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“Which service do you require?”


Hopefully, one telephone number that you won’t dial too often will be 999, unless KFC have run out of chicken, as some idiot did during the shortage back in 2018. The number will give you access to the four emergency services, Police, Fire, Ambulance and Search & Rescue. It’s a number that’s ingrained into most of the population of the UK. The telephone has been with us since the late 1880s, so would it surprise you that the emergency number has only been around since 1937?


Whether you were one of the fortunate ones to have a telephone at home or if like most people you used public ones mainly found in tobacconists shops before the standard red phone box was introduced in 1921 getting through to the emergency services was difficult. Firstly you had to connect to the operator at the local exchange, either you would relay the details to them or you would have to wait for them to connect you to the relevant local service. This could cause lengthy delays, firstly at certain times of day the operator could be difficult to get hold of, also the details could at times get confused in the telling. There also didn’t seem to any centralised command, especially where the fire brigade was concerned, so it fell to the switchboard operator to know which fire station was nearest to the reported outbreak of fire. There are many instances of calls being put through to the wrong fire station, again causing delays.

This all came to a head early in the morning of November 10th 1935. A fire broke out at on the ground floor of a house at 27 Wimpole Street, Marylebone owned by a Dr. Phillip Franklin an ear specialist. A milkman noticed the flames and raised the alarm, but didn’t think of trying to contact the fire brigade. It fell to a neighbour who roused by the milkman attempted to dial through to the local telephone exchange. For whatever reason, the caller had difficulty getting through to an operator at the local Welbeck Exchange and the fire continued to rage. An errand boy was despatched to the nearby Manchester Square Fire Station which was about ten minutes away and eventually the fire engine arrived. Unfortunately by then the smoke, flames and heat proved too much for the brave firemen who entered the building and several attempts to reach the people trapped inside were thwarted until eventually a fireman called Leonard Tobias managed to make his was upstairs.

27 Wimpole Street

Sadly his valiant effort was in vain, as in an upstairs room he discovered the bodies of the doctors wife Julia Franklin, her niece Caroline Dunkley, the cook Lillie Brook, housemaid Alexandrina Lamont and Evelyn Hardy a kitchen maid aged fifteen.


Sir Walter Womersley

The tragic loss of life at Wimpole Street might have been averted had the telephone caller managed to get through. A more efficient system was obviously needed but despite a furore in the press it would be another two years before something positive happened. On the 30th June 1937, the then Assistant Postmaster General Sir Walter Womersley announced in Parliament the inauguration of the 999 service which was the first emergency telephone number in the world.

Surprisingly his announcement was met with derision and an amount of sexism, one MP commenting that it was perhaps beyond the powers of a lady faced with some sort of danger to remember the 999 number let alone being able to dial it herself, while others scoffed at such technology as being prone to failure, siting the connection to the operator as being the surest was of raising the alarm.

Despite the short sighted comments, the 999 service was an immediate success. The following year, an average of 8,000 emergency calls were being taken every month. However, it remained a London-only service until after the end of the Second World War, when it was adopted by other major cities. Rather surprisingly it was not something that was available throughout the UK until 1976, with the advent of automatic telephone exchanges in all parts of the country. Nearly ninety years after the tragedy that sparked it, the 999 service is still very much at the heart of emergency response in the UK.

A footnote to this is that during research on this piece I found another mention of the fireman Leonard Tobias who had bravely entered the burning building. Two weeks after the Wimpole Street fire he was badly injured in a collapsing building, returning to work several months later. He continued to serve until he was killed during a bomb blast in 1940, one of the 997 firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty during the war.

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