The Samaritans is a UK-based charity which provides non-judgmental emotional support to anyone in need of a listening ear. The helpline telephone number is 08457 909090 (24 hours a day, seven days a week).
Edward Chad Varah, founder of the Samaritans, was born on 12 November, 1911, the first child of the vicar of St Chad's Church1 in the village of Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire. William Edward and his wife had eight more children, and the young Chad was encouraged to follow in his pious father's footsteps. He attended Worksop College in Nottinghamshire, before moving to Keble College, Oxford, where he studied economics, philosophy and politics. Varah was a talented linguist; he joined a Russian club while at college so that he could learn the language from native speakers.
Man of the Cloth
Varah wasn't enthusiastic about training to become a clergyman, because he'd already enjoyed some success with the ladies:
As a young man before I married, I did have amorous dalliances with most of the girls in my age group within cycling distance.
Varah's training 'in the field' was to change his life, and that of countless others. In 1935 he was a 24-year-old assistant curate, and his first job was to officiate at the funeral of a 13-year-old girl. Upon enquiring as why she was being interred in unconsecrated ground, he was shocked and appalled to learn that the girl had committed suicide following the onset of her menstruation cycle. She hadn't had anyone to turn to and her fear had driven her to kill herself. Varah's life changed with that knowledge. He swore over her grave to do all he could to prevent such tragedies occurring in the future. Throughout his time serving as a curate, Varah listened to people's problems, no doubt building up an immense knowledge of the human psyche.
To say Varah wasn't the usual run-of-the-mill Anglican priest is putting it mildly. For a start, he steadfastly believed in the concept of reincarnation, which is part of the belief system of Jainism and Buddhism. His conviction was personal. He claimed to have been born with the knowledge of how to read and nothing else but the act of reincarnation could explain this phenomenon. However, he would never be drawn into elaborating on who he could have been in a previous life. From his point of view, that would have been to dilute the issue by delving into the realms of speculation and fantasy.
Varah married Doris Susan Whanslaw in 1940. They were blessed with a daughter, Felicity, triplet boys Michael, Andrew and David, and another son, Charles. Susan, as she liked to be known, was a member of the Mothers' Union (MU) for 35 years, and eventually became world president from 1970 - 1976. She was awarded an OBE for this work in 1976.
Varah thought God had intended people to enjoy sex, but his parishioners were living in a sexually repressed society. His determination to become a sex therapist led to controversy; his open attitude towards sex was considered shocking in those unenlightened times. In an age when abortion was illegal, he wrote an article entitled The Right to Abortion for a magazine. Other ground-breaking contributions included Let Them be Gay (when practising homosexuals were breaking the law) and Is Marriage Still Valid?
He also never shirked from thorny subjects such as promoting the use of pornography to assist men with erectile dysfunction (impotency) to achieve their full potential, and actively encouraging masturbation for the release of stress. A source of great satisfaction for Varah was feedback from pre-orgasmic women who reported that his advice had been successful.
Varah's earlier interest in learning to speak Russian returned to haunt him, as he was later regarded in some circles as a Communist sympathiser and supporter. Gossip abounded that the KGB tried to recruit him as a spy by utilising the services of an agent whose honey trap involved disguising herself as a nun.
Varah was moved around various parishes by the Anglican Church, as is the synod's way of dealing with vexatious issues. He officiated as curate from Lincoln to London, and eventually became vicar of the Holy Trinity Church in Blackburn. Yet another move, in 1953, resulted in Varah being appointed rector to St Stephen Walbrook in London, a church designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Through this appointment, which lasted 50 years, he was able to set up his telephone listening service, beginning by placing advertisements in the local newspaper and on fliers outside his church. After an initial slow start, the news spread by word-of-mouth and Varah's unique parochial opportunity soon became inundated. It wasn't long before he recognised certain problems regarding suicidal people:
- A significant number had nowhere to go to seek help
- They had no one to turn to for emotional and psychological support
- Most of them just wanted someone to listen to them, in confidence, with acceptance and compassion for their deepest, most anguished thoughts
The number of people seeking the listening service was too great for him to cope alone, so he organised volunteers to man the phones and arranged for someone to always be available at the drop-in centre. This non-religious body eventually became known as the Samaritans.
Talented Artist and Author
In his spare time Varah liked to create cartoon strips for the Eagle comic, and he was the 'scientific and astronautical consultant' for Eagle hero 'Dan Dare'. Also a prolific writer, he tapped into his wealth of life experience and produced the following works:
- The Samaritans: Befriending the Suicidal (1965)
- Before I Die Again: The Autobiography of the Founder of Samaritans (1992)
- 'Nobody Understands Miranda' (a play which featured in the BBC TV series Befrienders)
In 1986, Varah retired from the Samaritans, but he had no intention of withdrawing from public life. Varah had no objections to officiating at the marriages of previously divorced people in his church, something which was, and still is, highly controversial among some members of the church. Varah championed another ostracised cause by appealing for tolerance and understanding towards people who were HIV-positive. In 1987 he was appointed patron of the Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK's largest HIV/AIDS charity.
Another crusade Varah undertook was to campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM). He discovered that some African immigrants in England were still conforming to this religious practice, wherein young girls between infancy and their pre-pubescent years have their genitalia cut for non-medical reasons. In 1992, he formed the group MAGMOG (Men Against Genital Mutilation of Girls). FGM is now internationally recognised as a violation of the human rights of females. Efforts are continuing to enlighten cultures which continue to perpetuate this abhorrent procedure.
Varah's wife, Susan, died aged 76 years in 1993.
An honorary doctorate was conferred by Leeds University in 1995, and in 1996, Varah's 1969 OBE was upgraded to a CBE. He was given the freedom of the city of Lincoln in 1999, and further rewarded by the Queen by being given companion of honour status in 2000. That same year he featured in the Sunday Times list of '1,000 Makers of the 20th Century', and presented with a lifetime achievement award at the Pride of Britain ceremony. In 2003, he received the Cross of St Erkonwald from the Bishop of London to mark the 50th anniversary of his ministry at St Stephen Walbrook's church.
One tragedy he had to endure was outliving his eldest son, Michael, who died of pneumonia on 2 April, 2007.
Varah himself passed away in his sleep on 8 November, 2007, just a few days shy of his 96th birthday. He is survived by four children, 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Chad Varah was an utterly remarkable man who founded an organisation which has saved the lives of countless people. He was an outstanding humanitarian and a great Briton.
– HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, Samaritans patron
A thanksgiving service to celebrate the life of Varah will be held at St Paul's Cathedral on Wednesday, 12 November, 2008.
In 2007, there were 202 branches of the Samaritans in the UK and Ireland, with over 15,000 volunteers on the register. All volunteers are guaranteed anonymity and, although some give interviews about their work, they never divulge personal information. Diana, daughter of British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill, worked for the Samaritans in a voluntary capacity; Varah only revealing this after her death in 1963.
Befrienders Worldwide is the international branch, covering 42 countries in almost every corner of the globe. It is always looking for new volunteers, and full training is provided.
PO Box 9090
Telephone: 0870 5627282 for the Volunteering Line