Tribute to Richard Llewellyn AM

May 29 2004 Heysen Chapel, Centennial Park, Adelaide  

Eulogy written by Becky Llewellyn & read by Robyn Archer


Richard Llewellyn childhood

Richard Dutton Llewellyn, a fourth generation South Australian, was born in Strathalbyn on a special day for this State – December 28th1936. That hot summer Proclamation Day was the 100th anniversary of South Australia’s settlement. All his life, Richard was a patriot for this State.

His parents, Morrie and Gwen, had moved to a farm at Finniss, near Strathalbyn after they married in 1928. Morrie had been a banker and survivor of three years on WWI French battlefields, including the 3rd Battle of Ypres, as a dispatch runner. Gwen Dutton came from a family of brewers and grew up on a station in the south-east. Richard’s older brother, Jim was born in 1930 and still owns a property at Finniss.

Farm life was not for young Richard. He preferred to hide away by himself, playing with pet rabbits and dissecting mice and snakes. At age 9, the local paper reported his discovery that ticks lived under the scale of snakes. From a very early age, he dreamed of going to sea like his great-grandfather Captain Jamieson. For him, the rural landscape was too isolating, the discipline of the dairy farm too harsh, the lack of other children to play with too lonely. Happy times included taking the horse and cart to their one-teacher, one-room Finniss Primary School, riding with Jim on sledges pulled by horses, hunting rabbits, exploring the creek and gazing out to sea from the rocks of Granite Island.

Richard’s most memorable childhood event was being buzzed by the famous G for George Lancaster bomber, now in the Canberra Australian War Memorial. The airplane named George was doing a victory tour of Australia in 1945 to mark the end of the European war when the pilots spotted him driving the horse and cart with a load of kids and thought it would be fun to strafe them. As his horse bolted, Richard’s lifelong esteem for the power of the services was born.

Richard was always grateful for the lessons of his early childhood from the end of the Depression and WWII when everything was scarce and rationed. His grey school trousers were hand-me-downs from his uncle, then his brother. Water shortages demanded very frugal use. With petrol rationed, a trip to Adelaide was a rare once-a-year luxury.

Butter, sugar, meat, paper and books were great luxuries. His brother Jim would find Richard missing from the farm worksite, burrowed in a shed corner reading books or old English comics. He soon devoured the entire contents of the Finniss School library and anxiously awaited the monthly trip to a family friend’s to pick up the next edition of Arthur Mee’s Encyclopedia.

His childhood solitude of time and space shifted dramatically in 1947 when he was sent to Scotch College as a boarder for Grade Six. This pleasure island of companions, lack of parental supervision, stimulation and activities was a heady brew. He joined the Scouts, football teams, cricket teams, and occasionally tennis teams. He loved gymnastics and acted in a number of school plays. Most boys hated the enforced Army cadet training but Richard loved it and won the silver sabre for the having the best platoon. The only drawback seemed the mandatory attendance at chapel and church.


Polio was rife during these times and many of Richard’s schoolmates disappeared for long bouts of hospitalisation. He didn’t get polio then but his health was marred by recurrent tonsillitis, finally having his tonsils removed in the first week of high school. When he finally returned from a long convalescence, he found that algebra, French and Latin were all Greek to him.

He never really caught up with academics and without parents there to support his study habits, he began to concentrate on fun and worry about the rest later. On the tram to the Wayville Showgrounds for an economics exam, he discovered that his economics textbook had all its pages uncut beyond page five. Miraculously he passed. The value of Scotch for Richard was less in educational content and more in his many friendships, sense of community and values of service to others.

Richard Llewellyn adventures

So with adventure in his heart, 16 year old Richard left Scotch in 1953. He joined the Adelaide Steamship Company as an apprentice deck officer. Richard worked on the coal-burning steamships of its large fleet of cargo and passenger vessels. During his time at sea, the conservative-leaning Scotch boy was taken in hand by hard-bitten maritime unionists. They gave him a political education, pushing him to listen, argue and defend his view. As he grew to identify with the struggles of working people, he asked people to call him Dick and tried to roughen up his Adelaide accent.

