A few weeks ago I was doing my regular Sunday east end walk and was chatting with one of the walkers about life, careers and wot not, as we often do. He told me that he fancied a bit of a career change and was going to start by volunteering for the Samaritans. As people in the UK will certainly know, the Samaritans is a UK based charity and telephone helpline for people feeling suicidal, offering the opportunity to talk to someone about their feelings and concerns with the aim of obviously stopping them from committing suicide. The Samaritans have something like 20,665 volunteers and receive a call every 6 seconds. I asked this particular guy on my walk whether he'd ever heard of the church of St Stephen Walbrook and a man called Chad Varah. He hadn't, so for this reason I'll mention it here as both are the reason why the Samaritans exist; what Chad Varah called the '999 for the suicidal'.
St Stephen Walbrook is a Wren church that you can find in the City of London next to Mansion House and Bank station, close to what was once one of London's (now lost) rivers, the Walbrook, but is currently slap bang next to a massive building site. In 1953, a guy called Chad Varah became vicar of St Stephen's. He'd been working in and around London for sometime and had been wanting to offer a service for people in distress or who were contemplating suicide, but he hadn't found the time or right opportunity. This desire had been born many years earlier, when in 1935 and an assistant curate up in Lincoln, Varah had attended the funeral of a 14 year old girl who was buried in unconsecrated ground because she had taken her own life. The reason, Varah discovered, was because she had started to menstruate and not understanding what was happening to her or with anyone she felt she could talk to about it, thought she had a disease. This event set the wheels in motion that would not only effect the rest of Varah's life, but the lives of many others.
It is important to remember, that even at the time Varah became vicar at St Stephen's, suicide was still illegal, and therefore the opportunity to even discuss it was difficult. Armed only with a telephone, an office and his ability to listen, Varah set up his phone line, the number was MAN 9000 (for Mansion House) and on the 2nd November 1953 received his first call. Using his links with journalists (he also wrote and illustrated for children's comics) Varah was able to garner a significant amount of publicity for his new endeavour. In fact, just a month later, it was the Daily Mirror that coined the phrase that became the name that is still used today; 'Telephone Good Samaritans'.
The publicity meant a huge surge in demand, and very quickly, Varah was unable to cope on his own. Fortunately, the same publicity also attracted people wishing to volunteer. Varah discovered that often, those who came to see him for 'face to face' meetings, had no wish to see him because they had poured out all their problems on the volunteers that he had initially only asked to provide tea and coffee and sit with the person whilst waiting for their appointment.
The following year, Varah handed over the running of the Samaritans to the volunteers, but remained an integral part of the organisation as over the following decades it continued to grow and grow. Chad Varah died in 2007, just a few days shy of his 96th birthday, but had unfortunately parted company with the Samaritans in 2004 stating that the organisation no longer adhered to his original principles as an emergency service for the suicidal or equally desperate.
St Stephen Walbrook is a beautiful church in its own right and has a 63-foot high dome, which with its central lantern creates a wonderful light, meaning that the church is much more light and airy than you might expect. The dome is also based on Wren's original design for St Paul's cathedral and the layout of the church now focuses the attention on a massive stone altar created by sculptor Henry Moore. Of course, you will also find in one of the corners, a telephone; the original one used by Chad Varah when he began the Samaritans back in 1953.
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