Richard Carr-Gomm: Army officer who left to dedicate his life to the elderly

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The Independent Online

Richard Carr-Gomm, a military man from a well-off background, astonished family and friends after the Second World War by giving up the army to volunteer as an unpaid home help for old people. While most who knew him hoped this was an episodic eccentricity and that he would eventually "come to his senses," he went on to devote a lifetime to the welfare of the elderly.

He did so not only energetically but also highly effectively, establishing three separate charities which helped thousands of old people. He will best be remembered for setting up the Abbeyfield Society, which today provides supported and sheltered housing in over 700 houses around the UK.

His original vision is still at work today, as the Society explains: "Residents find the privacy and security they seek when managing alone in their own home has become a burden. They come and go as they please, receive visitors and enjoy two cooked meals a day. They are free from the worries of maintaining a house and garden, paying bills and dealing with loneliness." He set out to provide a mixture of care, independence and companionship. A resident described the attraction: "When I open the front door I have it all. Good friends to share a meal with, a room to call my own and the wonderful feeling that this, at last, is home."

Richard Carr-Gomm was born in Warwickshire in 1922 into a family which owned much property in south London. Regarded as a child as delicate and slightly slow, he went to school at Stowe. He was preparing to go to Oxford, but when the War broke out he volunteered for the army, serving first with the Royal Berkshires and later becoming an officer with the Coldstream Guards, a traditional regiment of the Carr-Gomms.

He was twice wounded in a career which took him via Normandy into Germany, winning the Croix de Guerre with silver star. According to the citation, "His disregard for danger and determination to gain his objective, close with the enemy and destroy them, was an example to others and has had a very marked effect on all those who have fought with him."

He stayed in the army after the war, serving in Palestine and Egypt. But the turning point in his life came when he witnessed the plight of orphans and the elderly on a visit to Turin. He resigned his Coldstream Guards commission to work with old people in Bermondsey in South London (a district where his family owned much property), finding during a spell as a home help that many pensioners were living in isolation. He had been moved, he said, by the sight of elderly people aimlessly walking through the streets and decided to try to help them.

He used his £250 gratuity from the army to buy a house there, becoming known as "the scrubbing major" when he gathered volunteers to fix it up. He housed some pensioners there and moved in himself as housekeeper.

Volunteers helped run the houses. The simplicity and practicality of his initiative quickly attracted attention and by 1963 what he had named the Abbeyfield Society was an organised charity with almost 200 houses.

A difficult moment for Carr-Gomm came that year, when the much-expanded Society developed internal differences over issues such as religious observance. "I was accused of power complexes and egotism," he complained, and some described him as difficult. He left the Society after losing a vote on its central committee.

After a period working as a librarian he went on to found two more charities, the Carr-Gomm Society and the Morpeth Society. The organisation which bore his name was designed to help those experiencing loneliness, mental health problems and other difficulties. He created the Morpeth Society in 1972 to helping people who had adequate incomes but were in need of daily living support.

Carr-Gomm was a friend of the American evangelist Billy Graham, while among those he provided accommodation for were Stalin's daughter Svetlana and King Freddie of Uganda. He received an OBE in 1984 and in 2005 was given Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Beacon Fellowship and the Pride of Britain organisation.

The charities he founded have paid tribute to his work, one saying he "uniquely combined practical small-scale local work with a vision which bridged the gap between vulnerable people and policy makers."

Another said: "His commitment to helping socially excluded people to live as part of, rather than apart from, their community is still central."

David McKittrick

Richard Carr-Gomm, army officer, social activist: born near Atherstone, Warwickshire 2 January 1922; married 1957 Susan Gibb (died 2007, two sons, three daughters); died Batheaston, Somerset 27 October 2008.