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Richard Carr-Gomm, our founder, is often referred to as one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary social reformers. He devoted his life to providing help and accommodation not only to older people, but to anyone who was lonely here in Britain and abroad.
When Richard Carr-Gomm decided to make a difference in society he dedicated his life to the welfare of those in need. His ideas substantially changed the way that older people are looked after; providing support and companionship, in an ordinary house in an ordinary street, returning to the community instead of moving away from it, retaining their independence and privacy, and being part of a family where regular activities take place and everyone is invited. All the aspects that Abbeyfield homes still stand for today.
The inspiration underlying our homes
When World War II was declared during Richard’s last year at school, he volunteered to join the army. As he was only 17, he was enlisted into the Young Soldiers Battalion in the Royal Berkshires before eventually joining the family regiment, the Coldstream Guards in 1941.
In 1953, after two years of service in the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt, he returned home to England, via a slow train through Malta, Sicily and Naples - washing in the sea, sleeping outdoors, eating scraps of food and drinking water from public taps. The experience showed him that because of the way he looked and acted he was made to feel unwelcome. It also taught him that the greatest deprivation was a lack of human company.
On his journey back, he decided to stop and visit the Turin Shroud, where he found The Little House of Divine Providence, a community of over 8000 people that was established in 1827 by St Joseph Benedict Cattolengo, created to help support the lonely and destitute. This got him thinking about how the poor, older and unwanted people in Britain were treated.
The choice to dedicate his life to others was finally cemented when he attended a rally held by American Evangelist, Billy Graham, at Harringay Stadium.
Setting up Abbeyfield
With only the honorary rank of Major, a small gratuity and no pension from the army, Richard became Britain’s first male home help, where he found that most of the people he looked after were lonely and that he was often the only person to visit them.
Determined to do something about this, he used part of his army gratuity money to buy 50 Eugenia Road in Bermondsey, East London, in 1955 and invited his first residents, Mr Halnan and Miss Saunders, to come and live with him. He had set out to establish a home that provided a mixture of support, care, independence and companionship, a place to bring people together, where they were supported by the neighbours and remain part of the community. Richard acted as the housekeeper, providing the residents with shelter, companionship and two home cooked meals a day.
Within two years, he’d bought another five houses in Bermondsey, and with a growing band of volunteers and the positive response and donations he’d received from the public, he formally set up The Abbeyfield Society in 1956.
In 1957 he was surprised on This is Your Life, which helped to raise the profile and interest of the charity all over the country for many years, that by 1963, The Abbeyfield Society had over 100 homes all over the UK.
Today the original vision for Abbeyfield still exists in our homes. We have retained our sense of community; residents can find privacy and security, remain independent, form friendships and live as part of the community.
Richard’s original idea continues to this day. Residents have their own room, their own favourite pieces of furniture, they live in the same area and remain a visible and valued member of the community.
When I open my 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.
With over 400 houses in seven countries including New Zealand, Australia, Belgium, Canada and South Africa, we have continued to grow and provide support to a community of over 7,500 residents.
Richard’s significant contribution to our society
Humble to the end, Richard received much appreciation for his hard work and commitment as a social reformer. In 1985, he was appointed OBE in recognition of his vision and achievements, was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Beacon Fellowship, and in 2005 was given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pride of Britain Organisation.
I love the fact the charities are still growing as loneliness affects us all one way or another at various stages in our lives.
He will always be remembered for his generosity, kindness, commitment and goodwill, which has helped to change, support and benefit the lives of thousands of people. Abbeyfield gives our residents an environment that values them, encourages happiness, and is a place where they feel loved and part of a family.