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Beilby, Richard Courtney (Dick) (1918–1989)

by Trisha Kotai-Ewers

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Richard Courtney (Dick) Beilby (1918-1989), author, was born on 18 July 1918 at Malacca, Straits Settlements (Malaysia), youngest of five children of Charles Victor Beilby, a Victorian-born rubber-planter, and his wife Ruby Isobel, née Devenish, who came from Western Australia. With his siblings away for schooling, Dick, who was tutored at home, had a solitary childhood, often inventing stories about his toy soldiers. The Depression intervened and the family moved to Western Australia where Dick, aged 11, began formal education at Tambellup State School, south-west of Perth. Leaving at 15, he was variously employed as a driver, labourer, drover and insurance salesman. On 4 March 1940 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to be a soldier. Posted to the 2/1st Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, he served in North Africa, Greece and Crete in 1941 and Papua and New Guinea in 1942-45 before being discharged on 27 September 1945.

Back in Perth, on 26 January 1946 at the Wesley Methodist Church, Beilby married Agnes Joan Halliday, an insurance worker. While earning a living as a driver and then as a house-painter, he began writing short stories. A fascination with ancient Greece led to his first novel, The Sword and the Myrtle (1968). Paying close attention to style, he hunted `painstakingly’ for the correct word and structure. The complexity of his language reflected the theme: love, war and intrigue in the period before the Persian invasion in 480 BC. He had researched meticulously for fifteen years, creating indexes and cross-indexes, and maps of Athens and the surrounding countryside. His subsequent novels were to have a sparser style befitting their narrative.

In his second novel, No Medals for Aphrodite (1970), Beilby drew on his wartime experiences in Greece and Crete. He suffered a heart attack in 1968 but, despite chronic ill health, continued writing. Assisted by Commonwealth grants, from the early 1970s he wrote full time at his Mount Pleasant home. In The Brown Land Crying (1975) he described the struggle of Aborigines of mixed descent living in Perth to reconcile two very different cultures. He had prepared for this `very effective and bitter novel’ by talking at length with many Indigenous people. Gunner (1977) was based on the retreat by Allied forces from Crete in World War II. His last work, The Bitter Lotus (1978), set in Sri Lanka, reflected his interest in Buddhism.

In 1967 Beilby had joined the Western Australian section of the Fellowship of Australian Writers; he served on the executive in the 1970s and became an honorary life member in 1978. In 1972-81 he was regional vice-president of the Australian Society of Authors. A `dark, nervously-energetic’ man, he was gentle and unassuming, with a slight stammer. His hobbies were sculpture and, before his first heart attack, spear-fishing. In 1981 he underwent major heart surgery. Recurring strokes affected his writing but he continued to create detailed clay miniatures of soldiers, placing them in realistic historical dioramas. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died on 12 November 1989 in Canberra, a few days after attending an army reunion in Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Albany Advertiser, 25 Sept 1968, p 6
  • Weekend News (Perth), 28 Sept 1968, `Weekend Magazine’, p 8
  • West Australian, 7 Feb 1970, p 12, 16 Nov 1989, p 9
  • Overland, Autumn 1976, p 56
  • Fellowship of Australian Writers (Western Australia) records (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Richard Beilby papers (Australian Defence Force Academy)
  • J. K. Ewers papers (State Library of Western Australia)
  • H. de Berg, interview with Richard Beilby (typescript, 1976, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Trisha Kotai-Ewers, 'Beilby, Richard Courtney (Dick) (1918–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/beilby-richard-courtney-dick-12191/text21855, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 11 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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