T.W. Ness History

T.W. Ness was an entrepreneur and an early competitor in the field of Telephone and Telegraph supplies in Canada. In this article I’ll explore his family’s history and that of the company he founded with specific emphasis on the glass insulators produced by his company.

Thomas Wood (T.W.) Ness was born May 2nd, 1860 in King City, Ontario, the first in his family to be born in Canada. His parents and older sister had immigrated from Scotland the year before. The family variously lived in Markham, Vaughan and King City, Ontario, just north of Toronto.

He was married Oct 2nd, 1882 in Markham, Ontario – details from the marriage record list the Groom’s name and age: Thomas Wood Ness, Age 22 and also his parents James Ness and Jane Ness (Trench). His bride is listed as Alice Ambrosine Lever, Age 25 along with her parents Henry Lever and Charlotte Lever.

Thomas Wood Ness, From Telephony July 1901 Vol 2, Issue 1

In 1885 the family moved to Montreal, Quebec where T.W. started his business T.W. Ness & Co. manufacturing Thymo-cresol which apparently was a disinfectant. By 1889 The business had shifted to selling pulleys, Electrical Supplies, Typewriters, Cash Registers and Office Specialties.

By 1891 T.W. and his growing family of four children also had living with them three of Thomas’ brothers, two of which were involved in the Electrical Supply business. By 1892 many of Bell’s patents had either expired or were nullified in Canada opening the market to competition. 1892 was also the first year that the T.W. Ness Company is listed in the Montreal city directory as manufacturing telephones and telephone related equipment.

On September 12th, 1893 he was granted patent number 44246 for a “Telephone switch operating mechanism”. A patent was also granted in the United States: Patent US 505170A for a “Telephone switch” Sept 19, 1893.

Ness later forges a partnership with the Holtzer-Cabot Electric company. In 1893 the Ness Company was already the Canadian distributor for at least one Holtzer-Cabot Electric Company product: “The Acme Detector.”

In late 1895 TW Ness retires from Ness, McLaren & Bate although the company name does not change so it’s likely he retains his part ownership and stock in the company. He moves his family to Newton, Mass. and they become naturalized US citizens. Mr. Ness then worked as a manager at the Holtzer-Cabot Electric company who manufactured many things including telephone and telegraph related products as well as clocks and fire alarm systems. It seems likely that his Telephone switch operating mechanism patent is used by Holtzer-Cabot on their “Ness Automatic Telephone System” telephones as the same switch is used on certain telephones produced by the T.W. Ness & Co.

In 1897 the family is living in Newton, Mass. In the 1900 census they are shown to be living in Winthrop Town, Suffolk, Mass (Basically part of Boston now). Details of the family from the census records show Thomas W. born May of 1860 with his occupation listed as Electrician and place of birth as Canada (Eng). The record also indicates the family immigrated to the United States in 1895. It seems they owned their home and were mortgage-free. Alice A. Ness is listed as being born in April 1858. Their children are listed as follows:

  1. Harry James Oct. 1883 At school
  2. Charles Archibald (Archie) 1885 At School
  3. Jessie Alice Nov 1887 At School
  4. William B. Aug 1890 At School
  5. Florence W Oct 1895 (twins)
  6. Gertrude Jean Oct 1895 (twins)

In the 1910 census they are listed at Newton Ward 5, Middlesex, Mass. Thomas’ is shown to be 49 years old and his wife Alice 52. Their son Harry is not living at the family home anymore as he has likely married by this point. Their children are listed as Archie – 26, Jessie – 22, William – 19, Florence – 14 and Gertrude – 14.

In the 1920 census they are still listed at Newton Ward 5, Middlesex, Mass. Thomas’ age is listed as 59 and Alice at 63. The only child still listed as living at their home is Florence W. at 24 years old.

In the 1945 US Census they are listed as living in Fort Myers Florida on 217 First Av. born in Canada
Thomas W. is listed as 85 years old, and Alsa (Alice) is listed as 88, both listed as having High School education and retired. They retained their home in Newton Massachusetts in addition to their vacation home in Fort Myers, Florida.

T.W. Ness passed away on October 1st 1948 in Newton, Mass.

Company Details

Descriptions of the company below have been quoted from various trade journals from the time.

From “Hardware Merchandising” 1893

Mr. T. W. Ness

T. W. Ness is one of our largest dealers in telephones and general electric supplies. He has recently supplied the town of Granby with a lot of telephones as the company there is adding extensively to its telephone exchange. The increasing business of the Citizens’ Co. at Waterloo has also led to a demand for telephone supplies, and among other articles Mr. Ness is supplying them with a lot of “head” receivers for their operators. In Chicoutimi, also, where Messrs. Gray and Co. are putting in an extensive telephone system, the complete outfit is being procured from Mr. Ness, the instruments being all fitted to connect with a central exchange, like the regular Bell offices.

