Why I started The Samaritans, by Chad Varah

Hear from Chad Varah, the founder of Samaritans, describing the origins and beginnings of our organisation.

Chad Varah - in his own words

Early career

"I wasn't suicidal. I wasn't at a loose end. I was busy and needed as Vicar of St Paul's Clapham Junction, Chaplain of St John's Hospital Battersea, Staff Scriptwriter/Visualiser for Eagle and Girl strip cartoon magazines and Scientific and Astronautical Consultant to Dan Dare!

When I wasn't running an 'open' youth club, or bawling prayers at geriatric patients, or teaching in my Church School, or cycling around giving Holy Communion to the sick, I was pounding my typewriter up to 2 or 3am earning my living, as my stipend was only enough to pay my secretary. There was no time to discover whether I was happy or not, and I've managed to keep it that way.

A lightbulb moment

It had been 18 years since I made my debut in the ministry by burying a 14 year old girl who'd killed herself when her periods started because she thought she had a sexually transmitted disease - which had a profound affect on me.

I read somewhere there were three suicides a day in Greater London. What were they supposed to do if they didn't want a Doctor or Social Worker from our splendid Welfare State? What sort of a someone might they want? Well, some had chosen me, because of my liberal views. If it was so easy to save lives, why didn't I do it all the time? But how would I raise the funds to offer this kind of support and how would they get in touch at the moment of crisis?

In an emergency the citizen turns to the telephone and dials 999. I looked at mine: FIRE it said. But if you were on a ledge about to jump and needed a ladder, there'd be very few phones on the ledge with you. POLICE it said. But at that time suicide was a felony (it was Samaritan psychiatrists among others who pressed for the law to be changed). AMBULANCE it said.

There ought to be an emergency number for suicidal people, I thought. Then I said to God, be reasonable! Don't look at me... I'm possibly the busiest person in the Church of England.

It'd need to be a priest with one of those city churches with no parishioners. Having settled that, I went on a busman's holiday to Knokke, where there was an English church.

Putting idea to practice

Whilst there, out of the blue, I got a wire inviting me to apply for St Stephen Walbrook, in the heart of the City of London. Interviewed by the Patrons, the Worshipful Company of Grocers, I told them of my crazy scheme. The decision of these successful men to appoint me, because they thought it was worth a try, gave me immense confidence.

All I had to do was stand drinks to my pals in Fleet Street to get all the publicity necessary if the idea was to work. The telephone number of the church turned out to be the one I'd planned to ask for, MAN 9000.

With my secretary, Vivian, I coped with callers for some weeks from 2nd November 1953: but then useless amateurs began offering to help. I bounced off the ones I didn't like and graciously allowed the ones I found agreeable to run errands for me and keep the clients amused while waiting to be ushered in to my presence.

It soon became evident that they were doing the clients more good than I was. Everybody needed befriending (as we called it then): only a minority needed my counselling, or referral to a psychiatrist. By 2nd February 1954, I called these amateurs together and said, “Over to you Samaritans. Never again shall I pick up the emergency phone, nor be the one to say ‘Come in and have a coffee’, when a client taps at the door. I shall select you and supervise you and discipline you and sack you if necessary, and see the clients who need something more than your befriending, and I shall make the decisions you are not competent to make. But you are the life-savers, and one day everyone will recognise what suicidal people need.

Befriending has saved thousands of lives in Britain. My job now is to organise it all over the world, until suicide becomes unimportant as a cause of death."

Find out what Chad Varah went on to achieve.