In the early days of telephony, to make a phone call, you would pick up the handset and speak to an operator who would then make the connection for you.

And one of the most famous things to say down the phone was to ask for Whitehall 1212 — that being the official phone number for the police at Scotland Yard.

But did you know that the phone number still works?

OK, you can’t pick up a phone and speak to an operator any more, but over the years, the phone number, though all its code changes has remained unchanged.

Direct dialling without asking the operator was introduced in the UK in the late 1950s, and the area codes corresponded to the letters on the rotary telephone.

So, instead of asking the operator for Whitehall 1212, you could dial WHI 1212, which happened to be 944 1212.

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The national telephone system was shaken up in 1966-70 as the direct link between the old exchange name and the area code was scrapped. That meant that most of London had to change the area code for their line.

Scotland Yard was given the area code of 230, so dialling Whitehall 1212 became 01 230 1212.

Then in 1990, the prefix of 01 for London was dropped, and London was split into 071 and 081.

Scotland Yard was now 071 230 1212.

In 1995, a minor change to 0171 230 1212.

Then in April 2000, another change, this time to 020 for London.

  • 1932 – Whitehall 1212;
  • 1966 – 01 230 1212;
  • 1990 – 071 230 1212;
  • 1995 – 0171 230 1212;
  • 1999 – 020 7230 1212;

So while the numbers appear to have changed around a lot, in fact underneath it all, you can still dial Whitehall 1212 — it’s just more commonly known as 020 7230 1212, which is the non-emergency number for the police.

Oh, and don’t try calling it — tends to annoy them to have their time wasted like that, especially as the line tends to be quite busy.

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14 comments
  1. martin says:

    Before the introduction of the national non-emergency 101 number, the Met’s London-wide phone number was 0300 123 1212. And before it was introduced (in 2008, I believe), individual police stations had a number ending in 1212. I like how long they’ve hung on to the tradition. 🙂

    • Gerry says:

      Police stations in London often had numbers ending with 1113, e.g. BRI 1113.

      Presumably the triple 1 was chosen because it’s the quickest and easiest sequence to dial on a rotary telephone.

      So why not XYZ 1111? Possibly because it was easy to dial a 1 by a loose connection or jiggling the hookswitch.

      The 3 also made it clearer that it was a telephone number with four numerals, avoiding confusion between 1 and the letter I.

  2. Bob says:

    Southend is 01702 431212

    01708 751212 Romford

    …I see a trend in the provinces as well.

  3. Adrian says:

    The 1212 ending only went wrong when they added more police stations to an existing region, I’ve yet to find more that one station within an STd code with 1212 endings, I wonder if there was an internal direct dial system that prevented this? Ie there was only 99 stations originally allowing a 2 diget direct dial like 43 for Southend or 75 for romford?

  4. Mick says:

    230 1212 is forever stuck in my head thanks to Shaw Taylor and POLICE 5. In the late seventies our canteen lady(a very firery Irish lady) asked if anyone knew a number for a cab company, I immediately said “230 1212”. After asking if she could use an office phone, she went to make the call. Shortly, from a distance we heard the handset crash back into the cradle, chair legs scrapping on the floor followed by a string of very rude words. “Sorry” I said, “It just came out”

  5. Sam F says:

    As I live in Rotherhithe (Bermondsey exchange), my number goes 020 7237 XXXX. 237 being “BER”. It’s nice to have that small link to the past in a district that has changed beyong recognition since the fifties.

    I believe that new lines in the area no longer have to begin with the exchange code, however.

  6. Mick says:

    Back in the 60s Ewell, where I live changed to 01 393 xxxx thereby also keeping EWE. The oddity is Ewell is part of the Borough of Epsom and Ewell in Surrey. I believe it had a different Phone Company many years ago. I remember that when STD came to the Exchange, on the Open Day you could make a call for free. I called my Auntie in Manchester as it was the only number I could remember.

  7. MikeP says:

    Mick – The grouping of exchanges will have more to do with the inter-exchange cabling topology, especially connections to “director” exchanges, than any political boundaries. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/020 has a (possibly correct) list of areas within the GLA boundary that aren’t in 020, as well as the converse.

