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COOPER, WILLIAM, teacher, businessman, and office holder; b. c. 1761 in Bath, England; m. first Ann –; (d. 1826), and they had one son and three daughters; m. secondly 6 Jan. 1829 Isabella Watson in York (Toronto), Upper Canada, and they had one son; d. 28 Oct. 1840 in Toronto.

William Cooper claimed to have settled in York in 1793 and built its first house; he was certainly there in 1794, and the unfinished house he sold to Abner Miles* that November was among the earliest in the new town. He was living on his lot on Yonge Street north of the town in July 1796, but was back in York the following year. In December 1797 he described himself as a schoolmaster and petitioned unsuccessfully for more land because his house and lot were “too small for his present occupation.” The following November he formally opened what was probably Toronto’s first school. For 8s. a month per pupil, he taught the children of James Macaulay*, Thomas Ridout*, William Chewett, John Denison, and other local citizens, and of soldiers at the garrison. Among his pupils was a black boy whose tuition was paid by Peter Russell*, administrator of the province and a slave-holder.

In 1800 Cooper was licensed as an auctioneer and was appointed a coroner of the Home District (a position he held until 1834) and usher of the Court of King’s Bench. When there was no minister in York, he conducted Anglican services in the parliament building. Although he had been granted a teacher’s licence in 1799, he gave up his school two years later and turned to innkeeping. Abner Miles’s inn had just closed and Cooper’s Toronto Coffee House replaced it as the social centre of the community.

From his arrival in Upper Canada, Cooper had speculated in land, both in the town of York and on the Humber River. In 1806 he sold his inn and began to develop his mill-site on the Humber at Dundas Street. The king’s mill, near present-day Bloor Street, was then the only mill on the river; it was owned and mismanaged by the government. Cooper’s mill opened on 1 Dec. 1807 with machinery the government had provided on the condition that its cost be paid or the equipment replaced within 18 months. The mill had only one run of stone, but from this beginning Cooper built the first milling empire on the Humber, covering hundreds of acres on both sides of the river. He eventually owned a grist-mill, sawmill, fulling-mill, distillery, cooperage, tannery, blacksmith’s shop, store, and tavern, as well as a 40-acre farm and houses for his skilled workmen. By 1820 the dam he had built across the river between his mills got him into trouble for obstructing the run of salmon. Two years later his dam blocked the passage of lumber; in reply to a complaint from Robert Farr, Solicitor General Henry John Boulton* wrote that “works, which are a public nuisance . . . may be removed by any individual who is strong enough to keep his ground if attacked during the operation.” The lumbermen promptly followed Boulton’s legal advice.

As a miller, Cooper was concerned with shipping. In November 1815 he applied for a water-lot in York on which to build the town’s first commercial wharf as well as a warehouse, lumberyard, and tavern, and he was granted a lot near the foot of Church Street. Cooper’s wharf was finally finished in the summer of 1817, when the first steamboats began to run on Lake Ontario [see James McKenzie*]. At the same time the Merchants’ Wharf was being built by a consortium of leading merchants headed by William Allan*.

For some years Cooper managed both his Humber mills and his wharfage business in York. In March 1827, however, he transferred most of his Humber property to his son, Thomas. He sold his waterfront property in February 1828, but a month later bought the much longer Merchants’ Wharf and continued his business as a forwarder, commission merchant, and wharfinger. In his late sixties he married Isabella Watson, a protégée of John Strachan* and his family. In the spring of 1830, “finding the Wharfage business too laborious at his advanced age,” he sold his waterfront holdings to the firm of Alexander Murray and James Newbigging. After a long illness Cooper died in 1840, aged 79.

Cooper’s career in Upper Canada demonstrates both his versatility and his opportunism. He was skilled in identifying the needs of his community, and was often the first to fulfil them. With little respect for authority, he had frequent difficulties with the magistrates over statute labour, tavern licences, taxes, and even assault and battery. He was, however, a successful entrepreneur in a new settlement, and his various enterprises benefited both himself and others.

Edith G. Firth

AO, ms 75; RG 22, ser.94. MTRL, William Allan papers, account-books of Abner and [James] Miles, 1793–1809; William Cooper papers; Humber Valley archive; Abner Miles, day-book B, 1 Sept. 1795–15 Dec. 1796; Peter Russell papers. PAC, MG 23, HII, 6, 1: 131; RG 1, E3, 12: 81; 34, pt.2: 151–52, 166; L3, 89: C1/119; 98: C10/122; 147: C misc. leases/60; RG 5, A1, esp. pp.13950–52, 28570–73, 30657, 33793–95; B9, 53; RG 7, G16C, 5: 29, 38, 80, 129; 31: 203; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 162, 164. Corr. of Hon. Peter Russell (Cruikshank and Hunter). “Minutes of the Court of General Quarter Sessions of the Peace for the Home District, 13th March, 1800, to 28th December, 1811,” AO Report, 1932. Town of York, 1793–1815 (Firth); 1815–34 (Firth). York, Upper Canada: minutes of town meetings and lists of inhabitants, 1797–1823, ed. Christine Mosser (Toronto, 1984). Canadian Freeman, 1825–34. Church, 7 Nov. 1840. Colonial Advocate, 1824–34. Examiner (Toronto), 11 Nov. 1840. Upper Canada Gazette, 1793–1828. John Andre, Infant Toronto as Simcoe’s folly (Toronto, 1971). S. T. Fisher, The merchant-millers of the Humber valley: a study of the early economy of Canada (Toronto, 1985). E. C. Guillet, Toronto from trading post to great city (Toronto, 1934). K. M. Lizars, The valley of the Humber, 1615–1913 (Toronto, 1913; repr. 1974). Ont., Dept. of Planning and Development, Humber valley report (Toronto, 1948). Robertson’s landmarks of Toronto. T. W. Acheson, “The nature and structure of York commerce in the 1820s,” CHR, 50 (1969): 406–28. Douglas McCalla, “The ‘loyalist’ economy of Upper Canada, 1784–1806,” SH, 16 (1983): 279–304.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Edith G. Firth, “COOPER, WILLIAM (d. 1840),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 19, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cooper_william_1840_7E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cooper_william_1840_7E.html
Author of Article: Edith G. Firth
Title of Article: COOPER, WILLIAM (d. 1840)
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1988
Year of revision: 1988
Access Date: December 19, 2014