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Richards, Robert Stanley (1885–1967)

by Donald J. Hopgood

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

Robert Stanley Richards (1885-1967), by unknown photographer, 1931

Robert Stanley Richards (1885-1967), by unknown photographer, 1931

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7457

Robert Stanley Richards (1885-1967), politician, was born on 31 May 1885 in a wattle-and-daub hut at Moonta Mines, South Australia, youngest of twelve children of Cornish miner Richard Richards and his wife Mary, née Jeffery. Educated at Moonta Mines Public School and the Moonta School of Mines, at 13 Richards became a 'picky boy' on the ore-dressing floors. He later assisted a Spanish engineer in the treatment of residues. In 1906 Richards ran a copper mine near Burnie, Tasmania, returning to the Wallaroo and Moonta Mining & Smelting Co. as a moulder and carpenter. On 31 January 1914 he married Ada Maude Dixon (d.1948), costumier, in the Methodist parsonage, Wallaroo; they had two daughters. Richards was a lay preacher, a strict family man, a Freemason, a teetotaller and a keen cricketer and footballer.

In 1917 when his branch of the Federated Mining Employees' Association of Australia merged with the Australian Workers' Union, Richards became president of its mining section, and led it in a bitter strike in 1922. At the State election in 1918, new United Labor Party candidates had captured industrial seats. The Liberals faced a revived Opposition led by John Gunn and including Richards, an opponent of conscription; he represented Wallaroo until he resigned in 1949.

His energy, leadership qualities and debating skills were soon recognized. He was chairman of committees during the Gunn and Hill Labor governments of 1924-27. He then became commissioner of crown lands and minister of mines and marine under Hill in 1930-33, and also minister of labour and employment from November 1931. The government responded to the Depression with retrenchment and wage cuts. Perhaps Richards' most compassionate attempted reforms were his distress for rent abolition bill (1931) and the unemployed tenants, mortgagors, and purchasers relief bill (1932).

In August 1931 the Australian Labor Party's State council expelled Hill and his cabinet for supporting the Premiers' Plan. They retained office as an unofficial Parliamentary Labor Party minority government supported by the Opposition and the Advertiser. In February 1933 Hill went to London as agent-general, on exceptionally favourable financial terms. Richards, reluctantly, replaced him as premier, treasurer, commissioner of crown lands, minister of mines, marine, irrigation and repatriation, for nine weeks. As treasurer he attempted to defuse the scandal surrounding Hill's finances.

Labor entered the April 1933 election split into three factions—the P.L.P., the official A.L.P. and the Lang Labor group—and lost heavily. Only two of the five ministers retained their seats and the party remained in opposition till 1965. Richards blamed the factions for 'tearing asunder a movement'. He and others helped them to reunite next year, initially under Andrew Lacey and from 1938 under Richards, but there were under-currents of distrust for many years. While Richards was leader of the Opposition until 1949, Labor increased its vote at three elections but could not challenge the Playford Liberal and Country League government in seats won. In 1940 he introduced in parliament reforming legislation which allowed religious education in public schools.

As a delegate to federal A.L.P. conferences in 1936-47 Richards sat on committees on social services and unemployment (chairman), electoral and constitutional matters and on the platform and finance. He was a director of Radio 5KA, a station under Methodist control. In October 1949 the Commonwealth government appointed him administrator of Nauru and on 19 November he married Mary Alison Hawkes, a librarian; after two years they returned to Adelaide. From 1954 Richards was a member of the South Australian Forestry Board. Premier Sir Thomas Playford, who valued Richards as a tough and fair opponent, and an outstanding debater and administrator, commissioned him in 1959 to investigate problems of delinquent children, mechanization in British coal mines, and housing developments in Britain, Sweden and North America.

Richards was a tall, handsome man, widely read and continually active in his Church. A diabetic, he died on 24 April 1967 at Moonta and, after a state funeral, was buried in Centennial Park cemetery. A daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Labor's Thirty Years Record in South Australia (Adel, 1923)
  • D. Jaensch (ed), The Flinders History of South Australia (Adel, 1986)
  • Labour History, 1975, no 28, 1976, no 31
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 31 Mar 1933, 26 May 1939, 1 June 1966, 25 Apr 1967
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 Sept 1944
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22, 26 Nov 1946
  • private information.

Citation details

Donald J. Hopgood, 'Richards, Robert Stanley (1885–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/richards-robert-stanley-8195/text14335, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 November 2014.

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

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