“It was such a new concept at the time, to alleviate loneliness.”
Norma Bennett grew up on Rotherhithe New Road, Bermondsey, in the 1950’s. Just around the corner was Abbeyfield Road, from which our organisation takes its name, and living nearby was Richard Carr-Gomm, who founded our first house and established Abbeyfield as a charity in 1956.
Norma recalls, “When I was four my mother took a job as a school crossing patroller for the school that I later attended. I remember her pointing out Richard Carr-Gomm’s house to me. She was very interested and impressed by what he was doing.
“When I was around nine or ten, Carr-Gomm used his army gratuity to establish the first house for older people in Eugenia Road, followed quickly by the second in Abbeyfield Road.
“We moved to Borough when I was 11, but we still attended the same church opposite Southwark Park and I helped there with the youth club. Each year there was a local parade and Richard Carr-Gomm’s parents would be in a car at the front of it. Opposite Lady Gomm House, on the edge of the park, there was a services utility box on the street where I would sit and watch the parade and see the Carr-Gomms pass by.
“Richard Carr-Gomm was a bit of an eccentric maverick, doing something so unexpected. It was such a new concept at the time, to alleviate loneliness. It was not just older people whom he wanted to help but also some younger people, who had particular needs and problems or were simply on their own and lonely.”
Carr-Gomm’s work in the community had a profound impact on Norma, who saw first-hand the challenges that older people face during her time at school, when students were encouraged to visit the elderly in their neighbourhood. Now living near Beaconsfield, she has found herself volunteering her time for local organisation Penn and Tylers Green Village Care. The organisation is a non-residential support service for local older people, helping to drive them to and from medical appointments, the local shops and other amenities.
She says, “With our now ageing population, the need for services to support older people has increased and society has developed over the years. I feel that growing up and seeing Carr-Gomm’s and Abbeyfield’s work has inspired me in part to take some responsibility for the most vulnerable in my local area, and to help where I can.”
Interview conducted by Julia Molden, Abbeyfield Beaconsfield Society.
Richard Carr-Gomm was honoured with an OBE in 1985, but he received nationwide recognition 28 years earlier as the subject of the BBC’s This Is Your Life programme, which he recalled in his autobiography:
“The programme produced a great response from people all over the country and the interest it aroused seemed to last for many years. There were offers of holidays in caravans for the old people, pen-pals, interest from official organisations and a Christmas party invitation from a Rotary Club.
“We were sent several hundred pounds, all in small amounts, and one man left us a legacy. Someone else offered the use of a car and a furrier gave many old fur coats. A rag-and-bone man offered a half share of his takings if he could collect on our behalf and another man promised us a cut of his takings in slot machines on Brighton piers if he could use our name on them. One of the most unusual offers came from Spike Milligan of the Goons. He had been given a barrel of beer to help him train for a tiddly-winks match with the Duke of Edinburgh's team against a Cambridge College. Not wanting the beer, he had been allowed to pass it on to our Society.”