The Good Samaritan

Marie was so desperate when faced yet again with eviction from her lodgings with her four children, one just a baby of six weeks old, that she phoned the newly founded Samaritans organisation. Chad Varah, the Samaritans founder, informed her that she was his first phone call. This 9-minute episode of the BBC World Service’s Witness programme tells the story of the Samaritans’ origins, and that first call (although, as with all Samaritans callers, Marie is anonymous in the programme).

The call resulted in the family spending the night in his church, whilst he drove round in a taxi trying to find somebody among his friends to take in baby Christina. After a futile few hours, the taxi driver, impressed with Chad Varah’s efforts, contacted his wife and they agreed to give Christina a home until accommodation could be found for the family.

Here is an extract from Chapter 11 of A Sound Revolution. 

The Good Samaritan

How to express in words, the feelings that engulf the homeless? Desperation that accompanies the debilitating sense of despair and hopelessness that seep like a sickness into your heart. A sense of worthlessness grips you. For my family, life was rootless. Not knowing where we were going to lay our heads was something we had to endure many times during the long battle with Pye. The relief of finding somewhere, even just for the night, was enormous. Many people over the years assisted us with a bed, some complete strangers whose kindness will always be remembered by the family. Such compassion helped to balance the rough and sometimes callous treatment we received from others.

I had never felt so desperate as I did in November 1953. Threatened with yet another eviction and unable to face the London streets, I clutched at the only offer of help available. I telephoned the newly formed Samaritans, founded by the Reverend Chad Varah, the Vicar of St. Stephen’s, in Holbrook, London. He had come to realise that there were many people in London feeling isolated, even suicidal and in need of urgent help. He wanted to give desperate people a lifeline when they had reached the limit of their endurance. He started his life-saving venture with just one telephone in his church office and posters informing would be suicides, that they were not alone; that somebody did care and was prepared to listen on the telephone, in complete confidence to their problems.

I had seen a Samaritans poster in a nearby telephone box and feeling that I could no longer battle on rang the number. I was, he later divulged, his first call. In great distress, my voice rising in panic, I told him, I can’t go on, I’m sick and tired of being pushed from pillar to post. We would be better off dead. I feel like turning on the gas and making an end of us.”

Shocked at my words and my obvious anguish, he told me, Don’t, please, don’t do everything foolish. Give me your address, I’m on my way!”

When he arrived at our lodgings in Earls Court, things were worse than he feared. He found me on the edge of complete physical and emotional collapse and my little son Nigel clinging to me in tears. Dawn and Cynthia sat motionless on the bed, not knowing what to do; we were all exhausted by the drama our circumstances. Only the baby seemed oblivious of the turmoil around her as she lay sleeping, secure in her own world of calm repose.

It was clear to him that we were in desperate straits. He dared not leave, even to try and arrange some alternative accommodation. Turning to Dawn, he told her, Come on, get your things together. You must all come back to the church and I will sort something out!”

St Stephen’s Church was squeezed between two large and imposing buildings in the financial heart of the city of London. The interior seemed enormous, the heavily decorated plasterwork on the high ceiling lost in the shadows of the impressive ornate dome. The long wooden pews and stonewalls failed to absorb the sound of our footsteps, which echoed noisily on the marble floor. The church seemed a secure refuge from a storm of troubles that had finally overwhelmed me. Musty air and the scent of wood polish and candle wax mingled together, gave off that familiar odour that is peculiar to churches; its quiet peace wrapped itself around me, enveloping me in childhood memories of my convent days. The vicar’s secretary warmly greeted us and she opened her arms to take the baby. The offer of a hot drink did something to reassure me that I was in the hands of friends and gradually I began to relax a little, grateful for the other woman’s offer of friendship, I soon found myself confiding in her.

The vicar spent many unsuccessful hours on the telephone looking for accommodation. Finding somewhere that would take four children, one a young baby of only a few weeks was proving impossible and Chad Varah suggested that it might be easier to find somewhere if one of the girls went to stay with him. Realising that I was very near to a total collapse he suggested that it would be better if Dawn, being the eldest, stayed with me to take charge of the two youngest children. I hated the thought of parting with any of my children but I was left little choice. Hoping to make the decision easier for me he said that he had twin daughters around Cynthia’s age. Cynthia did not want to be parted from us, nor was she anxious to stay with strangers and tried to resist. But she finally agreed after the vicar assured her that it wouldn’t be for long. Well, that’s settled then,” and turning to me he said, “When I have settled Cynthia, I will return to sort things out here.”

Chad Varah returned as promised but his search was in vain. Unbelievably, the only solution he could offer my family was for us to sleep on the hard wooden church pews. Dawn and I, finally fell into a fitful doze. As we slept, the church came alive and we awoke in the darkness to the sound of rats scuttling across the floor. Terrified of being bitten, Dawn and I found sleep quite impossible and we sat huddled together, watching over the sleeping Christina and Nigel while waiting for the dreadful night to come to an end.

The grey light of dawn crept into the shadowy recesses of the cold building and the rats retreated to their nests to leave us in peace. Desperate to get my aching limbs moving I pulled my coat more tightly round me and said, Dawn darling, I must find something warm for us to drink. Will you be alright if I go and look for a café?” Dawn, too depressed by our ordeal to object, nodded glumly. I won’t be long, I will get the flask filled with tea and hopefully they will make up a bottle of milk for the baby.”

Dawn cheered up at the thought of a hot drink. Have you enough money for a bun, too?” she asked me hopefully.

