Before the introduction of the 999 service in 1937 police boxes were a familair sight on streets providing a direct line to the local police station. With policemen on the beat not having radios, they also provided a way for the station to call officers out and about. The one shown here is at The National Telephone Kiosk Collection


History of the 999 service (the first dedicated emergency number in the world) and what came before...

Emergency communication has always been one of the key reasons for having a phone. From the very early days telegraph & telephone companies saw this as one of their selling points and promoted it widely.

In the late 1800's and early 1900's emergency fire call points were installed on streets, initially in London, but soon adopted by other towns too. These used telegraph rather than telephone technology, giving a simple on / off indication at the fire station that the alarm in a particular street had been activated but not allowing any voice communication. Police call points were soon introduced but by using the newer telephone technology they allowed callers to speak to the station, they also allowed the station to call an officer out on the beat and speak to them because police officers at this time didn't carry radios.

Each police force had its own design. Some were little more than a modified garden shed with a phone on the outside for the public to use and a desk and phone inside for the policeman. Other forces used a pillar design, but the most famous design of course was that of the 'Tardis' made popular by the TV series Dr Who in 1963. Rumour has it that the choice of a police box came about because the original Dr Who series was made on a shoestring budget and the BBC already had a police kiosk in their props department left over from Dixon of Dock Green. This was a series following the activities of police officers at a fictional Metropolitan Police station in the East End of London. Whether this is true or not we do not know!

Ordinary general purpose telephone kiosks connected to automatic exchanges were typically fitted with a button to call the operator in an emergency, bypassing the need to insert money. Of course in those kiosks on manual exchanges, lifting the handset connected you directly to the exchange operator who would, on request, connect you free of charge to the police/fire/ambulance station.

999, not 111

With private subscribers lines, such as those in homes and offices, customers on automatic exchanges could dial the operator by dialling 0. This would connect you to the 'Auto-Manual Board' - a manual switchboard serving one or more local automatic exchanges however the system was unable to distinguish emergency calls coming into the operator from those less urgent ones such as people having technical problems. Clearly a method of giving emergency callers priority access to the operator was needed.

On November 10th 1935, in the early hours of the morning, a fire broke out a 27 Wimpole Street London, home of surgeon Dr Philip Franklin. A milkman used the fire telegraph call point on Harley Street to call the fire brigade. Around the same time a neighbour, dentist Dr Norman Macdonald, called 0 from his house phone to call the operator at the local exchange and ask for the fire brigade, but despite several attempts could not get any reply from the operator. The fire, described by station office Tobias as 'the hottest I have ever known' killed all 5 occupants of the house. The next day The Times printed a letter from Dr Macdonald complaining that the operator did not answer his call which sparked debate about the consequences of such a thing happening again, and particularly in areas where emergency telegraph/telephone kiosks were not fitted.


Inside of a Kiosk No 5 at The National Telephone Kiosk Collection showing emergency call button fitted in kiosks connected to automatic exchanges before the introduction of 999

The telephone network at this time was the responsibility of The General Post Office, and The Postmaster General set up a committee to investigate ways to improve emergency communications. In January 1937 the committee recommended a short telephone code be introduced for emergency operator calls and proposed 999. The committee was adamant that any number must be standard accross all telephone exchanges, be easy to remember, and be able to be dialled from kiosks without inserting money. To make the new number easily compatible with the 'Director Strowger' automatic exchanges used in London and other big cities the new code needed to be 3 digits long as this could be easily interpreted by the existing equipment. It also needed to fit into the numbering system already in use in automatic exchanges.

Numbers beginning with 0 were already used for non emergency access to the operator

1 was generally not used because the pulse dialling system could easily lead to a 1 being transmitted to the exchange by accident, either by uninsulated overhead wires tapping together in the wind, or by fumbling the switchhook on the phone when lifting the handset. For this reason 111 was avoided.

Numbers beginning with 2 were already used for general phone numbers meaning payphones could not discriminate between emergency calls starting with 2 and a call to an ordinary number - hence money would have to be inserted. Furthermore in London 222 was already the code for Abbey Exchange.

Likewise Numbers beginning with 3,4,5,6,7,8 were already used for general phone numbers meaning payphones could not discriminate between emergency calls starting with 2 and a call to an ordinary number - hence money would have to be inserted.

9 was not in use for any other numbers and so payphones could easily be made to distinguish emergency calls and allow the call to be made without money.

At the time (1937) no other country had a similar system for emergency calls and its introduction on all 91 automatic 'Director Strowger' exchanges in London on June 30th was a world first.

Public information film shown in cinemas to promote the use of the 999 service

Reproduced with kind permission of BT Archives


In the exchange

999 calls came through to the operator at the local 'Auto Manual Board'. This was a manual switchboard serving a group of automatic exchanges in an area. To indicate an emergency a hooter sounded and a red light glowed. The early design of hooter led to complaints from operators that it was too loud and shrill and 'likely to cause nervous strain on both day and night telephonists' To appease the operators a cover was fitted to the hooter to reduce the intensity. The introduction of computerised digital exchanges and operator terminals in the 1980's meant that operators answering emergency calls could see the address of the calling phone on screen immediately.

National Rollout

A year after it's introduction in London, the 999 service was launched in Glasgow in 1938. Plans were afoot to launch the system nationally but were held up by the outbreak of war in 1939. The rollout continued after the war and by 1947 was available at 600 exchanges. The system did not cover the entire country until the replacement of the last manual exchanges with automatic ones in 1976. The last manual exchange in England to be converted was Abingdon Oxfordshire in 1975 and the very last manual exchange in the UK was Portee Scotland in 1976.

The first mobile phone network in the UK (Vodafone) was launched in 1985 and a year later the 999 service became available to mobile users. Operators are provided with the account holders details for mobile phones on contract but information on the callers actual current location is restricted to the transmitter tower ('cell site') the call originated from.