Apprentices at that time were paid a small salary of 12 pounds a month, supposedly in return for training to become a ship’s master. He received little training but the company certainly exploited his labour. Old logbooks showed he rarely worked under 70 or 80 hours a week.

In 1955, Richard was seconded to Flinders Naval College in Victoria for training as a Midshipman RANR(s). This sea-going reserve was a coveted special category for merchant mariners. He enjoyed his time in the Navy and took on the specialties of navigation and demolition. After Richard volunteered for this, to his horror, he found out that he had joined a mine defusing team. He came to enjoy blowing up railway lines but even more, learning to dive. He trained in Port Lincoln’s beautiful Boston Harbour, then full of corals and teeming with fish, lobster and scallops. His diving team had no trouble feeding the entire crew of the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney. He was saddened to learn that the Harbour has now become a comparative underwater desert.

On his return to merchant ships, he was posted to the TSMV Manunda, a passenger ship that plied the waters between Melbourne and Cairns every month. Graeme Stevenson was his fellow cadet during that time and has stayed a lifelong friend. It is apparent that this handsome young man in uniform did not lack for female companionship, moving from port to port. On one adventure in Rockhampton, he won the title of the Rock and Roll Champion of Northern Queensland.

The fact that he packed so much of life into his teenage years was the main reason he found it easier to accept limitations later. When polio struck, Richard was more likely to have said, ‘Why not me?’ rather than ‘Why me?’

During 1956, the Adelaide Steamship Company and other shipping lines began selling their fleets. When his beloved Manunda was sold to Japan for scrap, Richard decided to make a future in the Navy. He left the Adelaide Steamship Company and was awaiting his Naval commission papers, when he suddenly became very ill. At the time, he was staying with his Aunt Mollie, an ex-hospital matron. After three days of high fever, he awoke, tried to pick up a glass of water and couldn’t move his arm.

Northfield Infectious Diseases Hospital

Aged 20, he was diagnosed with poliomyelitis and taken to the Hampstead Centre, at Northfield, then Adelaide’s infectious disease hospital. As he lay completely paralysed in an iron lung, his father opened a letter from the Navy saying Richard was in A-1 condition and should report for duty! Because he then didn’t report for duty, he was ineligible for any Navy benefits or rehabilitation. He also learned about the limits of private hospital insurance that he had paid regularly since he was 16. After the third month, he was declared ‘chronic’ and all benefits ceased.

The culture of hospitals in the 1950s was anything but customer friendly. Richard had to be tough-minded to survive the matron’s intimidation and domination and her war on germs. He pitted his wits against her lack of humanity for patients and the hierarchical medical rounds where no one ever talked to him, but over and about him. After six months isolation in the iron lung, Richard was eventually moved to a geriatric ward with 30 old men, where radios were forbidden and TV not yet broadcast in Australia. Somehow he created stimulation for his active mind beyond memorising the cracks on the ceiling.

During the period of strengthening his breathing without the iron lung, a young nurse caught his attention. He noted that she was not bullied by the usual hospital indoctrination. One day she presented Richard with a bunch of roses on her return from lunch. Soon after, the matron arrived demanding to know who had stolen her roses. Jill Brinkworth, now known as Kate, confessed and immediately defused the matron’s annoyance by saying, ‘And don’t they look lovely?’ Their romance bloomed and after he left the hospital, Richard and Kate were married.

Rehabilitation in the 1950s

But how to make a living with a body 98% paralysed? He must have looked something like concentration camp survivor, weighing 50 kilos and sitting in a manual wheelchair with legs out in plasters.  Richard was ferried by a Commonwealth Car to a rehabilitation assessment after his discharge from Northfield in 1959.  The waiting specialist wheeled him in front of a manual typewriter and asked him to type. He replied that he couldn’t even hold his hands up to type and anyway, he didn’t want to be a typist! ‘WELL,’ said the shocked doctor, ‘then we can’t rehabilitate you!’ He argued he should be given the 500 pounds cost of rehab so he could start his own business, but that was too radical. That day he realised he would have to make his own way in the world.


