Obituary: Robin Cavendish

Robin Francis Cavendish, campaigner for the disabled: born Middleton, Derbyshire 12 March 1930; MBE 1974; married 1957 Diana Blacker (one son); died Drayton St Leonard, Oxfordshire 8 August 1994.

TO KNOW Robin Cavendish was to know the personification of courage. Many people achieve moments of great courage, few are called on to show it continuously for 36 years.

When Cavendish was struck down by polio at the age of 28, he was given first three months, then one year to live. Totally paralysed from the neck down, he became technically a 'responaut', wholly reliant on a machine that breathed for him. Against all advice, he left hospital after a year and confounded the experts on his life expectancy. He outlived some of them, and occasionally had himself to be the expert who explained his condition to consultants and nurses. He became one of the longest-lived responauts in Britain, a medical phenomenon.

To see Cavendish simply as 'a polio victim' would be a mistake, and would not explain the reason why his death leaves such a gap. What makes him memorable was what he did for others. In the 1960s he tracked down and listed the circumstances of all the responauts in Britain. Until then there had been no record of how many people lived confined to 'iron lungs'.

Cavendish's friend Teddy Hall, the polymathic Oxford professor, developed with his help a wheelchair with respirator built in, so that Cavendish was no longer confined to bed. This chair, made in 1962, was a model for others, Cavendish being determined that mobility should be available to other polio victims. He raised money from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust for the first dozen chairs, and eventually persuaded the then Department of Health to fund a series of chairs, manufactured by Teddy Hall's company Littlemore Scientific Engineering.

Using himself as the guinea-pig, Cavendish tested and helped to market equipment that has changed the lives of countless disabled people. There was in particular the Possum, developed by scientists at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in conjunction with him. It was devised to control electronically the immediate environment of the severely disabled. Cavendish could just use his head and by moving it to left or right he could activate the Possum's co-ordinating box, enabling him to telephone, turn on the television or adjust the central heating.

He was moved by the plight of families who could never holiday together, and so originated the idea and provided the impetus for the building of a holiday complex with all the facilities for the care of severely disabled responauts. Here they and their families could enjoy holidays in attractive surroundings on the South Coast. With Dr GT Spencer - consultant in charge of the Lane-Fox Unit at St Thomas's Hospital, London - and others, Cavendish founded the charity Refresh to raise the money. The Netley Waterside House, overlooking Southampton Water, which opened in 1977, should be his public memorial.

Cavendish was born in 1930 and educated at Winchester College before attending RMA Sandhurst and being commissioned into the 60th Rifles. After seven years in the Army he left as a Captain to join Thompson Smithett, to help start up a tea-broking business in Africa. He married Diana Blacker in 1957 and returned to Kenya, where he was taken ill with polio in December 1958.

On a personal level Robin Cavendish's influence was perhaps even more widespread than through his work. Over the years he and his remarkable wife built up a huge and ever-widening circle of friends and acquaintances. Young people found him an irresistible ear to pour confidences into and his stimulating and down-to-earth attitude to problems helped many. His contemporaries would drive across country to ask his advice and enjoy his company. It was as if his sedentary life gave him a broader viewpoint and a sharper vision than the rest of us, and his capacity for laughing at, as well as with, his friends was healthily deflating.

An avid reader of the newspapers, he questioned mercilessly and passed on gossip as happily as he received it, but somehow the malice disappeared as it went through him. He had a natural graciousness: his lack of evident resentment at his own condition made helping him a positive pleasure.

A house full of humour and good temper will never lack visitors. Add good food and drink, good conversation and comfortable beds and it is hard to keep them away. Friends booked themselves in to stay for weekends with the Cavendishes in Oxfordshire months ahead. They stayed in a normal family home, not an invalid's household. It was Robin who would say when you arrived, 'Now, what will you have to drink?' or send you down to the wine cellar: 'Get a couple of bottles from the top row of the second rack on the left . . .'

Robin and Diana visited widely until a short time before his death, travelling from Oxford to London and further and returning home in their specially adapted van late at night, Robin criticising Diana's driving like any other husband. Travels abroad in the earlier days to visit the battlefields of northern France were typical of the Cavendishes' energy and their refusal to accept Robin's condition as a major restriction.

Naturally unsentimental, Robin's love for his wife, son and daughter-in-law was well-concealed and totally evident. He knew that he had a superb family and one hopes that he was also aware of how much he enriched their lives and those of everyone else who came in touch with him.

It is a strange irony that, though professing to be an unbeliever himself, he had a capacity for making other people feel closer to God.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all