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Telephones save lives: The history of the Samaritans

Published: 16 October 2018

The name ‘Samaritans’ is understood almost everywhere in the world as an empathetic ear, ready to listen to anyone struggling with life.

But this invaluable service, started by one man with a telephone, wouldn’t have been possible without advancements in communications technology in the early 20th century.

The key to it all remains the telephone—although email and social media have become significant alternatives for many of today’s callers.

Who was Chad Varah?

  • Photograph of Chad Varah, founder of the Samaritans, sitting at a desk holding a telephone to his ear By Ovarah [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons Image source
    Chad Varah
    Born 1911, died 2007
  • Named after the founder of an 8th century church at Barton, Saint Chad
  • Studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Keble College, Oxford, before attending Lincoln Theological College
  • Ordained as a deacon in the Church of England in 1935 and as a priest in 1936
  • Pursued his sideline in writing during his time as vicar of St. Paul’s, Clapham Junction, London (1949–1953), when he worked as a children’s writer for the magazines Eagle, Girl, Swift and Robin, all founded by his fellow cleric Rev. Marcus Morris
  • Founded the Samaritans in 1953

Where did Varah get the idea for the Samaritans?

Since his ordination in the Church of England, Varah had had an unorthodox career. He had been offering sexual counselling and championing the cause of sex education since the 1930s.

As a young curate in 1935, he had conducted the funeral of a teenage girl who had committed suicide. She had started her periods and, having no one to talk to about it, killed herself because she believed she had a sexually transmitted disease.

The experience left a profound impression on him, but he was not immediately able to find a suitable response.

Almost two decades later, in 1953, Varah was appointed Rector of St Stephen Walbrook church in central London. At last he was in a position to offer a service that might have saved the life of the poor girl he had buried almost 20 years before.

Plaque at St Stephen Walbrook church in London, commemorating the founding of the Samaritans © Matt Brown, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr Image source

How did technology make Varah’s idea possible?

The key was that his church, unlike most others, had a telephone.

In 1937, Britain had been the first country in the world to introduce a dedicated number for the emergency services, 999. Calls to this number could bypass the queues at the switchboard and get straight through to fire, police or ambulance services.

Looking at the dial, Varah noted the instructions for making an emergency call, and decided the phone would provide the answer. 

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The point was that the suicidal person might wish, at least at the beginning, to be anonymous, as well as not to have to travel many miles to see a person with whom he didn’t have an appointment and who might turn out to be a disappointment.

Chad Varah

He knew that the new service would need a distinctive number.

The telephone number for St Stephens turned out to be MAN 9000. MAN was for the Mansion House exchange—though Varah thought it was fitting for a service for people. And 9000 was sufficiently close to the 999 emergency number to make it memorable.

Seeing this, Varah was even more convinced he was doing the right thing.

Why was the service important?

Until 1961, suicide was a criminal offence in Britain, and attitudes toward mental ill health had a long way to go.

On 2 November 1953, Varah took his first call at St Stephen’s from a person in distress. All he had offered to do was to listen, and not to pass judgement. A number of volunteer helpers had soon joined him as ‘befrienders’ or ‘listeners’.

Despite the location and Varah’s vocation, he was clear from the start that the service was non-religious and not offering counselling as such. Rather, it offered a non-judgemental, empathetic ear to listen to a caller’s troubles.

The Daily Mirror ran a story on the service on 7 December under the headline ‘Telephone Good Samaritans’, and the name stuck.

What was new about the Samaritans’ approach?

Until Varah created the first helpline, the uses of the telephone had largely been limited and predictable (with some notable exceptions). Businesses and their customers used it to order and arrange delivery of goods and services. They could also conduct negotiations in real time without the need to leave the office for a meeting.

At home, callers used the telephone to send invitations or keep in touch with distant relatives—though, as the cost was higher than that of a stamp, letters remained the main channel of communication.

Chad Varah conceived the idea that people who were despairing and perhaps dealing with thoughts of suicide needed something similar to the 999 number. But rather than arranging the swift arrival of emergency personnel, he would simply offer to listen to their troubles.

What is the legacy of the Samaritans today?

Visit St Stephen’s and you can still see the telephone that started it all back in 1953. It is on display as a memorial to the founding of this world-famous helpline. Samaritans continues to flourish worldwide, but since Varah’s initiative other charities have launched dozens more helplines for people in need.

In the decades after Varah’s idea took root, volunteers formed many branches of Samaritans across Britain. All of them followed the same principles, with a room where listeners could receive phone calls and another area where volunteers could see personal callers confidentially.

Samaritans sign next to a level crossing near Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire © Copyright Richard Humphrey [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Geograph.org.uk Image source
Samaritans poster next to a railway level crossing near Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire

The name ‘Samaritans’ is today recognised and understood almost everywhere in the world. Whatever you need to talk about, from addiction or debt to pregnancy, depression or terminal illness, there is an empathetic ear waiting to listen.

What was the impact on how we communicate about mental health?

Chad Varah saw an opportunity to use technology to support people, to connect with those struggling. He wasn’t a scientist or an engineer, but is nonetheless important to the story of how technology allows us to communicate more easily and across greater distances—both physical and mental.

The concept of befriending, or ‘listening therapy’, spread to many other countries and has become and important way of supporting those struggling with their mental health.

Varah’s story shows any ordinary person can change the world for the better—and become an advocate for new technology in the process.