Richard and Kate rented a shop, library and attached dwelling on King William Rd, Goodwood. Private libraries were common in pre-TV Adelaide and Richard owned the Swan Library. Because he couldn’t move, he developed one of the early self-serve businesses. He loved this period of his life, with friends, customers, books to read and most importantly, the arrival of his first children Hugh in 1962 and Caro in 1965. It was daring to be a dad in a wheelchair and Richard gives huge credit to Kate for being a pioneer in this challenge.

At King William Road, he introduced a simple but ingenious concept for letting flats, leading to the formation of Llewellyn Letting Service. This proved a very successful business and flourished there, and  then at their new home in Swift Avenue, Dulwich.

His competitors, annoyed by his success, lobbied for new certification rules for letting agents, which included a mandatory course delivered …on the second floor of a building. Richard became disqualified and burned his books rather than sell them on.

Llewellyn Galleries

Two weeks later, he and Kate had their new business – selling paintings in their home setting at an affordable price. Richard was featured in the local paper, telling of his new venture. The response from artists was overwhelming. On the first day, five house-loads of paintings were sold and once again, Richard began a successful business.

The Llewellyn’s house and lifestyle began to revolve around art. As he achieved financial stability, Richard designed and built an exhibition gallery at the side of their house. Over the period from 1968 to 1973, Llewellyn Galleries at Dulwich had 83 professional exhibits, a new show every three weeks to plan, set up, publicise, sell, distribute and account for. He ran several high profile Adelaide Festival shows.

It was the heyday of dinner parties and many Adelaide artists and art lovers enjoyed the generous hospitality and entertaining of Kate and Richard. Hugh and Caro grew up in the heady mix of art, ideas, creativity and business. In 1969, Richard invited a group of Adelaide actors to use the gallery for Carpet Theatre, where patrons sat on the floor to enjoy plays. These actors became the core of the new State Theatre Company. The same year, he gave Adelaide its first exhibition of aboriginal art, showing 120 paintings from John Morley’s Western Teacher’s College classes, opened by the State Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Robin Millhouse. $700 was raised by the show, half of it going to set up an Aboriginal Art Co-operative. Richard was also active as a State Committee member of Community Aid Abroad.

Family and friends loved their picnics in the park, but the gallery was the mainstream of their life. This ambience and Richard’s flair and outrageous ideas for free publicity helped the gallery thrive. It wasn’t always easy, with Richard still in a manual wheelchair and no way to hang his own shows. He became a master at getting his parents, artists and friends to work to his orders!

1972 was a year of huge change. With the help his school friend who had made a fortune from Poseidon shares, Kenneth Stirling, he bought Kym Bonython’s North Adelaide gallery and the house next to it. After 11 years of caring for Richard, Kate needed to pursue other avenues of her still young and active life. Shortly after, Becky walked into his life – long hair, miniskirt and tall black boots – a Flinders University drama student who was willing to work as his housekeeper while Kate was away from the marriage. They fell deeply in love. Richard and Becky moved into the North Adelaide house and Richard opened the North Adelaide Llewellyn Galleries with the help of Becky and his dear friend, Margaret McGregor. Kate, with Lyn Collin’s mother Joyce, ran the Dulwich Gallery for another year.

Australia Party Boothby

As the ‘It’s Time’ 1972 election came along, Richard agreed to be the candidate for the Federal seat of Boothby. He stood for the Australia Party – a single-issue party started by Gordon Barton to get the Australian troops withdrawn from the Vietnam War. Even though he discovered that his ‘campaign manager’ had been an opposition plant who dumped all his promotional material in Brownhill Creek, he managed to get  4% of the vote.

