By Steve Smith

During the Coronavirus outbreak, many communities have started schemes that are varieties of putting something – a coloured card for instance – in your window if you need help. Nothing new here! Such schemes go back at least seventy years. However Toc H were one of the prime-movers in developing these simple systems in such a way that it altered how Social Service departments worked and is still integral to care in the community today. This is the story of the Toc H Flashing Light.

No one should claim that Toc H were the instigators of the Emergency Call schemes as so many similar ideas seemed to appear at much the same time. In the late fifties numerous such projects sprung up. There is anecdotal evidence that the church started the ball rolling by getting old and vulnerable people to put a Christian Fish symbol in their windows if they were lonely or needed a visit. However, I have uncovered no factual evidence to suggest these schemes predated the more general ones here.

The earliest examples I can find include some Worthing neighbours who in July 1951 had an agreement to put some paper on the landing window if they needed help; in September of that year vulnerable people in Shoreditch were issued cards (The report doesn’t say by whom) with SOS in 4” red letters on them to use if they needed help; and in 1957 the WVS in Uxbridge were issuing cards with an ‘H’ on them to all elderly people living alone.

By early 1960 one Toc H instigated scheme in South London had a name, Lifebelt, and the emblem on the card was indeed a lifebelt.

New Addington branch are cited as being pioneers though it spread to branches at Beckenham, West Wickham, Shirley and Penge, and, in the February 1960 Journal, it was rumoured that Croydon Branch was soon to initiate the scheme in other parts of the County Borough.

However, all systems up to this point were ‘manual’. The biggest flaw was they required the vulnerable person to get to their window and place the card somewhere where it could be seen. The second drawback was that a card sitting in the window hardly drew attention unless you were actively looking for it.

Although identifying the very first flashing light variation of the scheme across the country is very difficult, we do know that in the Redbridge district of Toc H, they became pioneers. Switching out the card for a flashing light and putting a button near the chair or bed the vulnerable person for them to operate revolutionised it. They went on to design the system using parts you could find around the house, or at least at the local car-breaker’s yard. The original utilised a car battery, a car indicator light, some bell wire and a simple switch. The indicator light was fixed up in the window, the battery stood on the floor and the bell-wire was taped around the wall and connected to the switch by the bed (or chair). Importantly the bell-wire was only loosely taped so if the person fell down in the middle of the room they only had to get to the wire around the wall with their hand or stick and tug it. It would come away from the wall and they could pull the switch towards them.

Of course this was only part of the system. Integral to the scheme working was publicising it the local area. Neighbours and passers-by alike needed to ensure that if anyone saw a light flashing in the window they both knew what it meant and what to do. So Toc H created letters, posters and cards and flooded the local area and the press.

The second thing was even more of a genius idea. Toc H branches set up regular maintenance calls, not just because the equipment needed to be checked but because it meant the isolated individual was benefitting from some company. A check that could have taken a couple of minutes often lasted an hour.

Very quickly the systems improved and the more technical members created custom built components rather than junkyard scraps. Car batteries could be replaced by small batteries inside the unit itself. They also engaged with schools and other organisations to build the units. Schematics and instruction manuals were created and distributed.

As early as 1964 the National Council for Social Service had put together a booklet, Emergency Call Schemes for the Housebound, to promote the various projects then in July 1967 Toc H issued a booklet in association with the London Borough of Redbridge. Toc H even set up a separate organisation, Lend-A-Hand, to manage it. In 1968 they were filmed by Pathe News. Toc H even persuaded Ever Ready to design and make a special bulb and bracket for the system.

Nearby in West Essex Loughton branch also make huge strides and soon became the undisputed champions of the scheme. They made their own film, Emergency, in 1968.

By 1973 Loughton had installed 132 units. The scheme had spread locally to Barkingside (100 units), Hoddesdon (100 units), Woodford (25 units), and Buckhurst Hill (5 units).

In the early seventies, Mitcham branch in Australia had even wired up a 12 story block of 207 flats for older people. In New Zealand the scheme was known as Lightline.

According to a 1982 survey, Toc H were involved in at least 66 schemes (Not all branches returned questionnaires so the figure may have been higher).Not all went for the flashing lights; a buzzer was also popular (both occasionally) and some just used cards. Some branches ran the scheme alone, others worked in partnership with other organisations. Perhaps most interestingly, several schemed initiated by branches were taken over by the local Social Services department.

Ultimately, this is what happened. Social Service departments across the country took over the schemes and as electronics improved rapidly in the seventies and eighties, systems that could be worn as pendants or on the wrist took over from the buttons and bell-wires. More radically, the flashing light buzzer was replaced by a system that could dial an emergency telephone number. Still further developments continued until we arrive at the telecare systems we use today – which are largely down to the innovative work of Toc H in East London.

4 thoughts on “Emergency

  1. I found this article fascinating particularly that as a second career I worked as a Carer for five years and then a Care supervisor for two year’s in a 119 bed Residential Aged Care “Aging in Place” Facility now owned by Anglicare a business owned by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.
    Quite a number of the Residents wore a “Call Button” on a necklace so if they fell could alert staff by pressing the button.


    • Toc H were involved with so many innovative projects from Blood Transfusion to the Samaritans; Hospital Sports commentaries to Talking Newspapers for the Blind; the list just goes on. Your dad’s name appears frequently in the course of my research. i hope you are very proud of him Mark.


  2. Thanks for your article? Steve. In Canberra, Australia, Toc H instigated the emergency flashing light scheme which was subsequently taken over by the Red Cross. Now the pendants are in use. I have inherited an old flashing light set up – not sure what to do with it, really!
    Convenor, Toc H, Canberra


    • Hi Sally, thanks for your comment. Your first action should be to photograph it and share the photo if you can – I’d love to see it. What a lovely thing to have. I guess it belongs in a museum locally. It would be too expensive to send to the archive here in the UK but perhaps a local museum might like it for their social history collection. Whatever you do please don’t destroy it.


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