The ‘Other’ Don Brewery


Don Brewery, 1820 from "Landmarks of Toronto" by John Ross Robertson, 1894

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the Don Brewery – the one operated by Thomas Davies at Queen West and River street.  Today, I’ve been researching the original Don Brewery, located in the valley along the Don river adjacent to the current site of Todmorden Mills.  Aaron and Isiah Skinner were granted land in the Don Valley for the purpose of erecting a lumber mill to supply the growing the city.  By 1795, the mill was complete and the area was ripe for the construction of other mills. 
In 1811, in Todmorden, England, a young woman named Elizabeth Helliwell married John Eastwood.  The couple emigrated to the community of Niagara in Canada in 1815.  Hearing of the success of his daughter and son-in-law, Thomas Helliwell, a well respected builder and miller in Todmorden England, made the decision to uproot his family and move them to Canada in 1818.  After operating a store and distillery in Lundy’s Lane, Niagara, John Eastwood and Thomas Helliwell formed a partnership and purchased land from Colin Skinner in 1820.  On the banks of the Don River, they built a gristmill, brewery, malthouse and a distillery under the name of the Don Brewery.  For unknown reasons, the partnership between Helliwell and his son in law, John Eastwood, was dissolved in 1823.  John formed a partnership with Colin Skinner to develop and run a series of mills (including a paper mill, tin mill, flour mill, and sharpening mill).  Thomas’ other daughter married Colin Skinner, further strengthening the bonds between the three families.  The three families had so many mills operating on the Don that the area came to be known as the Don Mills. 
Thomas Helliwell continued to operate the brewery with the help of his eldest son, Thomas Jr. until his death in 1823.  The brewery was left to Thomas’ five sons.  By all accounts the brewery was quite successful.  They sold their beer and other products out of a shop in Market Square on Front street.  William Helliwell was sent to England to learn the Brewers’ trade in 1832 and upon his return, he took over the day-to-day operations of the brewery.  After marrying, he built nearby Helliwell House (now part of the Todmorden Mill’s Heritage Complex) in 1838 to house his growing family.  Charles Helliwell, youngest son of Thomas Helliwell Sr. entered business with his nephews, John and Daniel Eastwood to run their late father’s business, Eastwood & Co. which had grown to include the York Paper Mills (which included premises to print and bookbind) and a retail business for books, paper and stationary with outlets in Toronto and Hamilton.
 

The Globe and Mail, January 13th, 1847

Things ran smoothly for the family until January 10th, 1847 when a devestating fire broke out, destroying the brewery, and nearly claiming the lives of the brewery workers who lived onsite.  The insurance covered only £1 000  of an estimated £16 000 in damages.  All that was saved was 50 barrels of flour from the grist mill.  The machinery was damaged beyond saving and the brewery was never rebuilt.  The partnership between the brothers was dissolved and the remaining interest in the property was sold to the Taylor family in 1855. 
As an interesting aside, Henry Scadding, a pioneer of Toronto and noted historian of the period, mentions that the roads around the Don Mills were so bad, that they were often impassable.  In order to get their perishable beer to market across the Don River, the Helliwell’s would employ a local hermit-squatter named Joseph Tyler and his famous canoe to transport their beer across the river.  The canoe was so large it could hold 22 barrels, in two rows of eleven each with room for Tyler and another person! (“Toronto of Old”, Henry Scadding, 1873)
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