Experimental Art Foundation

The North Adelaide and Dulwich galleries flourished and provided launching pads for many well-known South Australians. Richard and friends collaborated in starting the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide. He also made a documentary film exploring ‘chance’. It was runner up in the 1974 AFI documentary awards and has toured widely in India! Other adventures included inviting Margaret Whilom to open a show with new Australian flag designs and a trail-blazing aboriginal art show from several central desert communities.

But the inflation of the early 70s was making business difficult, the art Richard enjoyed was becoming less saleable and it was time for a change. He shut the business early in 1974 and began a degree in Fine Art at Flinders University Professor Donald Brook. He held weekly vigils outside the architect’s office to protest about the poor access there at the time. No toilet at all and he had to be driven onto the plaza in the V Dub, lifted out and back in to get up to the next level lecture room.

Access in America

At the end of that year, Richard made the first of several trips to the US, staying with Becky’s family in Tucson, Arizona and San Francisco. To travel, he invented a folding lifting machine made from lightweight aluminium. On this first overseas trip, Richard was totally blasted away by America, not the least, by its attitude to people with disabilities. Americans didn’t expect people to stay on pensions at home. They expected people to work and get educations, so made access to higher education easy. He received a Certificate in Gerontology from the University of Arizona for study done during that trip.

Public service

On returning, and bursting with ideas for change, Richard was told he couldn’t continue at Flinders because, yet again, all the second year courses were upstairs. With his new training, he volunteered to work for Dr Michael Burr at the newly formed Eastern Domiciliary Care Service at Northfield and cunningly devised an administration system that wouldn’t work without him. After two months, he was appointed to the Public Service as the Administrator of that service. In an overtly discriminatory decision by the Hospitals Department, he was disqualified from joining the State Government Superannuation scheme on the grounds of his disability. This drove Richard to double his efforts to provide for his own future and keep himself from his darkest fear, ending up in the “Home for Incurables.”

Richard and colleagues created the groundwork of in-home support strategies at this time and he helped develop a Day Hospital in the same ward where he lay 20 years earlier. This was an expansive very happy period in his life, happy in work, happy in love and beginning to be in touch with disability colleagues. Becky drove him to work in her VW on the way to her teaching job and used Richard’s new invention of a rooftop lifting hoist that slid him into his electric wheelchair housed at work. For everything else, walking to movies at Walkerville, into town, Becky pushed the manual chair. There were no Access Cabs then. Even in town, there was only one accessible toilet – in the State Library. And people thought he really liked reading!

Access in the 1970s

After experiencing the attitude towards and of people with disabilities in America, he realised how much change was needed here and began to come out as a person with a disability. He started the Club of Physically Handicapped in Adelaide, the first self-help political group in Australia. The Club began to lobby for and educate each other to advocate and input for change. In May 1977, he married Becky in the parklands near their North Adelaide home and in November of that year, they moved into their current home in Henley Beach.


Morgan was born in 1979 and within months, he was catapulted into his father’s travelling career. Aged 7 months, Morgan went to his first meeting in Canberra of the National Advisory Council on Handicapped. Meanwhile, Richard was becoming more radical and strident to create change in legislative and governmental circles. He became active in the Australian Council for Rehabilitation of the Disabled, mentored by Dr Donald Simpson, and became their State Chairperson, serving on the national committee.

UN International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP) 1981

He wrote to Attorney General Peter Duncan to urge him to promote the idea of the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP) for 1981. Richard became SA’s representative at the first planning meeting in Canberra and was outraged to find 25 doctors and charity bosses at the table. He appealed to Senator Margaret Guilfoyle, Minister for Social Security, to reconstitute a committee of people with disabilities, saying that if it were a committee for a UN Women’s Year, they wouldn’t accept all men running it. To her credit, she listened and appointed the first-ever national committee of people with all types of disabilities.

Australia Committee for IYDP

This IYDP Non-Government Organisations Committee went on to shape progress in Australia in 1981, still considered an outstanding UN Year in terms of community change and an explosion of interest, innovations and initiatives. Richard played a key role on this and many other national committees which meant travelling interstate almost every three weeks for the Llewellyn family. At age 2, Morgan’s 200,000 miles earned him a huge collection of Golden Books and TAA pilot’s badges!

