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And Now An Urgent SOS Message

Monday 3 September 2012, 11:30

Jo Coombs Jo Coombs

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Editor's Note: And Now An Urgent SOS Message is on BBC Radio 4 Tuesday 4th September at 8pm, repeated the following Sunday at 5pm. -CM

SOS phone box

This programme began with PM presenter Eddie Mair's curiosity:

"Jo, I have always wanted to know more about those SOS messages that you used to hear on Radio 4 after the news... you know... "Could Mr and Mrs Smith, believed to be travelling in the Cotswolds please ring this hospital where their auntie is dangerously ill"....Have they stopped? If so why? And what were the stories behind some of those messages? Did they make it? Did Auntie actually pull through?"

I investigated. The first SOS message was broadcast in March 1923, by the British Broadcasting Company. The local Birmingham station sent out an appeal to help search for a missing boy. He was found and returned to his family. Lord Reith - the founder and first Managing Director of the BBC - saw an opportunity: Always fiercely protective of the BBC's independence, he negotiated a relationship with the government and the emergency services which would give the new corporation a truly public purpose.

Over its seven decades the SOS message service alerted the public to unexploded bombs, lost poisons and an infected animal on the loose. It appealed for witnesses, missing persons and even broadcast an appeal for a wet nurse. But at its heart were the countless requests transmitted for people to rush to the bedside of an ailing relative. These were desperate human interest dramas. For the sake of privacy and because of strict guidelines, their results were never reported. Until now.

For this programme we've managed, decades on, to find out what happened to a handful of the people behind these poignant SOS appeals.

So Eddie got his wish. But we know there must be thousands more listeners with personal connections to the BBC's SOS message service. And we'd like you to get in touch.

If you have your own story about an SOS message, please email us on iPM@bbc.co.uk, or write to us at iPM, Room G601, BBC TV Centre, London W12 7RJ.

Jo Coombs is the producer of And Now An Urgent SOS Message

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    Comment number 1.

    As a small child, I would listen with curiosity to the SOS messages; I was intrigued and puzzled that all these people had apparently parted company with their canine friends. I heard 'last heard of' as 'lost her dog'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    What?? You mean they *weren't*, as I've always supposed, poorly-disguised messages from the security services?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I have always wondered what the backstories and outcomes of those messages were, and thought it would make a great programme. Thanks for making it

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I remember the mawkish fascination on hearing the SOS messages. One morning in the kitchen just before leaving for school I remember hearing a request for relatives or friends of a lady who was an old friend of my mother's - always referred to as ISJ (her initials as typed in the reference of a typed letter). She then ran a small dark sweetsop in a very poor area of birmingham and we occasionally would visit her. She disliked all the kids who camed into the shop to buy 4 sweets for a penny and constantly moaned about them. Although she did always send a shoe box full of sherberts and chews for me and my sister at Christmas.
    She had no relatives and lived a rather sad life, it seemed. Sadly she had died in a fire during the night, I just remember the police telling my mum that she had died from the smoke before being burned to death, which seemed to offer a crumb of consolation to my mum.


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Identifying the top ten game changers operating in the UK today.


See the latest on our blog


Find out about this year's panel and theme