    Also, maybe interestingly, back in those days the electro-mechanical routing equipment was kept simpler by building a hierarchy of routing down the numbers, so all the surrounding exchanges are 020 839x. Ewell was “lucky” to keep EWE, whilst ELMbridge became 399, LOWer Hook 397 and EMBerbrook 398. I expect WHItehall became 230 for much the same reason.

    Ewell got 394 when 393 ran out, and Elmbridge got 390 when 399 ran out.

  8. Marc says:

    London Transport’s enquiries number used to be ABBey 1234.

    020 7222 1234 is still owned by TfL, but is only answered by a recorded message directing you 0343 222 1234, so a remnant of the old number lives on.

  9. Gerry says:

    Yes, I’ve spotted the deliberate mistakes and I claim my fiver !

    The London area code was 01, but it stayed the same when the number of meaningful three-letter combinations became exhausted, making it necessary for London exchange names to be replaced by All Figure Numbers. In fact, the term ‘STD Code’ (Subscriber Trunk Dialling) was used because the national codes for exchanges outside the six big cities often varied even within the same geographic area. Standardising on the American term ‘Area Code’ had to wait until the introduction of Linked Numbering Schemes within which no local dialling codes were needed.

    At the start of AFN, the trunk switching equipment was still fairly primitive; exchanges outside London could examine only the 01-xx digits before routing a call to London. A call for WIMbledon (dialled digits starting 01946…) could not be distinguished from one for WHItehall (starting 01944), so all calls to outer London had to be routed into congested exchanges in expensive central London buildings before being sent back out again.

    The change to AFNs presented an opportunity to associate the first two digits of the new exchange code with a geographic sector (e.g. Central, NW etc). This allowed incoming calls to be routed directly to the relevant sector, avoiding central London completely. It also avoided many subsequent number changes that would have become necessary if the AFN codes had all been exact equivalents of the letters. For simplicity, the London AFN codes were allocated so that as many numbers as possible kept the same ‘holes in the dial’ sequence.

    01-94x was allocated to the SW sector because it included WIMbledon (946), hence WHItehall couldn’t remain 944. 01-93x was allocated to central London, allowing exchanges such as WELbeck and WEStern to remain unchanged as 935 and 937. WHItehall duly changed to 930, not 230.

    The 230 code had been reserved for future DDI (Direct Dialling Inwards) that would allow police extensions to be dialled directly from the public network rather than having to be answered by the switchboard. At the start of AFNs, the 230, 930 and 944 codes all translated to the same WHItehall exchange, but the number 01-930 1212 was never published. When the 230 DDI exchange subsequently entered service, the 1212 extension number was retained for the police switchboard.

    Where the AFNs didn’t directly match up, parallel running of old codes such as WHI ceased in 1968.

    http://www.telecom-tariffs.co.uk/codelook.htm is a useful resource for checking the locations of telephone numbers. Note that the numbering structure is now much more ‘granular’: the old exchange names e.g. CENtral and CITy corresponded to 10,000 numbers but allocations are now made in blocks as small as 100, e.g. (020) 8442 73 is on Stamford Hill, but 74 is on Clapton and 75 is on Crouch End.

  10. Nigel says:

    On a slightly different subject. I beleive I am correct in saying that 999 was chosen for Emergency because there would be less chance of misdialling on the rotary dials and also that it could be found easily in the dark/smoke as it was near the dial ‘stop’.

  11. I believe Scotland Yard was planning Direct Dialling well before London all figure numbering and in the early 1960s began introducing some DDI for internal calls via an exchange called “ADO”, the code used for dialling purposes: this was not disclosed to public. ADO of course translates to 230. When AFN came in it was a simple matter to publish 01-230 1212 as the public switchboard number, whilst the rest of the Whitehall exchange became 01-930. After that (and quite slowly and sparingly) other Scotland Yard 01-230 direct lines were published. The first of the four extension numbers was used to switch calls to the HQ building required (6nnn was the block used for the Lambeth support HQ for example).

    I have just checked by 1960 L-R telephone directory and it appears at least 85% of Met Police stations had 1113 telephone numbers and of those that hadn’t there was often an attempt to use something similar (eg Hendon police was HENdon 6113). Great idea to help people remember number of the local police wherever they were, but perhaps problematic for any householder who happened to have a 1113 number; heaven knows what odd calls they got in the middle of the night.

  12. Your image is of a North American phone. UK phones had the letter O and Q grouped with the zero

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