The young family visited every capital in Australia and helped develop networks of people with disabilities in each place. It was a time of huge progress and consciousness raising. Richard helped to open up consultations that began to discover major directions people wanted. It was the first time people across disabilities met each other, heard each other’s stories and began to mobilise for common objectives. The committee’s travelling had huge impacts on accommodation, taxi services, airline practices and city streetscapes. The year culminated with 40 Australians travelling to Singapore for the inaugural conference of Disabled Persons International.


After 1981, Richard continued in government work, moving to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, where he created the first non-smoking campaign in a hospital, coining the name Butt Out. Anna was born in June of that year, completing his family. Richard continued with national committee work, a pilot study for Attendant Care, national committees for access and appointed to DACA, the new national policy setting body.  But travelling with a three-year old boy, a baby and husband in a manual wheelchair was finally too much for Becky and Richard agreed to concentrate his work in and for South Australia. He continued to give countless speeches and write articles, changing the nature of the debate and even the language around disability.

Asia Pacific DPI Conference 1984

In 1984, Richard, working with Jeff Heath, Becky and others in Adelaide’s DPI, helped host an innovative disability conference for more than 200 delegates from Africa, the Middle East, South and North-East Asia. People arrived with no wheelchairs, on tyre stumps with no money. The organisational problems were immense but his Asia-Pacific congress sowed many seeds of goodwill and motivation for the disability movement internationally.

Hawke/Keating Tax Summit

Richard became a delegate to the Keating and Hawke Tax Summit but kept falling asleep in Parliament House. He’s not the first or the last! When later he fell asleep driving along a path and woke up in the middle of a rose bed, he was diagnosed with sleep apnea as a result of polio. Just as his wheelchairs improved with each model he bought, so did the respirators which over the past twenty years helped him breathe at night.

Disability Adviser to the Premier

Richard was appointed to the unique SA post of Disability Adviser to the Premier, John Bannon from 1984-1991. In this ambassadorial and leadership role, he was able to integrate his thinking, will power and action to build government structures committed to equity and inclusion. His interest in making Adelaide an accessible city continued with initiatives in kerb ramp design, the beginning of Access Cabs, designs for train access, integrated education progress. It was a fully engaging and absorbing task and Richard spoke highly of how John Bannon trusted his advice and gave him the freedom to act on it. As well as full-time work here, Richard chaired a national committee for Standards Australia and later contributed to a national committee on accessible transport. A highlight of this time was the birth of Caro’s son, Jack, his first grandchild in 1989.

Earlier attempts at getting a university education had stalled due to poor access. He had wanted to pursue law but Adelaide Uni did not have the facilities. Flinders Medical Centre however did have access and gave him permission to start a Masters Degree in Primary Health Care under Professor Fran Baum. This course marked a change in Richard’s thinking, as he became more able to see shades of grey. He graduated from Flinders Uni with his Masters in 1994, the same year he was awarded an AM for his contribution to service for people with disabilities. It was his wish to display that medal here today, along with his Centenary and his National Service medals.

Richard enjoyed a year as Executive Director of the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association, then he and Becky joined consultants, Social Options Australia. Their favourite job was in Mackay, Queensland, travelling there many times to help the local council set up a Disability Action Plan. The Llewellyn family continued to grow with the arrival of Hugh and Cathy’s daughters, Sophia in 1995 and Claudia in 1999.

From that start, Richard’s philosophy was to open up access to opportunities, so people could make free choices. The notable presence of people with disabilities across Adelaide is a testament to that vision’s power. He and Becky went on to form Disability Consultancy Services Pty Ltd, specialising in disability access advice to architects on public buildings, streetscapes, to local councils and large organisations. In contrast to most people’s careers, Richard’s access work began at the national level, then moved to State and in its final phase, he felt the greatest progress could be made by getting details right at the local level. He was particularly proud to have been involved in creating improved facilities and services at the Adelaide Festival Centre.

