London's Forgotten Disasters: The Tragedy That Sparked The 999 Service

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By M@ Last edited 30 months ago
London's Forgotten Disasters: The Tragedy That Sparked The 999 Service
Image by Annie in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Ever wondered when the 999 emergency phone line launched? It goes back as far as 1937, and it has its roots here in London.

It all started on 10 November 1935, when a fire broke out at a doctor's house at 27 Wimpole Street, Marylebone. A neighbour spotted the fire and attempted to dial through to the local telephone exchange. In those times, calls usually had to be connected manually, and such was the case at the local Welbeck exchange. For whatever reason, the caller had difficulty getting through to an operator and the fire continued to rage. Eventually, the brigade were alerted by other means, but not before five women had lost their lives in the burning building. These were Julia Franklin (55), Elizabeth Caroline Dunkley (55), Lillie Hannah Brook (47), Alexandrina Lamont (22) and Evelyn Hardy (15).

The hero of the tragedy was a fireman called Leonard Tobias, who carried on searching the smoke-filled building 'long after his men had collapsed'. Tobias emerged unscathed and was commended by the coroner, only to be badly injured in the line of duty two weeks later. The luckless hero was later killed by a bomb blast in 1940. Along with the fire victims, he too deserves to be remembered.

The tragedy on Wimpole Street might have been averted had that early telephone call got through. Fireman Tobias might have reached the victims before they asphyxiated. Clearly, a more efficient system was needed. On 30 June 1937, the Assistant Postmaster General Sir Walter Womersley was able to announce the inauguration of the 999 service — the first emergency telephone number in the world. The House of Commons greeted it with short-sighted derision:

A press clipping syndicated around the UK's newspapers, 1 July 1937. © Local World Limited. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

Despite parliamentary lambasting, the 999 service was deemed an immediate success. A year after launch, an average of 8,000 emergency calls were being logged every month. In the Postmaster General's antiquated vocabulary, the service had "obtained remarkable results in securing the arrest of malefactors and saving precious minutes in summoning the doctor or fire brigade". It remained a London-only service until after the Second World War, when 999 was rolled out to other major cities. Somewhat surprisingly, it would not become UK-wide until 1976, with the arrival of automatic exchanges in all parts of the country. 80 years after the tragedy that sparked it, the 999 service is still very much at the core of emergency response.

Other Forgotten Disasters

Last Updated 09 November 2015

Clunking Fist

Another great British export! Although for trademark reasons, it's 111 in NZ, 911 in USA, etc.

John Bone

The EEMA (European Emergency Number Association) is working hard to further modernise the 112/999 service across Europe. As for example a 'smartphone' could also send the GPS location to the emergency services, at the same time as you are speaking to the operator. Remember that 112 is now a standard emergency number across the whole of Europe.
Remember all mobile phones will call 112 regardless of the lock/passcode or lack of credit on your sim card. Also 999 will not work if you have a non-UK sim.

Peter Robert Jones

Of course due to ongoing cuts due to 'austerity', given that many fire brigades in the UK have stopped attending some 999 calls at all, and most fire alarms now merit no attendance; and with police increasingly reluctant to respond to many categories of 999 calls or burglar alarms, the original purpose of the 999 system seems to be getting rather compromised. It is accurate to say that due to a massive rate of fire station closures, even with the excellent 999 system, the UK public can expect to wait longer for a fire engine now than they did 50 years ago. Politicians are no different today than 80 years ago and it will take a disaster, or perhaps more than one, to open their eyes to the level of damaging cuts they are imposing and you can be assured that the same derision will greet any attempts to reverse the cuts as greeted moves to introduce the 999 system.