It’s the dead of night on 30 June 1937 and you’ve just been woken by the screams in the flat above yours. You run to the window to hear better, convinced the husband is murdering his wife. Shame, you think, they always seemed like such a nice couple.
But as you go to fling open the window, you stop. By the light of the moon, you make out the silver outline of a cat burglar clutching to the drainpipe of the local bank.
Like the good, attentive citizen you are, you know exactly what to do. You’ve read the notice in the Evening News: “…if, for instance, the man in the flat next to yours is murdering his wife or you have seen a heavily masked cat burglar peering round the pipe stack of the local bank building”, “dial 999” – the world’s first emergency services hotline, which had opened that day.
Happily, London in 1937 (the 999 hotline only worked in the capital to begin with) wasn’t quite the haunt of murderers and burglars of the newspaper announcement. That’s why it wasn’t until a week later that the first 999 call was received (although the relative rarity of telephones in people’s homes also has something to do with it).
In the wee small hours of 7 July, John Stanley Beard was woken by the sound of footsteps beneath his bedroom window in Hampstead. He peered out into the night. Seeing a man’s foot, he yelled at his intruder, who ran off down the garden path and hopped over the fence.
Meanwhile, his wife dialled 999. The would-be burglar, a 24-year-old labourer named Thomas Duffy, was duly apprehended, and charged with attempted break-in with intent to steal.
Beard publicly hailed the new 999 telephone service as a great use of his taxes, and everyone was delighted (except for Duffy).
After the war, the emergency services hotline was extended to other cities around the country. But like today, it was only to be used in genuine emergencies. “If the matter is less urgent”, the notice continued, “if you have merely lost little Towser or a lorry has come to rest in your front garden, just call up the local police.”
Clearly, not everybody listened. Almost 7% of the 1,336 calls made in the first week were hoaxes.