Richard loved travel, the arts, family holidays and new stimulation. His heart lay in his family life, the sharing and wonder of being a father with four wonderful children. He treasured each of them so, which included his joy in giving them all advice. His 32-year marriage to Becky was extremely important. Theirs was a relationship of continuous conversation. He taught her to be tougher, to be more confident in herself. She in turn softened his edges and made him laugh.

Richard’s kindness and generosity have extended to many. He felt incredibly blessed to be part of the extended family of Manh Phung, originally a boat-person from Vietnam. Manh lived with them and helped the family when Anna was a baby. Richard watched the rest of this family arrive over the years, grow, learn and achieve – people who are exemplary Australians and dear to his heart.

1999 was a difficult year for Richard and Becky, who broke her shoulder at the Ice Arena. This put an immediate end to 27 years of being Richard’s sole carer. They began to use care services, something that Richard felt uncomfortable with. He so valued his privacy and found it difficult to be cared for by other people. Three weeks later he was hospitalised and found to have bowel cancer. He survived an emergency operation and later a treatment of chemotherapy, but was very weak throughout that year. Gradually he came to terms with the new care arrangements and over the past five years, he and Becky have been assisted greatly by a core group of three wonderful women: Marlene Timms, Bev Jennings and Sally Howse.

From his earliest years, Richard had a passion for fairness and an ability to fight for what he considered to be right. Last year, he began writing to and visiting detainees in the Baxter Detention Centre. He loved Australia and believed that these prolonged detentions shamed us all. He was rewarded with friendships and prayers from Afghani and Iranian friends in detention.

Richard never believed he would get to the stage where he would contemplate retirement, regarding all his life past age 20 as bonus! Good health care, good food from his beloved Torrens Island market, good air from the beach, cappuccinos at Joes’s, shared laughter and love from so many of you have seen this resilient man live much longer than anyone ever expected. He spent 47 years in a wheelchair, certainly a pioneer in endurance if nothing else. His lifetime spans incredible changes in the technology and services available to people with disabilities in the community. Richard Llewellyn was a pioneering advocate in arguing for and creating much of that change.

His life stands as a model to encourage people to make use of what you have and to use the fact that we live in a democracy to fight for what you believe is right. Richard used the darkness of the experience of disability and discrimination to fuel his drive to make things better for himself and for others. His passion for speaking the truth coupled with his need for belonging drove him to achieve, and in that process he in turn inspired so many people.

Richard was told he had three-six months to live in August 2003. In this final chapter of his life, he displayed characteristic hallmarks of courage, humour, positivity and openness. Death is something Western society does not handle easily. As much as Richard has shown us how someone with a major disability can live, he also has shown us how we can face death. Life has been celebrated richly in this last year, as time to be with dear family and friends has become a priority over work. He let go of drive, enjoying each day, sensing when to fight and when to surrender. In dying, he shone brightly like the beautiful sunsets that he watched most nights from his sunroom, finding a new balance and peace. On Monday, May 24th as dawn was breaking, Richard, holding his daughter Anna’s hand, turned to Becky and said, “You and I have a great family.” He closed his eyes and slept away.

A few weeks ago, Richard had a dream that filled him with happiness. He dreamt of zooming around in a shining exciting desert, careering around in a white fog trying to find his old relatives so they could check into the Nirvana Hotel. We’ll keep that image, Richard, hoping that you’re at the Nirvana Hotel reception counter, ready to celebrate your new liberation, free from the paralysis that grew more debilitating by the month, free from the strains of finding the next breath, free from the unintentional slights and barriers that are part of the daily fabric for people using wheelchairs. Richard, you don’t have to go to any more meetings – your battle to improve life for people with disabilities is complete.

Richard used the time he had to great effect and he can now rest. He is liberated into life’s great Mystery, where hopefully there are no barriers, where his bright spirit can continue to glow and to support those of us who mourn and will miss him so much. Bravo Richard, Rest in Peace. You are truly a king in your clan.