Royal Star and Garter
This month residents of the iconic Royal Star and Garter Home will pack their bags and leave for pastures new. Catherine Whyte, whose own father is among them, mourns the end of an era on Richmond Hill
This month, Richmond says goodbye to a very dear old friend. The Royal Star and Garter Homes charity is trading in the prominent, red-bricked building that, for the past 90 years, has stood guard beside the gates of Richmond Park for a smaller, purpose-built refuge in the leafy back streets of Surbiton.
It is a great loss for the borough – in so many ways. A detailed knowledge of its history is not required to appreciate the fact that here, at the summit of Richmond Hill, is a very special place indeed.
Founded in 1915 to care for the severely disabled young men returning from the battlefields of World War One, the charity represented a victory for compassion and human decency – a shining counterpoint to an otherwise grim passage in the nation’s history. The first 65 residents were admitted in 1916, and eight years later HM Queen Mary opened Sir Edwin Cooper’s brand new, purpose-built home on the hill.
And it was ours to enjoy. I remember walking along the towpath by Petersham Meadows as a child, staring up at this grand old dame of a building and feeling a sense of pride. It has been an integral strand of the local tapestry, unique: both inside and out.
My sense of connection with the building was somewhat prescient, as things turned out. Just two days after his 78th birthday, in 2002, my father suffered a catastrophic stroke. Unable to speak or walk, and without the resources to pay for private care, he was moved into an NHS nursing home near West Wittering, beside the Sussex sea.
It should have been fine – but it wasn’t. A dull concrete wall obliterated any semblance of a view; despair clung to the walls. My father had joined the army during the last months of World War II, and saw action in Italy, Greece and Palestine. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the scenes of desolation in this bleak, forsaken outpost on his native shores.
With tears streaming down my face, I wrote a desperate, impassioned letter to the Star and Garter begging them to come and rescue him. They did. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the charity saved my father’s life. He has thrived on the hill, while I gained something equally priceless: peace of mind. For both, I am eternally grateful.
At that time, the home felt like a small village. There were around 170 residents milling about, and what with the public events in the cavernous ballroom and tea parties on the terrace, there was always something going on. Residents were regularly taken out on day trips and could often be seen in the friendly physiotherapy department. Between the larger-than-life personalities of some of the residents – what a party we had for Dad’s 80th in the residents’ bar – and the sense of common purpose between carers, relatives and volunteers, the Star and Garter was one big family. The average age may have topped 70, but this was no dead end.
And while the home’s military links have been key in nurturing that healthy environment – where respect, resilience and gratitude make up the foundation stones of care – it was all a new concept when the charity began its work almost a century ago. Indeed, it was only thanks to the hard work and support of many women – including Queen Mary herself – that the place was built at all. Few are aware that the 1924 building is officially the Women of the Empire’s Memorial of the Great War.
The original premise of rehabilitation was certainly groundbreaking – the average age of those first residents was 22 – and the charity built steadily on that base. While neurologist Sir Ludwig Guttmann was rehabilitating patients up at Stoke Mandeville, the nursing staff at the Star and Garter were developing the now standard practices of occupational therapy. It was no coincidence that, in 1948, Guttman collaborated with the home to stage the first Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed – precursor to today’s Paralympics. Modern care owes a lot to the Star and Garter.
Only ex-servicemen and -women (and their spouses) may live here, and some of those who have done so were involved in the defining moments of WWII. Not least the late Nancy Wake – aka The White Mouse – who was top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list for her work with the French Resistance. In more tranquil times, she was a regular at the home’s Tuesday evening Music Club.
And who could forget the sight of Charlie Hankins, powering through Richmond Park on his hand-propelled, Ministry issue tricycle. This implacable, irrepressible man, who lost both legs and the sight of an eye at just 22, jumped out of planes on tandem skydives and went on sponsored rides in his wheelchair right into his seventh decade. The Blitz spirit was alive and well in Richmond.
But life changed for ever in 2004, when the charity announced that it could no longer afford to remain in a building ill-suited to the modern demands of caring for its elderly residents. In preparation for the move to a smaller home, resident intake was cut and floors were closed. Long-standing staff lost jobs in the restructuring, and efficiency directives cut a swathe through the whole operation. Necessary as it undoubtedly was, it felt brutal at the time.
Naturally, the charity tried to stay in the borough, but it lost out to luxury developers for a potentially perfect site on Ham Green. Further afield, plans to move to a site adjacent to Hampton Court station were abandoned once local residents objected and the application appeared to be heading for judicial review. So, to Surbiton the Star and Garter shall go. Miss Richmond we shall, but it’ll be good to settle down again.
And the old building? That question was finally laid to rest a couple of months ago, when property developer London Square acquired the building for a mere £50m. One of the UK’s prime pieces of real estate would, predictably, be converted into luxury apartments.
The upheaval may have been hard to stomach, but there is a broad consensus in support of the charity’s long-term goals. The sale of the Richmond home will fund construction of three replacements: not just Surbiton, but Solihull, in the West Midlands – already up and running – and a third in Berkshire. It saddens me to say it, but the borough’s loss is the country’s gain.
And there is one more benefit from the move: in its new surroundings – greatly to its credit – the charity will now tackle the urgent need for specialist dementia care. It’s not as glamorous as rehabilitating war heroes – but it is every bit as essential. Age may not weary the fallen, but for the living, the years can most certainly condemn.
To donate visit: starandgarter.org