A large exhibit of telephones, switchboards, transmitters, receivers and annunciators has been prepared for the World’s Columbian Exhibition at Chicago by T. W. Ness. Part of this was in the Herald window at the time of the recent fire and narrowly escaped being destroyed.

Mr. Ness has also furnished Messrs. Walker, and Sons & Co. of Walkerville, Ont., with a large number of Standard Telephones for their exchange (Hardware Merchandising 1893)

A photo of the Electrical Exhibit sent to Chicago by T. W. Ness of Montreal, is circulating among the trade. Besides a number of annunciators, a complete telephone switchboard is also shown. The principal exhibit, however is a display of telephones, which will be exceptionally interesting at the present time, owing to the patents expiring on them in the United States. Main Line Telephones, suitable for 200 miles use, are shown, receivers, Blake and Carbon Transmitters, etc. The warehouse telephones form a prominent feature, as these instruments are now largely used in factories and offices. With this system there is no central exchange required, each telephone having its own switchboard, and being able to communicate with any or all of the others. These are fully described in a new illustrated catalogue which will be send free to applicants.

The Canadian Pacific Railway Company have ordered from Mr. T. W. Ness several large annunciators, which are now in course of construction.

The town of Chicoutimi has been lately fitted up with a complete telephone exchange. Messrs. Guoy & Co. were the contractors, and they procured their complete outfit form T. W. Ness, Montreal.

The 117 drop annunciator which is being placed in the new Queen’s Hotel by Messrs. McCrae & Watson was manufactured by T. W. Ness, of Montreal.

The Roherval Telephone Company, of Roherval, Que., have been increasing their number of subscribers recently. The telephones and switchboards were all manufactured by T. W. Ness, of Montreal.

The telephone business of the Citizen’s Telephone Co., at Sherbrooke, Que., has increased so rapidly that the central operators are now using head receivers. These are being made by T. W. Ness, of Montreal.

Mr. T. W. Ness has supplied the Montreal Show Case Company with a 5 h.p. Reliance motor.

Mr. T. W. Ness is supplying the Collegiate Institute of London, Ont., with an experimental electrical outfit.

Hardware Merchant is pleased to know that T. W. Ness, of Montreal, has had representatives in this city (Toronto) since October installing his Standard telephone and also receiving orders for other lines of electric supplies manufactured and handled by him. His business having grown to such proportions a branch house has been opened up at 106 King Street west, Toronto, where the public are cordially invited to call and quote prices before purchasing elsewhere. Nothing succeeds like success. Mr. Ness seems to be “in the swim” and it is hoped since his well directed efforts at Montreal have compelled him to open up here, in order to more satisfactorily supply the demand for his goods, his Toronto branch may share the good fortune of the older house at Montreal.

Norman W. McLaren is entering into partnership with Mr. T. W. Ness, of electrical supply fame. The firm’s new title will be T. W. Ness & Co. The firm’s business has more than doubled during the present summer, and they can hardly meet the demand for their specialties despite their increased facilities. (August 1893)

T. W. Ness, manufacturer of electrical supplies, has admitted as partners P. H. Davidson, J. E. Adams, J. L. Rankin and N. W. McLaren under the style of T. W. Ness & Co.

From “Hardware Merchandising” 1895:

Thomas Wood Ness, Norman Westwood McLaren and Chas. Bate have been registered proprietors of Ness, McLaren & Bate, electrical supplies, Montreal.

From “Hardware – A practical journal for the Wrought, Cast, Stamped, Sheet and Spun Metal Trades” Toronto & Montreal April 6th, 1895:

“T. W. Ness & Co., electrical supplies, Montreal, have dissolved, and a new partnership has been formed between T. W. Ness, W. McLaren and Chas. Bate. Style Unchanged”

Then on September 21st 1895 in the same journal:

“Messrs. McLaren & Bate, electrical supplies, Montreal, have dissolved. T. W. Ness retires, and the business is continued under the old style by N.W. McLaren and Chas. Bate.” This verifies that T.W. Ness left the business after September 1895. His share of the business would likely have been bought out by the other two partners but the name of the company appears to have remained as Ness, McLaren & Bate.

In summary, T.W. Ness & Co. and later Ness, McLaren & Bate was a very successful supply company to early telephone and telegraph companies in Ontario & Quebec and later in British Columbia. As more competition entered the industry in the early 1900s they would have lost market share and it would have become more difficult for them to compete. T.W. Ness’ retirement from the company and his move to the United States in 1895 may also have affected the company’s performance as he was the driving force that built up the company from the start.

Ness, McLaren & Bate insulator specifics

Company literature mentions the availability of insulators, specifically a 1903 business directory and a couple of their catalogs which are unfortunately undated. 