I’ll see what I can do,” and managing a weak smile I left on my quest. The walk eased the ache in my limbs but my search proved futile and I dared not stay away from the family for long. About to retrace my steps I spied the familiar sight of a London policeman on his beat. He made no attempt to hide his surprise at finding me out so early but to my relief the policeman was able to direct me to a nearby mobile tea bar.

Chad Varah arrived to find that we had breakfasted on hot tea and cheese rolls. He confessed that, anxious about our welfare, he had not slept well either. Life seemed to have improved immensely once the family was back in the warmth of the office and while Nigel amused himself drawing, the Vicar went to work again looking for accommodation. Eventually a landlord was found who, although willing to rent a room to a woman with two children, refused to take a young baby. We could not spend another night in the church and evening was creeping on so he told me. “I can’t see any other solution than you allowing me to take the baby with me.”

Horrified at the suggestion, I pleaded with him, “You can’t ask me to part with her – I can’t do it.” Seeing my distress, he agreed to keep trying but I agreed that if all else failed then I would take the room with Nigel and Dawn.

In the end I had to leave Christina in his care and accept the only offer of accommodation available to me. Filled with despair at the hopeless situation and too exhausted to argue further, I trusted to God and the vicar, to take care of my baby.

I arrived at our new lodgings, emotionally dead, my tears all spent. I kissed Christina on the cheek, not trusting myself to keep my word if I delayed the painful parting a moment longer. I gently laid my baby into the vicar’s arms. Anxious that I would change my mind, he made a hasty retreat and, without looking back, leapt into the waiting taxi.

So started his long search to find a temporary foster-home for Christina. His first port of call was his mother-in-law. He had hoped she would take pity on the baby but she felt too old to take on such a responsibility and refused. He and the taxi driver, who by now had become acquainted with my story, continued their tour of London addresses in the hope of finding a home for Christina among the vicar’s friends. As it grew late the vicar’s hopes of success grew fainter. After so many refusals he was at his wit’s end; sure that he was doomed to drive round in the taxi all night. When their travels found them in the Olympia area, the taxi driver parked the cab saying that he needed to use a toilet. Reverend Varah sat patiently in the taxi awaiting his return, knowing that when he came back he would have to admit to the man that he had run out of ideas. He looked at the baby lying peacefully asleep in his arms. Throughout the long search she had behaved perfectly, content it seemed to leave her fate in his hands. On the driver’s return, he told the surprised vicar, Look, Reverend, I think you have sweated blood over this baby but you can’t go on much longer – she’s going to need changing and feeding. I’ve talked to my wife and we want to help out.”

The vicar was dumbstruck but seeing the man’s obvious concern for the child he asked, What are you suggesting?” Well, we would like to offer the little mite a home while you sort out something more permanent.” Reverend Varah was very moved by the man’s generous offer and without hesitation replied I don’t know what to say, it is a big responsibility for you and for me to place her in your care. Please, drive me to your home and let me talk to your wife.”

After reassuring himself that the baby would be in good hands until he could find somewhere the family could be reunited, he left promising to phone the next day.

Christina spent several weeks with the generous, warm-hearted couple. They had not asked for any financial reward but Chad Varah told me that his secretary, anxious that the couple should not be out of pocket, insisted that she be allowed to contribute a little money towards Christian’s keep out of her small salary.

I found the pain of separation unbearable. I couldn’t sleep and hardly ate, I drank tea and chain-smoked cigarettes to try and calm the growing sense of worthlessness and anguish that threaten to engulf me during those painful weeks of separation from my two daughters. If I had known how things would turn out, would I have made that desperate call to the Samaritans? Had death really seemed the only answer? Questions went round and round in my mind. Was I right to battle against such powerful people? My torturous thoughts were relentless. I was full of remorse at having given up Christina. To be parted from her was too big a cross to bear.

The days passed painfully, my sense of guilt deepening; I was desperate to be reunited. Chad Varah and his secretary spent hours listening to me relentlessly going over and over my problems. One evening he will never forget, I made a distraught telephone call to him. Calm down, I’m on my way”, he told me. When he arrived, he found me wailing with grief. Nigel, who was only three years old, was crying pitifully. Dawn, crouched on the floor; her face white with fear, fists clenched tight in tension, suddenly jumped up and rushed out of the room. Fearful she was going to do something drastic he rushed into the passage just in time to prevent her from throwing herself down the lift shaft. Grabbing her swaying figure back from the abyss, he pushed her up against the wall, where she clung to him in relief, her body shaken by terrible sobbing. I can’t stand it anymore, I can’t.”

There, there, one day this will all seem like a bad dream, I promise you things will get better,” he told her. Never, never to do such a thing again. Ring me, go for a walk, but never think of ending your life. Promise me now.” Dawn weakly nodded her agreement, grateful for his reassuring presence.

Although Pye had been issued with a writ for infringement, the months dragged on and to my frustration my solicitors seemed oblivious of the effect on the family. Chad Varah’s brother-in-law Neville Dicks, was a partner in a firm of solicitors. Let me talk to him,” he suggested. “He may be able to advise you on how things can be speeded up.”

If he can, I am only too willing to listen,” I told him, grateful for any chance of shortening my family’s suffering. Part of the reason for the case dragging on was my solicitor Kenneth Brown’s fascination of the technical side of the evidence. He wanted to spend six weeks having evidence prepared when it need only take a matter of a few days,” I explained. “No matter how hard I try to persuade him to take the shorter cut, he simply refuses to listen”, my anger growing as I thought of the added suffering his stubbornness was causing my family.

In February 1954, I removed the case from Kenneth Brown, Baker and Baker and placed it in the hands of Mr Dicks. He was in complete agreement with me that all that was required to prove the point in question was for Pye’s stylus to be held up in court. Even so, it was to be another three years before the case finally came before the judge.