‘999’ (British emergency telephone number)

The noun 999 denotes the telephone number used to contact the emergency services in the United Kingdom.

This telephone number was introduced in 1937 by Walter Womersley (1878-1961), who was then the Assistant Postmaster-General. The following is from a debate that took place in the House of Commons on Wednesday 30th June 1937—it is interesting to note that the new emergency number was met with some derision:

Mr. Keeling asked the Postmaster-General whether he can now state how soon a telephone user will be able, in case of fire or other emergency, to indicate to the exchange, by dialling a special number, that the call is specially urgent?
Sir W. Womersley: I am glad to be able to inform the House that the necessary technical arrangements have now been completed so far as London is concerned, and that if a subscriber or call office user dials “999,” a special signal indicating that the call must receive immediate attention will be given to the exchange operator. The “999” call may be made free of charge from a call office: I would strongly emphasise that the number “999” should be dialled only when the fire brigade, police or ambulance is needed in circumstances of real emergency, otherwise the whole purpose of the arrangement may be defeated. It will, until further experience has been gained, be operative in London only. It relates to all automatic exchanges in London save those few in the case of which the telephones do not bear letters as well as figures on the dial.
Major J. Herbert: How would a lady with a burglar in the house remember to dial “999”? Why not have some sort of button on the telephone which could be pressed?
Sir W. Womersley: Our engineers have tried every kind of device, and have come to the conclusion that this is the best method of getting a sure direct call.
Major Herbert: In the old days one had only to lift the telephone receiver and one got the exchange.

The following, from the Evening Standard (London, England) of Wednesday 7th July 1937, indicates that Walter Womersley was right in saying that dialling 999 was “the best method of getting a sure direct call”:


The new emergency telephone call—999—passed one of its first tests with distinction to-day.
On hearing a noise outside her house at 4 a.m., Mrs. Stanley Beard, of Elsworthy-road, Hampstead, dialled the number. There was an immediate response.
She was put through to the police, and radio patrol cars raced to the spot.
Four minutes later a man had been detained by the police near Primrose Hill.
“My wife dialled 999 as soon as she heard the noise, and the reply was instantaneous,” said Mr. Beard. “She thought it very fine service.”

Interestingly, prank calls, as well as inappropriate calls, to 999 were made as soon as this emergency number was introduced; they were mentioned in the initial assessment, published in several British newspapers on Wednesday 14th July 1937—for example in the Evening Telegraph and Post (Dundee, Angus, Scotland):

Dialling 999.

The first week of the new 999 telephone call for fire, police, and burglary has proved to be very successful, according to a report just issued.
There were 1300 odd calls from the 91 automatic exchanges in the London area. Most of these calls were genuine and correct, though 171 were from people who wanted the operator and should not have used 999.
Calls by supposed practical jokers numbered 92. During the same period there were nearly 2000 people who dialled 0 instead of 999, which seems to show that the public are not quite used to the system.

On Monday 29th November 1937, the Evening Standard (London, England) listed examples of inappropriate calls to 999:


Scotland Yard’s information room, the highly organised department controlling wireless cars, was flooded to-day with “emergency” calls about dogs and cats and other things.
Five extra operators had to be put on duty.
The cause of the “flood,” it is believed, was a new plan of switching through emergency calls direct to Scotland Yard.
The new procedure is supposed to be used only when urgent police action is required. In such cases the subscriber should dial “999,” and when the exchange operator answers should say “Police—Scotland Yard.”
But the public, it seems, have not yet grasped the idea.
Following are some samples of to-day’s calls:
A householder said that a person was playing the bagpipes outside his door. What should he do?
Another caller gave details of a dispute between a neighbour and a coalman about the price of coal.
Five people said that they had lost their dogs.
Two others said that cats had run up trees and could not get down.
A reporter who rang up Scotland Yard had some difficulty in getting the call through.
An official asked him to point out to the public that Scotland Yard should be consulted only in cases of real emergency concerning criminal matters where time is urgent, such as, housebreaking, suspicious persons seen loitering, burglaries, stolen cars, and so on.
For less serious matters people should ask for their local police station.

The noun 999 is also spelt Nine-nine-nine—as in the following from Nuts and Wine, published in the Sunday Pictorial (London, England) of Sunday 9th January 1938:

This Week’s Couplet
When the north winds moan and whine
Someone rings up Nine-nine-nine.

999, also Nine-nine-nine, soon became a literary topos. For example, the following is from the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Thursday 13th January 1938:

More Thrills in Our Five-Day Serial
DIAL 999!

Terrified by the menaces of Gombos’s approach Lois looked wildly round. The gangster would reach her in a matter of seconds. They would take the code book and would probably kill her for having deceived them.
If only she could see a policeman to protect her. But there was no policeman in such a quiet byway.
There was, however, a scarlet telephone kiosk, and recollecting the promptness of the mobile police in arresting Roger, she raced towards it with pounding heart.
The door swung open easily and she snatched the receiver from its hook.
Nine—nine—nine. Her trembling fingers twirled the dial.
Brr-Brr—Brr-Brr— Brr-Brr—Brr-Brr—
The monotonous buzzing seemed interminable. Would she never get through?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.