated the area for half a century; they built what is now the Evergreen Brick Works in 1889, and contributed significantly to the epicentre of early Toronto. They eventually went bankrupt in 1901, and the once industrious land went mostly into misuse. The current museum and cultural heritage site was opened in 1967 to commemorate Canada’s centennial. The site is now a small collection of buildings that used to make up the larger community of Todmorden. There are four buildings left, all of which have maintained the fabric of the original structures. There are two residences including the Helliwell House, part of the Helliwell brewery, and a paper mill which has been converted into a museum and theatre, as well as a 9.2-hectare nature reserve. 


Canada is a young nation with a controversial past. Todmorden Mills is a rare glimpse into early settlers’ lives, a concrete example of the steps they took to control the region and its environment—how they utilized and oftentimes destroyed the natural landscape, pushing out its native inhabitants for their own ends. While Todmorden Mills is an inspiring example of early Torontonian determination and industry, it is also a poignant symbol of environmental damage as an effect of urban growth. We must do our part by looking to the future, and always remembering our past.

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