CROYDON SAMARITANS, THE EARLY YEARS.
By Bob, a founder volunteer with Croydon Samaritans
Not long after I left the RAF in June 1953 and we moved to Thornton Heath my wife and I took advantage of a Bank Holiday and went to have a look around London. On the way back we took the Underground from St James’s Park to Victoria. Ahead of us, making their way to the platform, was a couple of about our age with a little boy of about 2, which was our son’s age.
We were the only people on that platform and the other couple were somewhere behind us. As the train came in the woman pushed between us and jumped on the track. The driver made an emergency stop just beyond us. The next thing I knew was that I was holding our son on one arm and trying to support the driver who had staggered out of his cab. Then the alarm went off and station staff seemed to come from all sides and ushered us away. Quite by chance I later saw a one paragraph report of the inquest in the Evening Standard. She had been suffering from depression and also thought she had cancer.
About 8 years later I saw an item in the Croydon Advertiser saying that it was hoped to open a branch of the Samaritans and asking for volunteers. I was not sure if it was something that I could do as I regarded myself as a very ordinary person. My earlier experience encouraged me to apply. I later discovered that Samaritans were just ordinary people, but were capable of extraordinary things at times when necessary.
I responded and was invited to attend an inaugural meeting and then a series of preparation classes. These would be held in the upstairs room of a pub in Handcroft Road opposite the house which would be our base. What better choice could there be for the classes! The house was a condemned terrace property awaiting demolition (provided it did not fall down first no doubt!) in an area awaiting redevelopment.
The classes progressed and Chad Varah came down from London to give the one entitled ‘Befriending Clients with Sexual Problems’. Apart from it being very helpful he did not mince matters. This helped those who would have found it difficult to deal with certain types of call to realise that it was not for them. By the next session our numbers had shrunk from about 80 to around 40. Possibly, because I had spent my last 5 years in the RAF as an instructor, I was asked to tackle that subject when we started out own preparation classes later. Talk about the short straw! I obtained some relevant books, gave myself a crash course and managed to survive. It was evident that I did not quite have Chad’s ability but I do not remember anyone dropping out after my sessions!
Came the day, came the opening of the centre and we were in business. Actually the first challenge was to get ourselves known. Do I hear the cry “No such problems nowadays”? It was just as well we had a slow start as we were all novices and it gave us the opportunity to build experience and expertise.
To make ourselves better known we set up a small team of speakers, of which I was one. The high spot of my engagements, literally, was the Boardroom on the top floor of the Nestles’ building. It was at the invitation of theof the local Institute of Personnel Managers (nowadays Human Recourses). I shared the platform with a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and afterwards was able to learn a lot about that addiction from him.
Facilities at Handcroft Road were very basic to say the least and we had to survive the long, Arctic winter of 1963. My worst experience was one bitterly cold night duty I shared with an 80 year old lady member. Soon after midnight the window of the room where she was trying to get some sleep flew open with a crash. The rotten sash cord had given way and it was impossible to keep it shut. We donned our overcoats to supplement the clothes we were already wearing, resigned ourselves to a sleepless night and did what we could to survive until 8am brought the morning team to relieve us!
As we had only about 2 years tenure of the Handcroft Road base it was necessary to start looking for and securing suitable alternative accommodation and the funding for it. I was not involved in this. I remember it was very touch and go right to the end. Knowing the amount needed it seemed a miracle that it was achieved. What a relief when we moved and were able to enjoy the comparative luxury of 2B Kidderminster Road.
We obviously operated very differently to today. For us the contact was almost exclusively by phone, very rarely a caller at the door or a letter. There was no nationwide 0845 number. Now you have a range of electronic communication channels as well.
For a while we did one to one befriending where it seemed appropriate. I did a few. One was a male schizophrenic in his 30’s , the only child of an elderly couple who lived not very far from me. In reality I kept in touch with them for a while to give them the opportunity to talk through their problems and sadness.
I think most branches in the early days tried to provide a ‘Flying Squad’ if required. Ideally it would be two of us. On a couple of occasions it came down to me on my bike! The most memorable was one summer evening when I received a call at home saying that the Police had asked for our assistance as a man at Norwood Junction station was threatening to jump in front of a train. Off I went on my bike and found a man at the end of the nearside platform being watched at a safe distance by a young policewoman .Having told her that I was from Samaritans I asked her to hold my bike, strolled over and said something like “Hello mate – have you got a problem?” This was enough to get him talking and I established that he lived nearby. I suggested that it might be an idea to go to his home, make a cup of tea and have a chat. He agreed so one very relieved Samaritan collected his bike from an equally relieved looking policewoman and off we went. You may have guessed by now that it was a bit of attention seeking.
Railway suicides still average around 240 a year. It is good to know that Network Rail, the Train Operating Companies and British Transport Police have invited the Samaritans to work with them to help railway staff to spot people acting in ways that might indicate a possible suicide attempt and how to approach and help that person.
I was invited to attend the 25th Anniversary celebration. I think that there was only one founder member still serving.
My last duty would have been a Saturday night in August 1977, just before my holiday fortnight. It was a strange feeling leaving 2B for the last time. My original intention was to take a break for a year as I was due for an operation in September. Another more serious one followed a few months later and eventually increasing work and family commitments made it impossible to return.
In my experience you never stop being a Samaritan. You just move from full time to occasional!! Your experience over the years means you sense when people may need to talk, to cry or even vent strong feelings like anger, frustration or hatred rather than keeping them bottled up. Just bear in mind that you do not have the backup support you have in the Samaritans.
I still sometimes think of the husband and son of that unfortunate lady who could no longer cope with life, and wonder how they came to terms with their loss. All I know is it changed my life in ways I could never have imagined possible.