Ness, McLaren & Bate advertisement – Union Publishing Company Business Directory 1903

As of early 2023 there was only one known example of the Ness, McLaren & Bate insulator. It was found at a junk shop in southern Ontario in September 2013. A second example surfaced earlier this year and was sold in Pole Top Discoveries auction #2304 in July 2023. It was apparently purchased at an estate sale in southern Ontario. It seems likely based on comparison of the 2 known examples that they are made from 2 different molds.

There is a very short window during which the Ness, McLaren & Bate insulators could have been produced. Changes to the company name provide a production timeline. Up until 1893 the business was known as T.W. Ness Electrical Supplies. In August 1893 the business name changed to T.W. Ness & Co. “Norman W. McLaren is entering into partnership with Mr. T. W. Ness, of electrical supply fame. The firm’s new title will be T. W. Ness & Co. The firm’s business has more than doubled during the present summer, and they can hardly meet the demand for their specialties despite their increased facilities.”

The Ness, McLaren & Bate partnership was announced in the May 18th, 1895 issue of Hardware Merchandising. T. W. Ness and Co. was dissolved and the business name was officially changed: “Thos. Wood Ness, Norman Westwood McLaren and Chas. Bate have been registered proprietors of Ness, McLaren & Bate, electrical supplies, Montreal.” The Ness, McLaren & Bate insulator therefore must have been produced after the company was renamed the same in May 1895. Production with these original mold or molds likely only continued for a short time though judging by the rarity of the insulators.

In late August or early September 1895 there was a fire at Ness, McLaren & Bate that caused $4,000 in damage. The company had to relocate to a different location in Montreal. The insulator molds must have survived the fire though as they were later reused for the New Westminster and Burrard Inlet Telephone Company. At least one of the molds was reworked to completely remove any wording (see below) leaving only a comma on one side and a period on the other. At least 2 different molds were also re-engraved with the N.W. & B.I.T. Co. company name. Since the N.W. and B.I.T. Co. name ceased to exist in 1902 we can narrow the production window for that insulator to between September 1895 at the earliest to 1902 (When the N.W. & B.I.T. Co. name was changed to BC Telephone Company.) Although varying accounts place the sale and name change of NW & BIT Co as early as 1898 or 1901. By 1908 the Ness, McLaren & Bate company was closed or sold and the company name disappears from the Montreal directory for that year, with another electrical supply company appearing at the same address.

The Ness, McLaren & Bate insulator mold therefore went through at least 3 iterations:

  1. 1895 – The original mold set was made by or for the Ness, McLaren & Bate Company. There appear to be two different molds and only one insulator from each mold has ever been found. Embossing as follows: (F‑Skirt) NESS, McLAREN & BATE (R‑Skirt) MONTREAL. SB
  2. Between 1895 and 1902 but likely closer to 1895 – The original embossing above was removed from at least one of the molds but for some reason the comma between Ness and McLaren was left and on front of the mold and the period after MONTREAL was left on other side the leaving the following embossing: (F‑Skirt) [Comma] [‘NESS, McLAREN & BATE’ blotted out] (R‑Skirt) [‘MONTREAL’ blotted out] SB
  3. Between 1895 and 1898 or possibly as late as 1902 – Two of the insulator molds were re-engraved with the initials of the New Westminster & Burrard Inlet Telephone Company (N.W. & B.I.T. Co.) situated in Vancouver, British Columbia giving 2 known embossing variations, meaning either a single mold that was reworked or more likely that there were 2 different molds as follows:
    1. Mold 1: (F‑Skirt) N.W.&.B.I.T.CO SB (EIN 010 in the Price guide)
    2. Mold2: (F‑Skirt) N.W.&.B.I.T.CO (R‑Skirt) [‘NESS McLAREN & BATE’ blotted out leaving just a ‘,’] SB (EIN 020 in the Price Guide)

In conclusion, my working theory is that there was a pair of original molds used for the Ness, McLaren & Bate insulators with only a small number of insulators produced, perhaps as samples that were sent to customers in Ontario & Quebec. Shortly afterward the embossing was removed from one of the molds or possibly both. These versions tend to only show up in British Columbia and are very scarce as well indicating they were only produced for a short time as well. Lastly, the New Westminster & Burrard Inlet Telephone Company ordered a large number of insulators from Ness, McLaren & Bate with the requirement that their company initials appear on the insulator. At this point both molds were reworked adding the N.W. & B.I.T. Co. name on the two molds while still leaving one mold with a comma on the back of the insulator from the original ‘NESS, McLAREN & BATE’ embossing. Although this last version is still relatively scarce, it is by far the easiest to acquire. Hopefully in the future some of the remaining questions about these insulators will be answered as new information comes to light.