Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Richards, Herbert Clarence (1876–1949)

by Eric Richards

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

This is a shared entry with Tobias John Martin Richards

Tobias John Martin Richards (1850-1939), manufacturer, and Herbert Clarence Richards (1876-1949), businessman and motor-body manufacturer, were father and son. Tobias was born on 3 February 1850 at Montacute, South Australia, eldest son of sixteen children of Cornish parents John Martin Richards (1824-1867), clerk, miner and teacher, and his wife Catherine (1823-1908), née Reed, Wesleyan Methodists. They had migrated to South Australia about 1848. On 31 March 1875, when Tobias married Matilda Emily Freeman (1854-1938), he was a cordial manufacturer at Gawler. By 1881 he was trading at suburban Unley, as a blacksmith, maker of vehicle hardware and coach fitter; he developed the 'King of the Road' sulky. By 1885 he was flourishing and occupied larger quarters at Mitcham where he established himself as T. J. Richards & Co., Wheel Wright & Coach Builder, remaining until 1899. Expansion accelerated and from 1901 T. J. Richards, Carriage, Buggy and Sulky Builder, operated at West Mitcham, Hindmarsh Square and Hyde Street, Adelaide.

In 1913 the enterprise, now T. J. Richards & Sons, began manufacturing motor-bodies, with Tobias recruiting his sons' assistance. One of the pioneer firms operating in this phase of motor manufacturing in South Australia, in motor-body-building it pre-dated Holden's by four years; in 1916 it became a limited liability company. Richards & Sons thrived under the de facto protection afforded by World War I; by 1920 it and Holden's emerged as leaders in the expanded motor industry. Now assisted by tariffs, Richards' expanded into a large modern building at Keswick which soon covered 14 acres (5.7 ha) under a single roof. In 1922 the works employed 200 hands. In the mid-1920s the firm complained of the State government's lack of consideration which, it claimed, favoured primary producers at the expense of local manufacturers. Nevertheless Richards' continued to expand: in 1927 it bought further plant at Mile End and in 1930 Duncan & Fraser Ltd. The company remained solvent during the Depression, though there were intermittent closures at the Mile End and Keswick plants and much unemployment. It remained an independent manufacturer longer than its rival, Holden's. In 1935 Richards' threatened to move interstate to avoid excessive taxation and transport costs; however, reduction of wharfage duties next year aided them.

In 1915 Tobias had retired, though remaining nominal head of his enterprise until his death on 28 July 1939 at Malvern. He was buried in Mitcham cemetery. He was then described as 'one of the most prominent figures in the motor building industry in Australia … the largest Australian owned and controlled industry of its kind in Australia'. Five sons and three daughters survived him.

Herbert Richards was born on 30 January 1876 at Gawler and educated at state schools. He regarded himself as a self-made man whose delicate health had limited his schooling and whose early career 'was not along the primrose path of dalliance, but one of hard work, struggle and then achievement'. He joined the family business at Mitcham but despite working hard was advised to find other employment and took over a Clarence Park grocery. Though he often cycled into the Adelaide hills chasing business, he failed and left for Melbourne as a representative of a South Australian firm. The arrangement lapsed when Richards met James Alston, a windmill manufacturer, and took over his Adelaide agency. All this Herbert regarded as his 'school of experience', the start of his career in machinery. On 13 April 1899, now a coach fitter, he married Mary Ann Macklin; they had a daughter and son.

He succeeded in establishing himself independently as one of the earliest motor-car importers and dealers in Adelaide, H. C. Richards Ltd, at the Richards Building, Currie Street, which in 1922 was described as a 'magnificent motor emporium'. He probably joined his father's manufacturing enterprise before World War I. With his brother Clarence he became the main manager of T. J. Richards & Sons Ltd in the mid-1920s and guided the firm through the Depression. In May 1937 Richards' announced a £500,000 expansion programme and renewal of a contract with Chrysler, Dodge Distributors guaranteeing production for five years. In 1938 they negotiated for munitions work. Though accused of being in Chrysler's control, T. J. Richards & Sons remained Australian throughout World War II. In 1941 its name was changed to Richards Industries Ltd—Motor Builders and Metal Stampings. Six years later Chrysler Dodge de Soto Distributors Ltd formed a company to take over the assets and interests of Richards Industries Ltd which, by guaranteeing body supplies, paved the way for the entry of Chrysler Australia Ltd into full car-manufacturing in 1951, with headquarters at Keswick.

Herbert Richards had also entered public life, as councillor (1915-17), alderman (1918-20) and mayor (1921-22) of Unley. A Liberal member of the House of Assembly for Sturt in 1921-30, he acted as a representative rather than a delegate, disclaiming any parliamentary ambition and believing that parliament's important work took place in committee. A 'severely plain dealer' who used terse, unvarnished language, sometimes looking bored by parliamentary proceedings, he was 'cautious, clear and somewhat uninspiring … in his manner of handling problems'.

He was sometime president of the South Australian Employers' Federation, the Chamber of Motor Industries of South Australia, the Federal Council of Motor Traders, the (Royal) Aero Club of South Australia and the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society of South Australia. He sat on the Municipal Tramways Trust and on the board of trustees for the Independent Order of Oddfellows. Richards also belonged to many sporting bodies and travelled extensively. He claimed as an employer to 'have always endeavoured to be just in my dealings, fair to my employees and thorough in all the work undertaken'.

Survived by his wife and daughter, Richards died of hemiplegia at Glenelg on 11 April 1949 and was buried in St Jude's Anglican cemetery, Brighton. His estate was sworn for probate at £33,064.

Select Bibliography

  • G. B. Payne, History of Unley, 1871-1971 (Unley, 1972)
  • Sunday Mail (Adelaide), 14 Oct 1922
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 3 Aug 1939
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 29 July 1939, 13 Apr 1949
  • F. Daley, Story of GMH (manuscript, Flinders University Library)
  • T. J. Richards cash book, 1911-16 (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Eric Richards, 'Richards, Herbert Clarence (1876–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/richards-herbert-clarence-8511/text14337, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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