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A Southwark Story
An interview for the Bede House documentary, “Sum Of Us All”, filmed just three weeks before he passed away provided a glimpse of a fine life. Here is the obituary offered by The Telegraph:
Richard Carr-Gomm, who died on Monday aged 86, gave up his career in the Army to found a series of societies providing care and accommodation for lonely people, of which the largest and best known is the Abbeyfield Society.
Carr-Gomm became known as “the scrubbing major” when, in 1955, he resigned his commission in the Coldstream Guards and convinced Bermondsey council to give him work as an unpaid home help cleaning council tenancies. His family owned a fair amount of property in the borough (his brother was Lord of the Manor), and Carr-Gomm, a friend of the evangelist Billy Graham, decided on his new course for reasons that were Christian and humanitarian – and perhaps just a little feudal.
The problem that most impressed him as he went on his rounds was that of loneliness, particularly among the old. “Wherever I travelled I saw single elderly people sitting on park benches or looking out of windows, coming out of public libraries or walking, it seemed aimlessly, down the streets,” he wrote in his memoir Push on the Door (1979). “I found that I wanted to know more about them and see if there was anything I could do to help them – if they wanted it.”
Using Ł250 of his Army gratuity he bought a house, 50 Eugenia Road, and did it up with voluntary help. There he installed four old people, two men and two women, with himself as housekeeper. His work became well known and local authorities and church groups invited him to promote his housing solution to a wider area. As the movement grew, it became necessary to set up a charity which, as Carr-Gomm and his associates met in Abbeyfield Road, in 1957 they named the Abbeyfield Society.
Wondering if there was a need for such services elsewhere, Carr-Gomm went to Macclesfield and worked under an assumed name. Before long an Abbeyfield Society was started in Macclesfield. By the late 1950s Abbeyfield Societies were springing up all over the country, and by 1963 the movement had 180 houses.
Although local Abbeyfield Societies were autonomous, by 1959 it had become necessary to establish a central administration with salaried staff and an executive committee. But Carr-Gomm felt that centralisation had led to a loss of some of the idealistic volunteer spirit of the early days, with a growing lack of co-ordination between the central committee and people running the homes on a day-to-day basis.
His vision for the homes always had a strong spiritual dimension, and life for the residents featured regular non-denominational prayer meetings and communal hymn singing. Another feature was that people from the local community were encouraged to join in as volunteers and participate in the social life of the homes.
The religious side had always attracted controversy, with some representatives of the established churches refusing to have anything to do with Carr-Gomm, either because they objected to the non-denominational character of the homes or because they suspected him of creating some sort of new sect.
As the organisation grew, however, Carr-Gomm became increasingly concerned by the number of societies which did not subscribe to this ethos and produced houses that were nearer to being boarding houses. His attempts to resist this trend caused an increasingly bitter rift between him and members of the central committee.
“I was accused of power complexes and egotism,” he recalled, “and banned from the central office except on a prearranged morning once a week when I was not allowed to see the files unless I had previously asked and been given permission. Committee members becoming angry with me said that I acted as if I had invented lonely old age.”
Matters reached crisis point in 1963, when the committee voted to sack him. “It was a complete shock to me; I had not taken in that it could happen,” he remembered. Later he discovered that a farewell letter he had written to the 150 Abbeyfield local society chairmen had been torn up and never sent.
Carr-Gomm went on to found several more charitable bodies to help lonely people, including the Carr-Gomm and Morpeth societies, and in the 1970s he was reconciled with the Abbeyfield Society under a new chairman. When, in 1985, he was appointed OBE, there were some who felt, notwithstanding the fact that he could be a difficult colleague, that it was a grossly inadequate recognition of his vision and achievements. Abbeyfield alone now provides accommodation for 10,000 elderly people across the country.
Richard Culling Carr-Gomm was born, the third of four boys, on January 2 1922 at Mancetter Lodge, near Atherstone, Warwickshire, a country house belonging to his mother’s parents. His grandfather had served as commissioner of police in Madras.
On his father’s side Richard came from a notable family with estates in Rotherhithe and Bermondsey. His grandfather, Francis Carr-Gomm, was chairman of the London Hospital, and as such made his mark by befriending John Merrick, the “Elephant Man”, who had been touring the country as a sideshow attraction. By stirring up his friends and writing letters to The Times, Francis Carr-Gomm aroused public sympathy, and in consequence Merrick was given a home in the hospital, where he died in 1890 when one night his head slipped off the pillow and broke his neck with its weight.
