OUR BRANCH HISTORY
SAMARITANS was founded in London by the Rev. Chad Varah in 1953. Although started by a vicar the movement remains secular, non-political and open to any person who needs emotional support regardless of colour, creed, ethnic background or religious convictions.
Bristol Samaritans now serves a population of three quarters of a million people in Greater Bristol and South Gloucester and provides confidential emotional support to callers by phone, email, and face to face visits in our branch.
Bristol branch was founded in 1964. Twelve months before, the then Bishop of Bristol, the Rt. Reverend Oliver Tomkins, called a few people together to urge upon them the need for a branch of Samaritans in Bristol, then one of the few towns in the country without one. The exploratory meeting consisted of a solicitor, a vicar, a housewife, an advertising agent and a former submarine commander. The bishop had no difficulty in persuading this small group to take the initiative in establishing a branch. They arranged a series of public meetings (one of which was addressed by Chad Varah himself) to disseminate information, appeal for volunteers, raise money and search for suitable premises.
In June 1964 the branch opened for "business" at a Bristol city centre address in St Nicholas Street, but not the one used today. It was a garret like top floor accommodation of only two small rooms and manned by 45 volunteers. It was an achievement that, even with such a small a number of volunteers, the branch was still able to give a 24 hour service. On the opening day the Lord Mayor of Bristol, for publicity purposes, made the first call to the branch and that evening a volunteer went on West of England Television to explain our purpose and make our presence known.
The branch soon found the premises were too small to be regarded as permanent. We had only one interview room that was also used for overnight sleeping and there was no kitchen, so for hot water we relied on an electric kettle. In those early days there was much we did not have. We often struggled to pay our rent, phone and electricity bills. Nor was there much by way of administration or training programmes, or guidance from our General Office but our volunteers, as now, had a tremendous sense of commitment.
The opportunity came to move to larger accommodation in Orchard Street, but in the mid 70’s a further move was made to more extensive premises back in St. Nicholas Street at number 37 where the branch is situated today. The property stands on the site of the original city wall and, after dedicated fund raising by "The Friends" of the branch, was purchased outright. A very prudent move bearing in mind today’s property prices.
The branch was fully refurbished internally during 2011 and now has much improved access for less able-bodied visitors and volunteers. We now benefit from a comfortable room for face-to face conversations with callers, a dedicated operations room for phone calls and responding to email contacts, two bedrooms, a shower, an admin office, a large training room, and the ultimate luxury of central heating and running hot water!
In 2018 the frontage of the branch was refurbished with multiple layers of paint removed from the stone and brickwork and new sound reducing double glazing fitted to the large ground floor windows. Whilst the scaffolding was in place to do all this work the opportunity was taken to renew the old roof as we had suffered a number of leaks over the years. In 2019 we completely redecorated throughout so now, with all this work completed, the Centre is a much more friendly looking place for callers and volunteers alike and this is how we aim to keep it.