For the first time in my life I have read four obituaries of the same person: in the Times, Telegraph, Independent and Guardian. I’ve read them all because they were about my uncle, Richard Carr-Gomm, whose funeral we attended on Guy Fawke’s Day. My first memory of him was when I was very small and he drove me home. I can still remember being half-asleep in the back of the car beside his enormous bearskin (he was in the Coldstream Guards). On Wednesday, as the service finished, a lone Guard from his regiment stood up and played the Last Post. It was very moving and a fitting tribute to such a warm and inspiring man. He managed to combine great generosity with a delightful eccentricity. He believed our family was descended from Lady Godiva, Queen Boudicca and Adam and Eve. We will all miss him very much.
Richard Carr-Gomm – Soldier who resigned his commission and found his vocation in alleviating loneliness
In 1948, after a “good” war as a conscript with the Coldstream Guards that had taken him, in a heavy Churchill tank, from the beaches of Normandy to the gates of the Belsen concentration camp, Richard Carr-Gomm, who has died aged 86, made the decision to become a career soldier. Twice injured by shell shrapnel, he had been awarded the Croix de Guerre and a mention in dispatches. From Europe he went to Palestine, where he spent two and half years shoring up the British mandate. He applied for, and was granted, a regular commission, with the rank of captain, but there lurked within him the ambition to become the second member of the Carr-Gomm family – after his great-great uncle, Sir William – to be awarded a field-marshal’s baton.
Seven years later, at the age of 33, and to the astonishment of his family and friends, Carr-Gomm resigned his commission to become an unpaid home help to the old and the disabled, exchanging his comfortable London billet at Chelsea Barracks for a bedsit in Bermondsey, in the south-east of the city. Until his death, the once-dashing captain – tall and slender with a perpetual full beard to mask the shrapnel scars on his face – devoted himself to the care of countless people: not just the old and the disabled, or even the poor, but to anyone who was alone or simply lonely.
He was born at Mancetter Lodge, near Atherstone, Warwickshire, a country house belonging to his mother’s parents. Educated at Stowe school, he won a place to Oriel College, Oxford, but, with war declared during his last year at school, he declined it and volunteered to join the army. He enlisted first in a young soldiers’ battalion in the Royal Berkshires, but joined the Coldstream Guards in 1941.
Carr-Gomm’s conversion began in the warm summer of 1953 when, returning from a posting to the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt, he travelled via Malta and Sicily to Naples, where he took the slow train the length of Italy. He travelled as a tramp, sleeping rough, eating scraps, drinking from public water taps, bathing in the sea – and once, without her knowledge, in Gracie Fields’ swimming pool in Capri – not just because he had little money, but “to see what it was like”. He discovered that the worst deprivation was the lack of human company. Because he looked like a tramp, he was treated like one, and never made welcome. On all of that long journey through Italy, he said, he only met with kindness once.
Until, that is, he reached Turin. On a whim he had gone to see the Turin Shroud, and on his way to the cathedral stumbled across the Little House of Divine Providence, otherwise known as Cottolengo, a community of the distressed, 8,000-strong, run by an order of nuns to offer care and companionship.
Wandering through the community he saw “deaf and dumb children trying to speak and the deformed playing football. I saw the aged lying in their beds at the foot of a crucifix and madmen walking about declaiming.” He was appalled that the children of visiting friends and families were allowed by their parents to roam freely and witness the almost animal-like behaviour of the deranged. But “it’s not infectious”, the parents told him simply. Carr-Gomm continued his journey home wondering what Britain did with its poor and its unwanted.
He was undergoing a profound change. Although a practising Christian, he believed in the concept of a “just” war as a last resort, but knew that he would always want to fight in any such future war. He knew, too, that he would not hesitate to kill if it were necessary. He also believed in capital punishment – but by now doubts were creeping in.
After his return to the Guards, Carr-Gomm spent a weekend on retreat at a Franciscan friary in Dorset, where he slept in a cell and, in the companionable silence, “felt a clarity of vision and a peace, feelings very rare for me”.
The final step on the road to his conversion came in 1954, when he invited the American evangelist Billy Graham to lunch at St James’s Palace – inviting guests was a privilege of officers on guard at Buckingham Palace – and later attended one of Graham’s rallies at Harringay Stadium. It was an experience that determined Carr-Gomm’s decision to leave the Guards – with the honorary rank of major and a small gratuity, but no pension – to dedicate his life to another “just” war: the care of others.
He chose to begin in the London borough of Bermondsey because his family owned estates in the area and he was familiar enough with the place to know that it was heavily populated by elderly single people living apparently aimless and lonely lives. At the end of 1955 Carr-Gomm used £250 of his gratuity as a deposit on a run-down house in Eugenia Road, which he did up with other volunteers, and then invited four lonely people, two men and two women, to share it with him. Acting as housekeeper, he provided shelter and companionship and two hot meals a day.
Within two years, Carr-Gomm had opened five more sheltered houses in Bermondsey and, with a growing band of volunteers – including Susan Gibbs, who would become his wife – he formed the Abbeyfield Society, to turn the concept into a national movement. By 1960 there were Abbeyfield societies in eight London boroughs and 15 other cities and towns throughout the country. Today Abbeyfield runs 700 sheltered houses in the UK, and 80 homes for those too frail to take care of themselves, providing accommodation for more than 8,000 people – as many as there were in Cottolengo.
Carr-Gomm was not part of that expansion. In 1963, to his shock and hurt, he was rejected by his own movement. Following months of tension over the future direction of the society – and, as he saw it, an increasing trend to abandon its founding ethos of building communities – he was first banned from central office and then sacked by the central committee, accused of “power complexes and egotism”.
For two years he worked as a librarian, but his determination to help the lonely never faltered. In 1965 he founded the Carr-Gomm Society, starting once again with one house in Bermondsey, but with a broader remit stemming from his recognition that people did not have to be old or frail to feel isolated and alone. Of the approximately 1,500 people who now live in Carr-Gomm accommodation throughout England, and the hundreds more who receive “floating support” in their own homes, some 60% are under the age of 45.
And, as Carr-Gomm recognised, comparative wealth is also no antidote to loneliness. In 1972 he founded the Morpeth Society, purchasing the first of two luxury flats in a terrace in Victoria for those who could afford the rent but did not want to live alone. He even considered and talked about starting a care home for retired spys, on the grounds that they must be the loneliest of all.
He eventually became reconciled with the Abbeyfield Society, and though he published two volumes of autobiography and accepted honours and awards – including an OBE – Carr-Gomm seemed, in his mid-eighties, increasingly diffident and even humble about his work, as though it represented no great achievement.
Susan died suddenly in 2007, and though with five children he was rarely alone, he seemed to have lost his anchor. Almost a year to the day after the loss of his wife, he went for his evening walk in the village near Bath where they lived and suffered a pulmonary embolism, falling dead to the ground as if he had been shot, like the good soldier he never ceased to be.
• Richard Culling Carr-Gomm, soldier and charity worker, born January 2 1922; died October 27 2008