The Warrington Apartments (1909) lost its free-to-use communal phone in 1917 when Bell replaced it with a “nickel in the slot” phone. Image: December 2018.

Built in 1909, the Warrington Apartments is one of the city’s older apartments and one of the oldest at the southern end of Elgin street.

At least in apartments intended for a more comfortable tenant, a building’s amenities would often include a free-to-use communal telephone. The $25 per year Bell charged for personal telephone service was often enough felt too expensive, but $45 per year spread across 6, 8, or even 12 units in a building made this convenience of modern life more accessible.

Between the Journal and the Citizen, it is not entirely clear if Bell installed a nickel-in-the-slot machine on the existing communal phone or an entirely new telephone designed as a pay phone. Above is an example from around 1920. For more examples, see Tom’s Antique Telephones. Image: Bidsquare.

In January 1917, the local office of Bell Telephone installed a “nickel-in-the-slot” pay phone in the Warrington Apartments at 415 Elgin replacing the free-to-use phone that tenants were accustomed to. At least one tenant in the building, W. E. Mace, was not happy with the changeover and filed a complaint with the Board of Railway Commissioners.1”Free Phone Banned in Apartment House,” Ottawa Journal, April 16, 1917, 12. Until 1993, the Railway Act was the guiding legislation for telecommunications in Canada and the BRC was the formal complaint body for matters in telephone and telegraph.

This complaint results from the fact that, whereas it was formerly customary for residents in apartment houses to have the use of one common telephone, the company recently decided to instal [sic] “nickel-in-the-slot” machines, so that those who had previously been receiving telephone service without charge are now compelled to pay.

Ottawa Journal, April 16, 1917, 12.

The substance of the complaint went beyond an individual being unwilling to pay, notwithstanding the Journal’s characterization. It was not clear that Bell’s placement of pay phones in the common area of apartment building was consistent with the franchise agreement the company had signed with the City of Ottawa. At the instruction of Central Ward Alderman John Macdonald, City Solicitor Frank Proctor appeared before the Board on behalf of Mace the morning of April 17.

Bell’s agreement with the City of Ottawa was silent on pay phones and there were only two services outlined: $25 per year for a phone in a private dwelling for domestic use only, and $45 per year for a phone in “an office, shop or house use for trade or any business purpose.” Proctor argued that before the Commissioners that this change in policy for apartment houses was neither authorized by the agreement nor justified on other grounds. He added that users might not even get what they paid for, as the machine would keep the nickel regardless of whether or not the call reached the person intended.

You might get the right number, but not the right party but the machine retains the five cents.

Ottawa City Solicitor Frank Proctor, as quoted in Ottawa Citizen, April 17, 1917, 6.

In its defence, Bell’s representative, R. Fitzpatrick argued that the agreement was silent on apartment houses and that they were outside of it entirely. He added that the agreement between Bell and an apartment’s proprietor stipulated that the service had to be limited to themselves, their servants, and the members of their family. If the phone was placed in the hallway or some other common area, this requirement would be unmet.

Proctor responded that Bell’s new apartment house policy was in direct contradiction to the practice of the last several years since the agreement was signed. Bell maintained that this policy was consistent with what it was doing in other cities. The Railway Commissioners reserved their judgment.2”Reserve Judgment in Telephone Case,” Ottawa Journal, April 17, 1917, 5; “Object to Pay Phone in Apartment House,” Ottawa Citizen, April 17, 1917, 6; Ottawa Citizen, April 17, 1917, 14.

The Commissioners released their decision a few weeks later. On May 4, the Citizen and Journal reported that Bell had successfully defended itself and that the company had the right to install pay phones in apartment buildings.

As a bit of back-story, the Commissioners noted that owner and builder of The Warrington, Eddie McNeill, signed a new contact with Bell that January, replacing the $45 agreement. Bell was not going to install a pay phone unless it could be sure that it was worthwhile: under the new agreement McNeill had to guarantee Bell a revenue of $4 per month from the phone.

The Commissioners were unimpressed with Proctor’s argument regarding the agreement. After all, the agreement was also silent on long-distance phone calls and the charging of tolls, but those were not prohibited in Ottawa. In any event, Bell had the right to install telephones and charge tolls before the agreement was made.

The decision applied to all apartment buildings in Ottawa.3”Semi-Public Phone in Apartments is Upheld by Board,” Ottawa Citizen, May 4, 1917, 12; “Company has the Right to Install Pay Phone,” Ottawa Journal, May 4, 1917, 2. Also see A. H. O’Brien, A Digest of Canadian Cases Relating to Railway, Telegraph, Telephone and Express Companies. Toronto: Canada Law Book Company, Ltd., 1920, 832-33.

Note 1: A story on the Warrington Apartments and Col. E. R. “Eddie” McNeill is forthcoming. As is the usual case, I don’t know when it will be complete.

Note 2: The agreement signed in 1912/13 between the City of Ottawa and the Bell Telephone Company of Canada was the cause of dispute far beyond the disagreement over the place of pay phones in apartments. A story on the 1917/18 fight between Ottawa and Bell is also forthcoming.

Notes   [ + ]

1. ”Free Phone Banned in Apartment House,” Ottawa Journal, April 16, 1917, 12. Until 1993, the Railway Act was the guiding legislation for telecommunications in Canada and the BRC was the formal complaint body for matters in telephone and telegraph.
2. ”Reserve Judgment in Telephone Case,” Ottawa Journal, April 17, 1917, 5; “Object to Pay Phone in Apartment House,” Ottawa Citizen, April 17, 1917, 6; Ottawa Citizen, April 17, 1917, 14.
3. ”Semi-Public Phone in Apartments is Upheld by Board,” Ottawa Citizen, May 4, 1917, 12; “Company has the Right to Install Pay Phone,” Ottawa Journal, May 4, 1917, 2. Also see A. H. O’Brien, A Digest of Canadian Cases Relating to Railway, Telegraph, Telephone and Express Companies. Toronto: Canada Law Book Company, Ltd., 1920, 832-33.