Pirtonian who invented 999

Telephone Connections By Linda Turner 

Resting in the tranquil srroundings of Pirton village churchyard of St Mary, the Virgin, lies one of the village’s famous sons, George Abbiss, who from humble beginnings now holds a special place in the hearts of the village folk and has left his mark in some small way on the history of this country forever.

George was born in 1884, son of Jack and Polly Abbiss.  His father was a horse keeper for Walnut Tree Farm and the family occupied one of the tied cottages owned by the farm at Bury End, near Great Green.  Sadly the cottage no longer stands but the area itself is still very much as it would have been in George’s childhood.14 BURY END is still there.

After attending the local school, George went on to join the Metropolitan Police Force in 1905 where he quickly rose up the ranks.  He became Chief Commissioner in 1930, Deputy Assistant Commissioner in 1933 and Assistant Commissioner in 1936.  This was considered quite an achievement, as to rise to high office from within the ranks was most unusual.

There was no way George could have known the changes he would witness in the Police Force during his long and influential career, in particular in the field of tele-communications.

With the invention of the telephone, life for everyone, and not just the Police Force, changed dramatically.  While Superintendent in 1929 George Abbiss was part of a team that introduced the Police Telephone Box to the major cities, thus enabling police officers to contact their stations more quickly.  In March 1934 the Wireless School at Scotland House (the South Building of New Scotland Yard) was formalised under his leadership as Deputy Assistant Commissioner.

But it was in 1937 that the emergency service telephone number 999 was iintroduced to the public under George’s influence and it is for this that the village folk of Pirton are most proud.

Before its invention the only way to summon help was to either send someone to the local doctor’s house, find a policeman on his beat or dash to the nearest Fire or Police Station.  A very time consuming exercise which undoubtedly cost lives and property.

The telephone did save time to some extent, but people had to dial the operator for assistance as there was of course no direct dialling then.  This practise still took a long time because the operator would have no way of knowing which was an emergency call from the many calls she received.  So with the co-operation of the then Post Office and the Metropolitan Police Force, a committee of which George Abbiss would have been a part was set up and from that there came the founding of the 999 number.

To many it was always a mystery why the number 111 was not chosen but it had its drawbacks and had to be discounted.  Because telephone cables were then all overhead, there was a danger of false calls being made by wind or trees causing the wires to touch and give off a single pulse, and so 999 seemed a better choice.

The first reported user of George’s introduction was a Mrs John Stanley Beard of Elsworth Road, Hampstead, so the Daily Sketch article of the day claimed.  She had called on July 8th at 4.20am to report a burglary.  The thief, Thomas Duffy, had been disburbed by her husband who was giving chase.  The rapid response by the local police to the telephone call led to Duffy’s arrest some five minutes later.

George received an OBE in 1933 and was honoured by the Queen in 1941 with the title of Knight of the Order of St John for his services to the Force.  He went on to serve a further five years before retiring in 1946, after a long and distinguished career of some 41 years.  Sadly the same year his wife, Alice, died leaving Sir George to live out his 20 years of retirement without her.  He was living in Potters Bar when he died on October 6th, aged 82, and was buried alongside his wife in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin at Pirton.

They say that coincidences occur everywhere and this is no less true at Pirton.  For the present Vicar of St Mary’s Church is the Revd. John Potipher, who himself spent some 30 years responding to Sir George’s invention.  Before joining the church Revd. Potipher was in the Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, rising in the ranks from Fire Fighter to Assistant Fire Officer.

Now these two men who were unwittingly linked by the telephone during their respective careers now work and rest in the beautiful surroundings of St Mary’s Church, Pirton.

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