Richard was a delicate child and considered by his family to be somewhat “slow”. But he thrived at Stowe under the benign oversight of the headmaster, JF Roxburgh; he enjoyed cricket and the OTC (in which he served with Prince Rainier of Monaco), and he won a place at Oriel College, Oxford.
War was declared during his last year at school and, declining the place at Oxford, he volunteered with a school friend to join the Army. As he was only 17 he had to enlist in a young soldiers’ battalion in the Royal Berkshires, eventually joining the family regiment, the Coldstream Guards, in 1941.
Commissioned in the 4th Battalion, which became part of 6th Guards Brigade, he saw action in Normandy after D-Day and took part in the push through Germany. After V-E Day he joined the 3rd Battalion and was sent to Palestine, where Jewish settlers were trying to oust the British.
“By the time we arrived in Haifa most of us were pro-Jew,” Carr-Gomm recalled. “However, such was the behaviour of the Jews during the next two and a half years that, by the time we left, we were almost entirely pro-Arab. We became so anti-Semitic that when the battalion returned to England and was posted to Aldershot, the Hebrew symbol was torn off the synagogue nearby and the officers, burning it, danced round the funeral pyre.”
After two years’ service in the Canal Zone in Egypt, in 1953 Carr-Gomm returned to England and to a life of public and ceremonial duties. The germ of the idea for Abbeyfield came to him during his return from Egypt when, travelling through Europe by train, he decided to stop to visit the Turin Shroud. “On the way I came across this rather smart street full of older people and handicapped children, both rich and poor,” he recorded. He had wandered into the Little House of Providence, an 8,000-strong community set up in 1827 by St Joseph Benedict Cottolengo to support the lonely and destitute. The discovery made him curious about how the elderly were treated in Britain. Attendance at a Billy Graham crusade at Harringay crystallised his decision to dedicate his life to helping others: “I felt at one with God,” he said, “and seemed able to plan my future with clarity.”
Bermondsey seemed a good place to start as he had got to know the area through visits to his family’s agent. Sometimes he had taken old and handicapped people living on the family’s estates for drives, and had visited them in their clubs.
In 1955 he took a bedsitting room in Abbeyfield Road and, throwing himself into the spirit of the place on his first evening, went out and bought a “typical” Bermondsey meal of pease pudding. “I felt that I had arrived and come to peace and safety,” he recalled.
His decision to renounce a military career for life as an unpaid home help came as a shock to his friends and family. One elderly relative wrote saying that she “hoped I’d be feeling better soon and would return to London to do some serious work”. But Carr-Gomm persisted.
After his break with the Abbeyfield Society, Carr-Gomm worked for two years as a librarian in Bermondsey, doing social work in his spare time. In 1964 he decided to start again and, with a group of old colleagues from the Abbeyfield, he established the Carr-Gomm Society with a remit broadened to include lonely and needy people of all ages.
By 1967 the society had two houses, to which a further eight were added when the Bermondsey branch of the Abbeyfield broke away and joined them. The Carr-Gomm Society grew to be a national charity helping more than 3,000 people each year. Following its success, Carr-Gomm started the Morpeth Society in 1972, helping people with adequate incomes who were in need of daily living support.
The Carr-Gomm homes gave shelter to an eclectic range of people. Its more unusual temporary residents included Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, who, Carr-Gomm recalled, “loved her father, even though she knew he had killed 40 million people”.
Another was King Freddie, the Kabaka of Buganda, who had fled to Britain in 1966 after being deposed as President of Uganda by Milton Obote. Carr-Gomm had become a friend of the Kabaka in the late 1940s when they were both serving in the Grenadier Guards, and became a godfather to the Kabaka’s son, Richard, and guardian of his heir, Ronnie Mutebi. Carr-Gomm’s attempts to find some sort of role for his exiled friend were interrupted by the Kabaka’s sudden death in 1969. A coroner’s inquest blamed alcohol poisoning but many, Carr-Gomm included, suspected that he had been murdered.
After Obote was overthrown in 1971 by General Idi Amin, the new President made plans to bring the Kabaka’s body home to Uganda to strengthen his support among the Baganda, the country’s largest tribe. Carr-Gomm accompanied the coffin on the aeroplane to Kampala and attended the state funeral in the Namirembe Anglican Cathedral. Amin proclaimed that the kabakaship had died with the king, but in 1993 Carr-Gomm was a delighted guest at the coronation of his son Ronnie as 36th Kabaka.
Richard Carr-Gomm married, in 1957, Susan Gibbs, who died in 2007; they had two sons and three daughters.