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'Number please': In 1937, you no longer had to crank the phone to reach the operator

In this week's Remember This, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights the history of the telephone in Newmarket

Newmarket had its first telephone subscriber just three years after Alexander Graham Bell first transmitted his first voice sound over wire in 1876. In 1879, S.A. Russell and Company rented a pair of telephones from Melville Bell, Alexander Graham Bell’s father, for use within their firm. They were linked to the Montreal Telegraph Company office on Main Street.

This is a full year before the Bell Telephone Company of Canada was incorporated. Bell was to open its first exchange in Newmarket in 1884 with 18 subscribers, located where the Campbell store was on the east side of Main in the Starr Building, allowing any telephone conversation to be ‘switched’ from any local phone to any other phone if they too were connected to the exchange. The new exchange in Aurora was connected to the Newmarket exchange, which proved a convenience.

The equipment was quite primitive according to today’s standards with a tiny switchboard being the hub of the local exchange. David Lloyd was the first Bell manager here in Newmarket, located at the corner of Main and Botsford Street. 

The first ‘long distance line’ was strung between Newmarket and Toronto in 1884. There were rival telephone ‘companies’ or ‘exchanges’ to Bell here in Newmarket. An item in The Newmarket Era said that following the restoration of the Gorham Woollen Mills after the fire of 1879, a telephone was installed.

The following is part of a personal account published in Ethel Trewhella’s History of Newmarket of a personal account of Erastus Jackson, editor of the Era, recalling the first time he saw a telephone.

“Stepping into Mr. Kelman’s office, we were invited to press a button-like looking knob fastened to the window casement.  Immediately a small bell tinkled and placing a tube-like instrument to our ear, we heard the question: ‘Who is there?’  After replying, we were enabled to converse with the gentleman over in the Woollen Mills quite easily, hearing distinctly.

“It is certainly a wonderful invention and must prove of immense advantage to businessmen. Now that the telephone is introduced, others will follow.  Had this been in operation before the fire, many thousands would have been saved. The Gorham Woollen Mills are now connected with the Montreal Telegraph Company’s office on Main Street with a telephone.”

These telephones were desk or wall set receivers, held alternately at mouth and ear for talking and listening.  They had two red bands painted round the handle to indicate that they were for use in Canada only.

The Bell Telephone Company was incorporated on April 29, 1880, and at once began taking over the various telephone lines already established. In Newmarket, Danford Roche owned one of these private lines to connect his residence in Newmarket with his store in Aurora. After the Industrial Home was built on Yonge Street, Roche offered the use of his telephone poles to convey electricity to the new building.  According to Roche, his was the first telephone in Newmarket.

A line was built to Toronto in 1884 that linked Newmarket with several centres. One was built to Barrie the same year.  A small pocket size directory of January 1885 contained the names of the 18 subscribers of Newmarket, which except for David Lloyd, the Bell Telephone agent residing on Pearson Street, and W. Playter, merchant, on Prospect Street, were all in business offices.

The first switchboard was installed in Lloyd’s insurance office at the corner of Main and Botsford streets. Service was given from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 2 to 4 p.m. Sundays and 10 to noon and 2 to 4 p.m. on holidays.  It was not until 1903 that we got 24-hour service.  

The central office was moved to the bookstore of William N. Starr on Main Street in 1886. He continued as manager until 1908 when J. M. McHardy took over.

According to the minutes of Newmarket council in 1893, the Bell Telephone Company had been enjoying, without any restraint, the use of public highways free, and “whereas the poles and wires are dangerous to public travel, and in the case of fire in many instances the wires of said company are a menace and inconvenience to our firemen in charge of their duties”, a bylaw was introduced to “compel the Company to remove the poles and wires and place the wires underground, or enter into an agreement to pay as Council may deem expedient.”. 

In 1898, there were changes. A modern switchboard replaced the old one, the wires entered the building enclosed in two cables and people were called by number instead of by name. By 1900, there were 43 telephones in Newmarket: by 1906, 100.  The number of telephones increased to 200 by May 1911, 300 in 1912 and 500 by 1920.

W.H. Goodwin succeeded J. M. McHardy as local manager in April 1909 and C.H. Mortimore took over in November 1910.  A.A. Smith replaced Mr. Mortimore in 1915.  In 1918, A.C. Price took over until G.E. Bruce started in 1919 with Miss E. McCaffrey as the local representative.  F.J. Franklin became the local manager in 1926 and the following year, E.A. Schnurr, C.W. Holmes in 1931 and S.R. Stevens in 1938 was  succeeded by H. McClelland. In 1943, C.E. Blosdale became manager.

I remember my grandpa said that he hated the telephone and refused a home phone for years, preferring to speak to people face to face.  By 1978 there were 17, 379 telephones registered in the area and who knows how many thousands there are today.

The first transatlantic call was placed from Newmarket in 1930 when a Mr. Kirstine who worked for the local Department of Agriculture called his sister in Dulwick, England for a chat.

In an earlier article I posted the picture of telephone polls being connected along Main Street. In 1937, those poles were removed from Main Street. Also, in 1937, common battery service was introduced here in Newmarket. No longer did one need to turn a crank on their phones to reach the local operator; they merely needed to lift the receiver to hear that historic phrase – ‘number please’. Newmarket was one of the first small towns to acquire this service, I might add.

By 1956, local subscribers could dial local numbers themselves and, in 1968. they began to dial directly all over North America. The new Bell exchange was constructed on the south side of Millard that year as well.

Your phone number was initially three-digits long but eventually we switched to an exchange (Twinning, TW for short) and a five-digit number. Eventually, of course, TW became 89 and TW5-0703 became 895-0703.

When we look back, we can hardly imagine a time when we did not have a phone and now it has become as important as electricity.

I hope you enjoyed our look back at the arrival of the telephone to Newmarket.

I hope you are all having a wonderful holiday season, stay safe and remember to keep the faith.  

Sources: Newmarket Era Articles; Stories of Newmarket – An Old Ontario Town by Robert Terence Carter; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; Oral History Interviews conducted by Richard MacLeod


Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.