Williams leads tributes to Samaritans founder
By Sadie Gray
Published: 09 November 2007
The Rev Chad Varah, who founded the Samaritans in the crypt of a London church more than 50 years ago, has died aged 95.
Tributes were led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who said Dr Varah had changed attitudes to suicide and brought a non-judgmental approach to people coping with depressive illness.
Dr Varah launched the Samaritans in 1953 "to befriend the suicidal and despairing" after conducting the funeral of a 13-year-old girl who had killed herself. Uneducated about sex, she had mistaken her first period for a symptom of a sexually transmitted disease which she feared would afford her a painful, shameful death.
Her case also prompted him to become one of the earliest proponents of sex education, particularly to poorly educated young people, for which conservative 1950s society vilified him as a "dirty old man".
Now, the Samaritans has 202 branches throughout the UK and the Republic of Ireland, manned by some 15,500 volunteers, and supports Befrienders Worldwide, a confidential listening service with 400 centres in 40 countries.
Dr Williams said: "Chad Varah made a unique contribution to the life of our whole society. His instinct that a listening and sympathetic ear could make a difference has proved to be enormously important to those who felt alone and with nowhere to turn to.
"His vision and energy in the foundation of the Samaritans and its subsequent development is a legacy that stretches far beyond the church and far beyond these shores; one that will continue to bring help to those who 'just need someone to talk to'. He will be greatly missed."
Felicity Varah, the eldest of his five children, said: "Thanks to my father, Samaritans has been working for over 50 years, providing confidential, emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which may lead to suicide.
"His relationship with Samaritans had many chapters, from the moment he founded it in his beloved church, St Stephen Walbrook in 1953, through its expansion worldwide, to the latter years when he stepped back to allow the movement to grow and flourish."
Dr Varah died in hospital in Basingstoke yesterday. The eldest of nine children, he was born in Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire, where his father was the vicar. He studied at Worksop College, Nottinghamshire, before going up to Keble College, Oxford, where he read politics, philosophy and economics.
To subsidise his vicar's salary and to meet the financial demands of a growing family in the 1940s, he had a second career as a comic scriptwriter and visualiser, notably as one of the brains behind Dan Dare. His wife, Doris, died in 1993, and he is survived by four of his children.
The Prince of Wales, Samaritans' patron, said: "Chad Varah was an utterly remarkable man who founded an organisation which has saved the lives of countless people since 1953. He was an outstanding humanitarian and a great Briton." Steve Evans, the chairman of Samaritans, added: "It was Chad's inspiration and untiring determination that created Samaritans. It is our honour and determination to carry on his extraordinary work in the way he would have liked." The organisation's chief executive Dominic Rudd added: "Chad was quite simply an extraordinary man, and his legacy is a strengthened Samaritans which seeks to make emotional health part of everyday conversation. Chad's vision – of a society in which people are able to explore their feelings without fear or prejudice, in turn respecting the feelings of others – has touched millions of people in the 54 years since we started to offer emotional support."