It was one of those stories that my Mother would tell us when the talk around the kitchen table got to family matters. “You know the Bryces knew Alexander Graham Bell,” she would say. Usually when Mom said that we would turn to our Dad who was ambivalent about his Bryce relatives and ask him, and he would say something noncommittal.
“They were all Scottish and they lived in the same place or something,” he would say before changing the topic.
It was such a fantastic assertion, that I never really talked about it as a kid. Later on I did some research into the rumour and came up empty. I had assumed the Bryces knew the Bells in Scotland. But the Bells were from Edinburgh, while the Bryces came from the village of Doune – north and west of Edinburgh. It was unlikely they knew each other in Scotland. Also, the Bryces emigrated in 1843 and the Bells in 1870, disproving the idea that perhaps our ancestors emigrated with the Bells.
The Bell family moved to the new world after Alexander Graham’s brother Edward had died of tuberculosis. Alexander Graham himself was considered “sickly” and his father wanted him to live in a place with better air – both Edinburgh and London had pollution problems due to the heavy use of coal for heating and power. So in 1870, the Bell family bought a farmhouse and ten acres at Tutela Heights in the south end of Brantford.
I had known from grade school that the Bells had lived in Brantford, but I didn’t make the connection that maybe the Bells and the Bryces really did know each other until I read The Work of Their Hands, a history of the village written by Dr. Sharon Jaeger. It turns out that Bell had carried out a key experiment using the Ellis General Store in Mount Pleasant. He had strung wires between Tutela Heights and Mount Pleasant – a distance of about four miles. He used the store as his receiving post, since it had a telegraph office and the needed infrastructure. Bell had instructed his uncle David, who was back at the Bell homestead, to quote Shakespeare into the machine at an appointed time. Jaeger quotes Bell’s recollection from a speech he gave 30 years later.
Bell later recalled during a 1906 speech for the Brantford Board of Trade that he sat in Mr. Ellis’ store and waited “with the receiver and my watch in my hand.” Suddenly he heard a preliminary cough, and then the words, “to be or not to be.” “Gentlemen,” exclaimed Dr. Bell, “it was to be…and for the first time between Brantford and Mount Pleasant.”
A week later Bell made the first long distance call between Brantford and Paris, Ontario and that call went down in history, while the experiment in Mount Pleasant was forgotten. But what really caught my attention was an illustration in The Work of Their Hands.
It turns out that not only did the Bryces know the Bells, but they witnessed this important episode of history. I have yet to find any reference to this event in Peter Bryce’s writing, but one has to wonder how much impact this event would have had on him. Peter Bryce was 23 years old at the time and going to school at the University of Toronto.
“It was the forefront of just about everything to do with our modern society,” says Brantford historian Bill Darfler. “It was the beginning of scientific exploration for just about anything you can imagine. The medical world went through a revolution at that time. Our political system changed – our country confederated in 1867.”
This event signifies what we often forget about Peter Bryce. It’s easy to look at his portrait with the stiff white collar and walrus moustache and think of him as old-fashioned. But nothing could be further from the truth – he was on the cutting edge of medicine and science at a time when change was in the air. Bell’s telephone would transform society, but so would Bryce’s vision for good public health. And for one brief evening the two came together at the Ellis General Store in Mount Pleasant, Ontario.