“I WILL support Calcutta Rescue until the day I die,” said Baroness Tessa Blackstone at a retirement tea party she hosted recently at the House of Lords for its founder and former Cardigan farmer Dr Jack Preger.

Dr Jack, as he is known, finally retired in January at the age of 88, after almost 40 years living and working in the slums of Kolkata.

During that time it is estimated that he helped at least half a million people by providing free healthcare and education to people living in dire poverty.

Much of his work in areas such as TB and HIV was pioneering and he is regarded as the grandfather of street medicine globally.

But it all started out s differently for Dr Jack. He was born in Manchester in 1930 and studied at Oxford before becoming a farmer in Wales. He bought a remote cliff-top farm near Cardigan which he ran for eight years.

One day in 1965, driving his tractor to the top field, he heard a mysterious voice telling him to become a doctor. So he sold the farm and started studying for a degree in medicine at the relatively advanced age of 35.

He is fondly remembered by Cardigan priest Father Seamus Cunnane, who had been invited to the House of Lords party but was unable to attend.

“He blames me for what happened to him in Cardigan but he is wrong and it is all down to him,” said Father Cunnane.

"It was the Holy Spirit which told him to give up his farm to become a doctor and then go to work with the poorest of the poor."

Resplendent in a suit, tie and shoes for the first time in decades, Dr Jack told guests assembled at the House of Lords that many years ago he had taken the baroness to visit his clinic in Nimtala on the banks of the Hooghly River, and the people living behind it in tiny shacks next to the railway line.

Seeing the harsh reality of life for the poor in Kolkata, and the outstanding work Calcutta Rescue was doing to help them, made her a life-long supporter of the charity.

Dr Jack said: “I don’t think anywhere in the world people are living in worse conditions than along the filthy canals and rubbish dumps of Kolkata.”

Also speaking at the event was Dr Jim Withers, the founder and director of the US-based Street Medicine Institute, who said that Dr Jack inspired not just his work but that of a generation of medics working with the poorest of the poor around the world.

He said: "It is impossible to measure the impact of his career in terms of the breadth of the lives saved and those inspired to service.

“It is equally difficult to measure the depth of the heart and soul that served the most destitute for over 40 years with humility, humor and professional excellence.”

Dr Jack paid tribute to all those who have supported Calcutta Rescue over the years, either by donating money or volunteering, and urged them to continue to back the charity’s work now that he has retired.

He said: “It is a credit to you all how much we have achieved since the beginning. It was done almost entirely with the money you have raised over so many years.

“It is a pride and joy, serving some of the most needy people in Kolkata. The work is unique - in the scale of it, the number of settlements we are seeing and the scope of the work.”

A live web link with the team in Kolkata allowed them to send him their best wishes for his retirement.

Many of the 150 staff have worked at Dr Jack’s side for decades and he praised their extraordinary dedication. He said “The staff need to be recognised. They get up at dawn, travel in to work in terrible conditions on public transport, work all day then struggle to get home at night.”

Dr Jack himself travelled to the event in an iconic Indian Ambassador taxi bedecked with flowers and, sitting in the opulent surroundings of the River Room at the House of Lords, he joked that he wanted to make clear to his former colleagues that he was only there for the afternoon, and hadn’t been elevated to the peerage.

Dr Jack’s life in Kolkata was famously frugal. He lived in a tiny flat at the top of one of his school’s on the edge of a red-light district and gave away all his money to help those he knew in great need.

Numbers at his retirement were strictly limited which meant that only a few of his UK supporters and representatives from other support groups around the world were able to attend.

In keeping with the charity’s policy of always trying to ensure donors’ money gets to the frontline services in Kolkata, the room was provided for free by the Speaker of the House of Lords and all the refreshments and the taxi ride for Dr Jack were generously sponsored by two individuals.

In 2017, Dr Jack became the first living non-Asian to win a coveted Asian Award when he was named Philanthropist of the Year.

For more information, go to calcuttarescuefund.org.uk