A Model City

44. Gooderham & Worts Mill and Distillery
Gooderham & Worts Mill and Distillery

On August 31, 1990, after 158 years in operation, Gooderham & Worts, the oldest industry in York/Toronto, closed its doors(1). The mill and distillery had long since left the control of the original owners and had merged several times until its final owners, Allied Lyons of Britain, found the operation redundant(2).

Historically it all began when Norfolk miller James Worts (1792?-1834) emigrated to York in 1831(3). Worts had a flour mill built on the shore of the bay, between the eastern boundary of York and the river Don(4). In 1832, Worts was joined by his brother-in-law, William Gooderham (1790-1881), who invested 3 000 pounds sterling into the partnership(5).

The Worts and Gooderham mill was easily identifiable by its 70 foot high brick windmill that instantly became a local landmark and would have been visible from the steps of Toronto's First Post Office. Wind, soon supplemented and then replaced by steam, powered mill stones, and through a series of gears, ground grain.

The business ran smoothly until James Worts committed suicide in 1834(6). Upset over the death of his wife in childbirth, Worts reportedly drowned himself in the well of the windmill (7). William, as the remaining patriarch of both families and the sole owner of the mill, flourished under the pressure and became one of Toronto’s best-known capitalists.

Gooderham made several strategic improvements to his enterprise(8). Most significant was adding distilling to the milling business in 1837, a common practice at the time (9). The milling process generated not only good, saleable flour, but also unsalable waste products. By distilling, such waste products could be transformed into eminently saleable whisky(10). Gooderham started with wooden pot stills, which were soon replaced by up-to-date copper column stills.

In 1845, Gooderham made his nephew, James Gooderham Worts (1818-1882), a full partner, thus creating the well-known Gooderham & Worts partnership. In 1861, the great Stone Distillery was opened, increasing production capacity from 80,000 to 2 million gallons of whisky per year. (11) By the late 1870s, Gooderham & Worts was reportedly the largest distillery in the world, and remained the largest distillery in the British Empire until the Great War of 1914-1918.

Today, Gooderham & Worts has been transformed into the Distillery Historic District that features the Stone Distillery and over 40 other industrial heritage buildings that have been transformed for arts, cultural and other modern uses. It remains one of the best-preserved 19th-century industrial complexes, and a fine descendant of the early 19th-century English factories(12).

1 Sally Gibson, "(No) Labour Day 1990," August 31,2008,
2 Filey, p. 86.
3 Sally Gibson, Toronto's Distillery District: History by the Lake (Toronto: Distillery Historic District, 2008), pp. 1-3.
4 Firth, p.81 and Gibson, pp. 1-3 and 115-116.
5 Gibson, pp. 76-79.
6 Firth, p.81. Gibson, p. 9.
7 Ibid.
8 Dianne Newell and Ralph Greenhill, Survivals: Aspects of Industrial Archaeology in Ontario, (Boston: The Boston Mills Press, 1989),p. 85.
9 Ibid. and Gibson, passim.
10 Firth, p.81 and Gibson, passim.
11 Gibson, p. 56.
12 Patricia McHugh, Toronto Architecture, A City Guide, 2nd ed. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Inc., 1989), p.38.

Picture Credit
Detail from General View of the City of Toronto, U.C., Thomas Young (artist), N. Currier (printer), ca. 1835, Toronto Public Library. This predates the distillery.