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Half a Century of Sarum Samaritans

by Gerry Lynch last modified 05 Nov, 2013 03:19 PM

Salisbury Branch of helpline founded by C of E priest answers more than 30,000 calls per year.

Half a Century of Sarum Samaritans

Prebendary Dr Chad Varah using the original Samaritans telephone

Salisbury & District Samaritans celebrated 50 years of offering emotional support to callers last year. In the last year alone, Salisbury Samaritans answered more than 30,000 calls for help.

Samaritans was founded 60 years ago, in November 1953 by Prebendary Dr Chad Varah CH CBE. He had the idea after conducting the funeral of a 14 year old girl who had taken her own life after she started menstruating and thought she was gravely ill.

When he was offered charge of the parish of St Stephen Walbrook, London, in the summer of 1953, Chad Varah knew the time was right for him to launch what he called a '999 for the suicidal'. At the time suicide was illegal and many people who felt suicidal were unable to talk to anyone about it. A confidential emergency service for people 'in distress’ was what Chad Varah felt was needed to address the problems he saw around him. He was, in his own words, 'a man willing to listen, with a base and an emergency telephone'. The first call to the service was made on 2 November 1953 and this date is recognised as Samaritans' official birthday.

When that first call was made, the UK was a very different place. Nearly everyone was white, racial and gender discrimination were perfectly legal and homosexuality was not.  Samaritans was the world’s first 24 hour telephone helpline. It has grown from “one man in one room with one phone” to a service delivered today by 20,980 volunteers in 201 branches across the UK and Ireland. Someone contacts Samaritans every six seconds and over the last 60 years, more than 127,000 volunteers have answered over 115 million calls for help.

People can talk to Samaritans any time, in their own way and confidentially, about whatever is getting to them. They do not have to be suicidal, there is no typical person who calls Samaritans' helpline and there is no typical problem that people talk to them about.

The most common calls are about job stress, being out of work, money troubles, family struggles, relationship issues, trying to measure up, feeling alone, feeling worthless, feeling sad or angry all the time, getting into trouble, being abused, feeling suicidal, or needing to drink to get through the day. These issues have remained pretty consistent over the past 60 years.

What has changed is the ways in which people communicate with Samaritans. 60 years ago, many people did not have a telephone at home, and many had to use a public telephone or contact them by letter. Today the telephone is still the main means of communication, but emails and text messages are increasing rapidly, and there are still a small number of communications by “snail mail”. In addition there is an ever growing number of outreach projects, where Samaritans volunteers work in hospitals, schools, job centres, food banks and prisons.

In 2011, there were over 6, 500 suicides across the UK and Ireland. For every suicide, there are approximately 20 attempts made, which means in that same year, there were more than 120,000 suicide attempts.

This is why Samaritans must be available round the clock, every single day of the year.  They provide that safe place to talk for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, whatever life has done to them.

Samaritans needs volunteers both to help people directly and to keep its branches running. Salisbury Samaritans is available online at and the national Samaritans is at Other local branches are based at Bournemouth, Weymouth and Swindon.

For urgent support, ring 08457 90 90 90 or e-mail


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