Robin CAVENDISH, mbe (1930–1994)

Responaut, champion of the severely disabled

The Old Rectory, Church Lane, Drayton st leonard

Robert Cavendish

Courtesy of the Cavendish family

Robin Cavendish was born at Middleton in Derbyshire in 1930, the son of Brigadier Ronald and Helen Cavendish, and educated at Winchester and Sandhurst.

He became a captain in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and went on to start up a tea-broking business in Kenya. He married Diana Blacker in 1957.

Then at the age of only 28 he was struck down by polio. Paralysed from the neck down, he was given only a few months to live, bedfast and dependent on an iron lung. He resolved to fight back with the strong support of his wife Diana and was “broken out” of hospital against medical advice and came to live in Drayton St Leonard in 1961.

The Old RectoryThe Old Rectory (then called Furlongs) where Cavendish lived.
The plaque is on its coach house, which faces Church Lane

Enter Professor Teddy Hall, a friend and polymath who had set up Littlemore Scientific Engineering at Oxford. He set about designing a wheelchair respirator which transformed Robin’s life and prospects. The term ‘responaut’ was coined by the press to describe him as he pioneered use of the new mobile respirator.

Robin Cavendish resolved that other polio victims should benefit from the use of such chairs. He raised money from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust for a dozen other chairs and then persuaded the government to fund many more. He had meanwhile instituted a register of all those in the country using an iron lung. Ten further modifications of the chair were made by Teddy Hall’s company. Then came the more sophisticated ‘Possum’, developed by scientists at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in conjunction with Cavendish. It was a chair with a mechanical respirator but it was also devised to control electronically the immediate environment of the severely disabled. The patient could just use their head and by moving it to left or right they could activate the Possum's co-ordinating box, enabling them to make telephone calls, turn on the television or adjust the central heating, for example.

With the help of the technology he had helped to pioneer, Cavendish and many other disabled people were able to travel with their families beyond the confines of their homes or hospitals and enjoy a comparatively normal life. Moved by the plight of less fortunate families, he originated the idea of building a holiday complex with all the facilities needed for the care of responauts. With Dr G. T. Spencer, consultant in charge of the Lane-Fox Unit at St Thomas's Hospital, London, Cavendish founded the charity ‘Refresh’ to raise the money required to fund the building and fitting out of a purpose-built facility. Netley Waterside House, overlooking Southampton Water, was opened in 1977. Here responauts and their families could enjoy holidays in attractive surroundings on the South Coast of England. In continuation of Robin Cavendish’s work, his family have established a flourishing charity, CS Disabled Holidays, which provides funding for holidays for severely disabled people.

Robin Cavendish eventually died at his home aged 64. He had worked assiduously to raise the profile of severely disabled people and dramatically extend and improve their quality of life. He was made an MBE in 1975 for ‘services to disabled people’. In 2016 the film Breathe was made about his life, starring Andrew Garfield (as Robin Cavendish), Clare Foy (as Diana Cavendish), and Hugh Bonneville (as Professor Teddy Hall), and directed by Andy Serkis.

Source: Family information

The plaque was unveiled by Diana Cavendish at the Coach House of the Old Rectory, Drayton St Leonard, on 16 June 2019. The speaker was Jonathan Cavendish. Residents of the village and members of the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board were among those attending.

Speech made by Jonathan Cavendish at the ceremony

Photographs taken at the ceremony:

Media reports

Cavendish plaque

Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


Pioneer of the first wheelchair
respirator and constant champion
of the needs of other severely
disabled people

lived here / 1960–1994

Drayton St Leonard Parish Council

© Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


Email: oxfordshireblueplaques@gmail.com