The Rev Chad Varah

Founder of the Samaritans telephone helpline charity


Edward Chad Varah, priest: born Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire 12 November 1911; ordained deacon 1935, priest 1936; Vicar, Holy Trinity, Blackburn 1942-49; Vicar, St Paul, Clapham Junction 1949-53; Rector, St Stephen Walbrook 1953-2003; Founder, The Samaritans 1953, Director 1953-74, President, London Branch 1974-86; OBE 1969, CBE 1995; Prebendary, St Paul's Cathedral 1975-97, Senior Prebendary 1997-2003; Founder Chairman, Befrienders International (Samaritans Worldwide) 1974-83, President 1983-86; CH 2000; married 1940 Susan Whanslaw (died 1993; three sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Basingstoke, Hampshire 8 November 2007.

Chad Varah was one of those people inspired by a sudden brainwave from which developed an international organisation of almost breathtaking simplicity. In 1953 he read that in Greater London three people killed themselves every day, and it occurred to him that what people who were feeling suicidal or in despair most needed was an emergency telephone line akin to 999. This he set up in the crypt of St Stephen Walbrook, a magnificent Wren church in the City of London, and so were born the Samaritans.

During the greatest period of expansion, from about 1964 until 1973, on average a new Samaritan branch was established in the United Kingdom every eight weeks. Today there are about 200 centres throughout the British Isles, manned 24 hours a day, and the work of the Samaritans is conducted in around 40 countries overseas.

Edward Chad Varah was born in 1911, at Barton-upon-Humber. He was the eldest of nine children and his father was parish priest of a church in Lincolnshire founded by the seventh-century converter of the Midlands, St Chad, after whom Edward was baptised. The name Varah is almost certainly Ukrainian in origin, but the family had lived in Yorkshire since at least 1537. Chad Varah was educated at Worksop College in Nottingham, and gained an Exhibition in Natural Sciences to Keble College, Oxford.

From there he went on to study for the ministry at Lincoln Theological College, where one of his teachers was the sub-warden Michael Ramsey, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. He was ordained deacon in 1935 and priest a year later, and after serving three assistant curacies, Varah was inducted, in 1942, to his first living, Holy Trinity, Blackburn, where he remained until 1949. For the next four years he was vicar of the Church of St Paul, Clapham Junction, and it was in 1953, the year he founded the Samaritans, that he was offered St Stephen Walbrook by the Worshipful Company of Grocers. He was also working at the time as a children's comic scriptwriter for Eagle, Robin and Swift, and was one of the creators of the cartoon space hero Dan Dare.

In talking about the reason he set up an emergency telephone service for people tempted to commit suicide, Chad Varah frequently referred to his early-acquired expertise in offering marriage guidance to young couples, and to teaching sex generally to youngsters in his youth clubs. "As a result," he used to say, "I became very knowledgeable and practised", and he even went so far as to claim to have ushered in the "permissive society". In his nineties, he described himself as the "world's oldest sex therapist". He was to a fair degree obsessed by sex (one of his more esoteric writings was a 1976 book called Telephone Masturbators and How to Befriend Them) and it has even been suggested that Varah's initial motive in setting up an emergency telephone service was in order to offer sexual counselling, and that it was from this springboard that the far more broadly based Samaritan movement developed.

During the first year of operation, some 100 callers were seen. Volunteers were recruited on an alarmingly ad hoc basis. There was little structured training but a good deal of glamorous dashing about "seeking souls to save". The earliest "rector and assistants", as Varah's first followers were called, banded together into a Company of Samaritans, holding special services of dedication and admission, and for the first 10 years, only clergy were appointed as local directors. It was small wonder that, with the name "Samaritan" attached as well, the movement was so soon and so strongly identified with religiosity. But today one of the seven principles governing the work of the Samaritans expressly forbids any volunteer to impose their own convictions or to influence callers "in regard to politics, philosophy or religion".

The first branch outside London was founded in Edinburgh in 1959, and others soon followed at Liverpool, Glasgow and Aberdeen. By 1961 there were Samaritan centres in Belfast, Bournemouth, Bradford, Hull, Jersey and Portsmouth, and enthusiasm for the Samaritan ideal of "listening acceptance and personal caring" had spread to what was then Salisbury in Rhodesia, to Karachi, Bombay and Hong Kong. In 1963, attempted suicide ceased to be a crime, and that year 21 founding branches were incorporated into a company called the Samaritans, to be run in future by a Council of Management. In 1974 a further milestone was reached when delegates from all over the world met at St Stephen Walbrook to establish Befrienders International, the Samaritans Worldwide, of which Chad Varah became the president.

The numbers of Samaritans recruited since 1953 must run into hundreds of thousands; around 17,000 volunteers are on the rota of the United Kingdom branches at any time, with thousands of new recruits needed each year just to keep pace with the drop-out rate. No one knows how many suicides have been prevented, but some five million contacts with the Samaritans (by telephone, email or face-to-face) are dealt with in this country every year alone.

The establishment of the Samaritans was a major achievement by any standards, but as Chad Varah grew older and his movement grew larger his inevitable loss of personal control caused him to withdraw into a severe paranoia never far below the surface at the best of times, and in his later years the cause of much grief to those who had admired his basic concepts. He seemed quite incapable of resting on his laurels, and the wildest letters and accusations flew about. He attended his last annual conference in 1986, and resigned from all official connections later that year. In the Samaritans' 50th anniversary year, Varah, claiming that the organisation had strayed from its original aims, wrote to the Charity Commission asking that its charitable status be removed, but later a rapprochement was achieved.

Varah was made an Honorary Prebendary of St Paul's Cathedral in 1975 (and a Senior Prebendary in 1997) and an Honorary Fellow of Keble College in 1981. He was appointed OBE in 1969, advanced to CBE in 1995 and was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Gold Medal in 1972. In 2000, he was made a Companion of Honour.

Varah believed in reincarnation and his autobiography, published in 1992, was titled Before I Die Again.

Michael De-la-Noy

• Michael De-la-Noy died 12 August 2002

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Jeremy Clarkson
people
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own