Hidden Toronto: Todmorden Regency Cottage (aka Parshall Terry house)

The circa-1820s cottage was owned by the Don's first water master who drowned on July 20, 1808 while crossing the river. His body was never found.


What

Todmorden Regency Cottage

Where

67 Pottery Road

Why you should check it out

The Todmorden Regency Cottage is at once one of Toronto’s most recognizable landmarks and one of its most secretive. 

From its spot in a hollow off Pottery Road overlooking the Don, it’s not hard to imagine life in the Muddy York of the late 1700s. 

Back then the Don Valley was a hub of industrial activity and a magnet for settlers and industrialists. Workers cottages dotted the slopes of the river bank and the Todmorden paper mill, now the Papermill Theatre and Gallery, was the first in Upper Canada to produce newsprint for the colony’s first publications including William Lyon Mackenzie’s The Colonial Advocate. The village also turned out much of the lumber, flour, beer, and bricks used to build the city.

John Graves Simcoe, who was lieutenant governor of Upper Canada at the time, ordered the first grist mill be built on the site in 1796 and the seeds of what would become Todmorden village were sown.

The Toronto Architectural Conservancy’s database on heritage properties estimates the Todmorden Regency Cottage, one of four buildings still standing on the site, was built “in the late 1820s or early 1830s.

But – and herein lies part of the mystery –  “the building may have been built over a portion of an earlier home occupied by Parshall Terry.”

Terry was the Don River’s first watermaster and a member of the first legislative assembly of Upper Canada. He was born in Mattituck, New York. A British Empire Loyalist, he served on the side of the British during the American Revolutionary War. 

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, on July 20, 1808, Terry was crossing the Don on a floating bridge and drowned. His body was never recovered. He was 52. Another version of his tragic demise suggests he died while crossing the Don on horseback during a flood.

Terry was married to Rhoda Skinner whose brothers Isaiah and Aaron founded the first mills on the Don River in the 1790s. The Skinner family home was located a stone’s throw from Todmorden cottage on the other side of Pottery Road. A part of it still stands today on the site of Fantasy Farm.

Not much is known about those who inhabited the cottage after Terry’s death. But there’s a clue inscribed on the basement wall – the initials TLH and ELM written inside two hearts. It’s dated 1850. It’s believed they are the initials of Thomas Helliwell and Eliza Ann Morse. 

Helliwell House. Photo by Samuel Engelking.

Thomas is the son of William Helliwell, who arrived from England in 1821. The Helliwell House was built in 1848 after a fire destroyed the original building on the site. William Helliwell is said to have also lost his mother, wife and then his young son in the preceding years, giving rise to the legend that Todmorden is cursed. The discovery of his diaries and stories of the life it told added to the lore.

The Helliwell family, which also operated a mill and brewery in the area, would slowly sell off their land and move east to the Highland Creek area.

It was a transformative time for the area. By the turn of the 20th-century, many of the workers in the area were employed mining clay at the nearby Toronto Brick Works. They would be joined by POWs during the Second World War. The prisoners, most of whom were members of the German merchant marine, lived in a prisoner of war camp occupying the lands across the river from Todmorden Mills.

The Todmorden cottage had passed through a number of hands and was occupied until the early 1950s – according to records, without electricity – when many of the buildings that formed part of the former Todmorden village had already either been destroyed or torn down.

The area seemed poised for redevelopment when Hurricane Hazel hit setting in motion efforts to mitigate development in Toronto’s watershed. By the 60s the effort to save what was left of the village and preserve the area as a historical site was spearheaded by East York council. In 2017, the Todmorden Regency Cottage and Helliwell House were reopened, the former being restored to its Second World War state.

@enzodimatteo

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