Forgotten disasters: the 1935 London fire that sparked the world’s first 999 emergency phone line

HAPPY BIRTHDAY – the world’s first 999 emergency phone service celebrates its 80th birthday!

Something has just gone badly wrong and you pick up the phone and dial 999 in a real emergency. How simple and brilliant is that! Take a moment to actually just think about this. When you are in real need, the emergency services will respond. They save the lives of countless people every day. It’s just become ‘normal’ and so it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always so: turn back to clock to a …

Forgotten Disaster: 1935 Wimpole Street London

A fire breaks out on the ground floor at a doctor’s house in 27 Wimpole Street, Marylebone – incidentally the same address (27A) made famous in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1913, characters Professor Higgins, Eliza Doolittle).

source CC:, on that fateful early morning on November 10th, drama turned to tragedy when help arrived too late for those trapped in the upper rooms.  A milkman on his rounds noticed dense smoke and ran to the nearest street fire alarm, smashing the glass and pulling the alarm.  Running back he stood by helplessly as an elderly woman leaned out from the window shouting “for God’s sake get the fire brigade” before disappearing amid smoke and flames.

A neighbour attempted to dial through to the local telephone exchange and was unable to reach an operator. Eventually the fire service did arrive but sadly too late for the victims Mrs Franklin, wife of the doctor, Miss Brook her nice and a cook, a housemaid and a kitchen maid. Also remembered must be the hero of the tragedy, a fireman by the name of Leonard Tobias who carried on searching the smoke-filled building ‘long after his men had collapsed’. He was later killed in the line of duty.

Take a look at how the incident was reported in widely different ways, for example in The Spectator and on the other side of the globe in The Courier-Mail, Brisbane:

999 history SPECTATOR

999 history courier brisbane


But the story does not end there, thankfully.

The caller, Norman Macdonald, a dentist living in the house opposite who had been held in a queue by the Welbeck telephone exchange was so outraged that he wrote a letter to the editor of The Times1. In response to the letter and public outcry, the Government set up a committee to establish a dedicated emergency service. At the time when there were only 3 million home telephones and most people would use coin-operated red telephone boxes, the number 999 was chosen because it was easy to dial.

For a real look into what actually happens today when you dial 999, take a look at this video from Northants Emergencies

And please THINK before you dial 999


THANK YOU emergency services and HAPPY 8oth BIRTHDAY 999.




1. “It all started with us” The Times (archive)

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4 thoughts on “Forgotten disasters: the 1935 London fire that sparked the world’s first 999 emergency phone line

  1. Ainsley

    Your posts are always interesting. I always learn something new. First time I’m posting a comment just to say thanks!!

  2. Jackie

    I’ve seen several posts around this topic but yours stands out. Nice blog – will explore!

  3. Sandy

    I’m a frequent London visitor and found this post very interesting. Your blog is very unusual and very informative. Thanks! Will recommend.

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